Part 1

Name: Rhys Chatham
Nationality: American
Occupation: Composer/ multi-instrumentalist
Bands/Projects: Rhys Chatham & His Guitar Trio All-Stars / Charlemagne Palestine & Rhys Chatham / Arthur Russell's Instrumentals Directed by Peter Gordon / Rhys Chatham & Oneida/ Les 100 guitars (since 1989) a series of compositions for 100-400 electric guitars. 
Labels: Foom / Northern Spy / Nonesuch / Table Of The Elements
Musical Recommendations: Anyone who has never heard Dopesmoker by the band Sleep should run out and get a copy.  It was a game changer / Joshua Abrams' Natural Information Society. Joshua Abrams is exploring new contexts for the guimbri, the three-stringed North African bass lute at the heart of the music. Abrams's compositions are a nexus of ideas from non-western traditional music, minimalism & jazz designed to catalyze his musicians toward a single group-mind organism of sound.

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I started writing music when I was 14. I had a music theory teacher in conservatory who had us write little pieces for the instruments played by the kids who were taking the class. I took to this like a duck to water.

I was also studying flute at the time with Sue Anne Kahn, who happened to be a specialist in contemporary music. I was playing pieces by Edgard Varèse, Mario Davidovsky, Pierre Boulez and other serial and post-serial composers. This was in the mid-sixties, so I reading journals like Die Reihe and Source Magazine and was passionate about post-serial music in general. Later, in 1967, I heard a concert by Terry Riley that changed my life. It was a live performance of A Rainbow in Curved Air. That’s the piece that got me into minimalism and music of long duration.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? 

At the start of the seventies, I had played in Tony Conrad’s group, The Dream Syndicate. A bit after that I became a member of La Monte Young’s group, the Theatre of Eternal Music. I was also La Monte’s piano tuner, so I was heavily into just intonation. I was influenced at the time by Tony and La Monte, as well as other composers that I was friends with such as Eliane Radigue, Charlemagne Palestine, and Maryanne Amacher.

At the start of the seventies, I hadn’t found my voice yet. I was basically emulating the work of my teachers. By the mid-seventies, I felt dissatisfied with this and strongly felt the need to break past my teachers and find my own voice. So I looked around me to see what others had done:

I noticed that composers like La Monte and Jon Hassell had taken the techniques they had learned from Pandit Pran Nath, the north Indian master vocalist, and integrated it into their work, to arrive at something unique. Steve Reich had studied with Ghanaian drummers and integrated the techniques into his piece, Drumming. Charlemagne had taken techniques he had learned with Pran Nath and his studies of Balinese music, and arrived at his own unique voice. Phil Glass was working with a combination of jazz instrumentation and process art to come up with his new voice. I had studied also with Pran Nath, so I thought at first that perhaps I would go the direction of Jon and La Monte, but then I heard the Ramones…

It was 1976, the Ramones had just put their first album out. I heard an early concert of theirs at CBGBs. I thought, “Wow, this music is using only three chords!”  Ok, I was only using one chord, but still… I felt a similarity between what I was doing and they were doing. I decided right then and there that I wanted to merge this music with what I was doing. It took a while, but by 1977 I finally got there with my first piece in this genre, Guitar Trio. I considered this to be my first piece that wasn’t a student piece. It was the first piece that I made where I had truly come into my own: I had found my voice. And Guitar Trio became my song, I still play it, to this very day! It never loses its freshness for me.  

What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

I wasn’t interested in recording in the seventies. I just wanted to get on stage and perform. I was coming from the downtown New York new music ghetto. Nobody was selling very many records and we all scorned commercialism of any sort. This was a different attitude than that taken by those coming out of the rock world. In the rock world, it isn’t who has the idea first, it’s who gets the record out first! I didn’t realize this at first and suffered because of it. It took me awhile to get records out and set things right. If I had to do it over again, I would have got records out sooner than – or at least simultaneously with – my competition.

Things changed over time. I eventually got into the rhythm of going into recording studios and putting albums out. By the nineties, I didn’t even have to go into the recording studio very much, this was due to the invention of hard disk recording, which changed everything.

Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you? 

I’ve had many studios over the years. My first one consisted of a Buchla 100 series analog synthesizer and a couple of Ampex tape decks. This was in the late sixties when electronic music was a new thing and quite exotic. To a large extent, I found the creative process was limited by what the synthesizer could do. The number of oscillators, filters, envelope generators and the like determined what sounds one could get.  As the composer Gordon Mumma used to say: “The circuit is the composition”.  

I found the same thing to be true of programs like Rebirth. Rebirth made doing a certain type of music easy. Samplers when they first came out were mind blowing! At first, when the Akai S-900 sampler came out, people were doing highly creative things with it. It all sounded so fresh.  But by the end of the nineties, people had become lazy and were letting the machine or the program determine the composition, they were depending on what it could do too much, and most of it ended up sounding alike.

So people went back to adding live music into the mix, and things got better. I always like it better when whoever is programming a drum machine actually knows how to play drums. It always sounds better when this is the case.

What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using? 

For a while the Line 6 delay/looper was important to the solo work that I was doing. I used three of them simultaneously for most performances. The only problem with them was that it was kind of heavy to carry three of them around on tour. So now I go through a Boomerang III. I used a Boomerang III for all the work heard on my new album, A Pythagorean Dream, which just came out this month on Foom records.

Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? Are there any promising solutions or set-ups capable of triggering new ideas inside of you as a composer?  

Over the years, I’ve worked with a wide variety of software and hardware: from the Buchla 100 series analog synthesizer of the sixties, to FM synthesis the Yamaha DX 7 of the 70s, to the TR 808 rhythm composer of the 80s. Then came the Atari and Apple computer with its sequencing software of Cubase, Performer, Notator, Pro Tools and the like. The arrival of the Akai S-900 sampler in 1986 changed everything, particularly within the context of rap. I’ve also programmed in Max and as well as procedural computer languages such as Forth. 

Every musical instrument has its limitations. For example, there are lots of things a composer can do with a flute. But it is difficult to make a flute sound like a saxophone. It’s possible, but difficult… It’s much easier to simply write for a saxophone! It’s the same thing with software. A program like Rebirth, for example, makes it easy to write techno pieces.  With a digital sequencer, I can easily edit an out-of-tune vocal line and clean it up.  

There was lots of stuff to do and things to explore with the Buchla. One could make Morton Subotnick Silver Apples of the Moon type sounds, all the way to highly refined timbral long-duration studies such as Elaine Radigue’s Chry-ptus, which was also made on the Buchla. The big advantage of working with a synthesizer back in the 60s' was that the composer didn’t have to wait around for a performer or an orchestra to play his or her music, which was a big problem at the time. In fact, it still is a problem, even today, for composers who write for classical instruments. The advantage of the synthesizer for composers is that we could work directly with the sound from start, all the way to the finish of a master tape, ready to pressing on a record.  No need to involve classical musicians, many of whom despised contemporary music and would rather be playing Brahms. 

So this was a big advantage. However, we soon found that the range of sounds we could get on a synthesizer, whether a Moog or a Buchla, was limited. We realized that it was never going to replace live musicians. It ended up being a lovely extension of the palette of sounds that composers had available to them.

I got heavily into MIDI during the 80s' and made many compositions in the electronica field. By the end of the 90s' I began to have the same problem with it that I did with the Buchla. I got tired of programming and wanted to play live. For me, there has never been any substitute for going on stage and playing a musical instrument. I like doing both. 

The programs that changed my life as a composer were Finale and Sibelius. Before I got into Finale, I was writing all my scores and copying all the parts by hand. I’m left-handed, which makes copying a laborious process because one has to be careful to not smudge the ink. It took forever and my hand got very tired. 

With Finale, it took the same amount of time to enter the handwritten score into the program as to write the score by hand in the first place, but once entered, it was vastly easier to manipulate and transpose things, and the parts were automatically generated. One had to edit the parts, true, but I much preferred doing this with a keyboard rather than having to do it with a pen. It was much less tiring for me.

The problem with Finale was that the key commands were not intuitive. I’d learn all the key commands and finish a piece in Finale. Then I’d go on tour, and by the time I got back I would have forgotten all the key commands, which really sucked.

Many of my composer friends told me that Sibelius was much more intuitive, so I switched. And it was (more intuitive)! I use it to this day whenever possible. That being said, I had to edit an older piece that I had done in Finale, so I updated Finale to its newest version. While I still find Sibelius easier to use, Finale is MUCH better in its present version, almost as good and easy to use as Sibelius.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?

How the creative process works for me depends on what kind of piece I’m composing. For example the creative process for the making of my latest album, A Pythagorean Dream, was much different than the creative process involved in A Crimson Grail, my piece for 200 electric guitars and 16 electric basses.

A Pythagorean Dream was based on improvisation.  Over a period of a number of years, each time I played trumpet, electric guitar or flute through my looping setup, I would record what I played with a view to eventually making a set composition. I recorded many takes over a period of time and when I arrived at something I liked, I transcribed it.  

For the transcription, I don’t transcribe note for note unless the playing specifically calls for me to do that. Sometimes traditional notation is necessary, but most of the time it isn’t. What I usually do when transcribing is make a set of timings and then use prose notation to say what I’m doing. For example if it’s for trumpet and I write, “play fast, high whistle tones in the high triple C range”, I know exactly what that means, although no one else would! So while the piece sounds more or less the same way each time I play it, there are of course slight variations.  Sometimes specific pitches at specific rhythms are called for. So I write those out in traditional notation.

For a fully notated piece such as A Crimson Grail, the process is different. I approach the piece the way a classical composer writing a symphony would approach things. Before putting pen to paper, I first decide the orchestration of the piece, what instruments I’m going to use.  Then I decide the piece’s duration and how many movements it will have. I then decide the tempo of each of these movements. I decide as many things as possible about the piece up to the point of precisely mapping out its form over time. Then and only then do I start pouring actual music into the form that I had decided upon, building the piece phrase by phrase, following my nose and feeling free to change direction at any point. Eventually, the piece gets done using this method.

I like both ways of composing. The first way works best when I’m doing all the playing myself. I use the second method when I am composing something that other musicians are going to play.


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