Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Viceland Rhys Chatham Interview

An interview I did with Rhys Chatham for Viceland.


From this Saturday the ICA will be overrun for a whole nine days by people making weird noises. Calling Out Of Context is a haven of workshops, talks, shows and recording sessions for people who take things like modulating the sound of a nail scraping down a black board very seriously indeed. If that's your bag then you probably got your tickets months ago. However, if you're yet to book and want in on the action then fear not as we have a pair of tickets for the Lucky Dragons performance tomorrow which kicks the whole thing off. First person to email in and tell us which fancy pants art festival Lucky Dragons played last year gets those. If you miss out on the freebies though don't cry, you should go check out the festival anyway as a lot of the day time lecture-y type stuff is free and in the evenings there are a bunch of performances by guys like Aaron Dilloway, The Red Krayola, Chocolate Monk and Gravetemple aka Stephen O'Malley, Oren Ambarchi and Atilla from Mayhem. It's basically a Wire readers wank fantasy come to life. Oh, Rhys Chatham is playing too so we had a chat with him earlier in the week about what to expect from his show. Click on for that and all the details and stuff are here.

For those of you who don't know who Rhys Chatham is: you should be ashamed of yourselves. Feeling shamed? Good. OK, in a nutshell Chatham is conservetory trained classical musician who studied under Lamonte Young, Morton Subotnick, Glen Gould and Tony Conrad. If you still don't have a clue what we're talking about, that basically means that he was taught by the gods of modern avant-garde classical, electronic and minimal music. Jeez, get a clue already.

In 1977 Rhys saw The Ramones play, had his minimalist world spun on its axis and picked up an electric guitar. Along with kindred spirit Glen Branca he started performing a piece of music with three electric guitar parts which he imaginatively named Guitar Trio which set a fire up the ass of the Lower East Side that would eventually consume lots of people that you like a lot. You know that thing called No Wave that seems to provide endless fodder for coffee table books with introductions by Thurston Moore and crops up more than it should in the 'influences' bit of MySpace band pages? That's what we're talking about here. No Rhys means no No Wave. Since his late 1970's experiments Rhys has continued to chip away at the boundaries of the outer regions of what sounds it's possible to make with an electric guitar. Increasingly this has involved ginormous ensembles of 200 and occasionally 400 people all plugged in and playing at once. Which makes quite a racket. We caught up with Rhys from Paris which he has called home for many years.

Vice: Hey Rhys. So what can we expect from your show on Sunday at the ICA?

Rhys Chatham:
It will be a performance of Guitar Trio which was initially something that I performed in the 70's as a live piece to the setting of slides in places like Max's Kansas City in New York. A few years ago though I decided to revive the original version of Guitar Trio using musicians from whichever city we happen to be playing in. So, for example: if we are in New York all my friends from Sonic Youth will play with us and when we went to Chicago we played with Tortoise. I was actually nervous when we played with them because they are such fantastic musicians. In London we will be playing with members of Blue Sabbath Black Fiji.

It sounds like there are more than three guitars involved this new version of the trio?

Usually there are more like a minimum of six electric guitars. The first part of the piece is twenty minutes long and the drummer plays only the high hat. Then we take a quick break and tune and play the whole piece again but with a full kit. With the full kit the energy is completely different. In my formative career I was very much influenced by people like Lamonte and Terry and not to forget John Cale who was wailing away throughout the late 1960's but when the punk thing came along I decided to pick up an electric guitar. Now, when people first hear the piece they may notice that it is just one note but what the different musicians are working with are differing harmonics and the effect can be very powerful. Despite my classical background I wrote Guitar Trio with the intention of it being played by rock musicians. I was at a point where I wanted to throw that background to one side. The Ramones were playing three chords and I was just playing one. When we play Guitar Trio the musicians that I play with find counterpoints when they play the piece that allow for subtle fluctuations which can alter the harmonics. For example, when we are playing with six guitars we will listen to each other very carefully and with our picking techniques we can alter the whole tone of the piece.

Having performed your pieces for 100, 200, and even 400 guitar players what made you come back to doing Guitar Trio?

Well, a very practical reason is that those larger performances take about a year to set up and execute and involve a lot of logistical planning plus a lot of venues cannot afford it. The first time I reprised Guitar Trio though was at a festival in Atlanta for my record label, Table Of Elements, the guy who runs it asked if I'd do the original version and we did it and it sounded great. I also love the intimacy of playing rock clubs and in somewhere like the ICA you are going to have trouble fitting 100 guitar players on the stage.

Do you have any plans to top the 400 guitars that you did in Paris in 2005?

It's not really a question of beating. The idea with the larger pieces is to surround the audience with a wall of guitars so the number depends on the venue. It's determined by the location. It's basically a site specific work.

How did you wind up in Paris anyway?

I originally came here for a woman who I met in New York. She was French dancer and she wanted to move back home. I thought it would be an adventure to move to Paris and it was. I have lived here for 21 years now. I'm no longer together with the person but we're still friends and we have a kid together so my life is here.

Has living in Paris had any effect on your work?

Most of the guitar work I have done was defined in New York. My trumpet playing was completely defined here. I could probably do what I do in any major city though. I love Paris, New York, London and Berlin.

After all these years of making huge rackets with hundreds of guitarists how do you have any hearing left?

I play with ear plugs in practice but during the show I can't as you can't really hear anything properly. I have tinnitus, it was pretty scary when I realised and the bad news it that it doesn't go away.

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