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Rhys Chatham

March 23, 2010 by garry

Rhys Chatham is best-known as a composer of electric guitar symphonies. He started out in the early 1970s under the tutelage of minimal music founder La Monte Young, with whom he studied the radically altered tunings of just intonation. After woodshedding with Young-inspired pieces like the metallic wash of “Two Gongs” (1971), Chatham had an epiphany during a Ramones show in 1976: mix minimalism with punk rock! An idea of pure genius that was just waiting to happen resulted in Chatham’s first major work, “Guitar Trio” (1977). With the axes all tuned to E, the piece builds from a quiet single string strum and gradually coalesces into a shimmering blissfield of drone rock perfection completely unlike anything that existed before. This sperm-filled work inspired ensemble member Glenn Branca to sire a similar guitar orchestra of his very own, and Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo to alter their tunings. Indeed, Branca and Sonic Youth practically owe their entire careers to Rhys Chatham.

Some other highlights of Chatham's musical life throughout the decades include “Drastic Classicism” (1982) for four electric guitars, bass and drums. This piece rudely chucks the listener deep into a battlefield of clashing, super dissonant guitar skronk rock. "Die Donnergotter" (1984-’86), ups the ante with two more electric guitars, but pulls a 180 by mining polar opposite sonic territory with a highly melodic semi-minimalism punctuated with soaring, moving crescendos. At the end of the '80s, Chatham took the guitar army idea to a whole new plateau with “An Angel Moves Too Fast to See” (1989) for 100 electric guitars that sets aloft more sublime tone float amid sections of outright heavenly rocking.

“A Crimson Grail” (2005) for 400 electric guitars takes the concept as far as it can go--so far. This piece was recorded live inside France's largest church, the Sacré-Coeur, where the massive 10 second reverb allowed the chiming six-string army to billow out ecstatic mists of angelic hum. Excerpted in three parts on a CD of the same name, "A Crimson Grail" floats along at a much slower, elegiac pace than its predecessors--only to punch out some resonant slurry riffs when they're called for. Chatham followed that up with a blast from the past in the form of a tour and resultant 3-CD set called "Guitar Trio is My Life," which re-invigorated his original piece from 1977 with considerably larger ensembles.

Timeframe: Post-Altamont.

Public Impact: As the product of an extremely fertile music scene that existed in New York City during the 1960s and '70s, the compositions of Rhys Chatham have done nothing less than "alter the DNA of rock," as Table of the Elements put it, by inspiring legions of droney alt rock bands--lead by Sonic Youth--in the three decades since.

More: Brooklyn Vegan, Com, Discogs, MySpace, Net, Scaruffi, YouTube





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