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Interview with Rhys Chatham, American Composer

Monday nights at the Kitchen were dark. Until…

Interview from 31 May 2008 at Rhys Chatham’s apartment in the Montmartre district in Paris. Composed as a first-person narrative by Bob Gluck in 2008 and edited in 2017 for publication in eContact!

Rhys Chatham came of age as a composer with his 1977 work Guitar Trio, which integrated minimalism and rock music. His early work emerged in early 1970s New York City under the influence of Indian Classical singer Pandit Pran Nath, and expressed through Chatham’s performances of music of long duration with La Monte Young, Tony Conrad and Charlemagne Palestine. During this period, he was also founding Music Director at The Kitchen, earning a living as a concert producer. During the 1980s, he was associated with Downtown New York composers Peter Gordon, John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Arto Lindsay, Glenn Branca and Scott Johnson. Chatham has lived in Paris since the late 1980s; his recent compositions have been crafted for trumpet and for sizable guitar orchestras.

Rhys Chatham after a solo performance at Fringe Arts in Philadelphia on 24 May 2016. Image © Ken Weiss. [Click image to enlarge]

Usually, the way I tell my personal history goes back to when I was 25, when I made a piece called Guitar Trio, which I consider to be my first piece that got beyond my teachers. Pieces prior to that I considered student pieces. So, when people ask me about my work for electric guitar, it goes back to Guitar Trio, which was made in 1976. Before ’76, I was doing electronic music; after ’76, I was working with electric music.

But, in addition to other things that I am, I am also an astrologer. I grew up in a family of astrologers, which rubbed off on me; I learned it by osmosis. I have the planet Uranus as the ascendant of my chart. The ascendant is the constellation of stars that we see if we look directly to the East — the sun rises to the East — at the time of our birth. In astrology, Uranus rules electricity. The ascendant signifies our interface with the world. So, in a way, I’m looking at the world through Uranian-coloured glasses — the glasses associated with electricity. From a very young age, I’ve always been working with electricity in some way or other for making music.

Early Life

My father was an amateur harpsichordist, but a serious amateur. When I was growing up, he was playing virginals. My mother was a violist. So I grew up with early music, hearing composers like Giles Farnaby and John Bull, primarily composers from the Elizabethan period. But we also had modern music — we listened to Stravinsky and things like that. So when it came time to play an instrument, I chose flute. Actually, this was in ’63. The instrument I really wanted to play was drums, because the Beatles had just come out and I wanted to be like Ringo. My parents were really smart, though. They said, “You know drums? It’s a very nice instrument.” We lived in an apartment, by the way, in a tenement building in Manhattan, on 19th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. And they said, “A flute is also a very nice instrument. You know, you can play orchestral pieces with flute. You can play Debussy and Bach.” I was so stupid I listened to them. And so that’s how I came to play flute. I was really lucky and went to a place called the Third Street Settlement School, where we had Harris Danziger from the Manhattan School of Music. Tom Manoff. Donald Stratton was teaching composition. All of them were Manhattan School of Music people, and Donald Stratton, in particular, encouraged all his theory students to compose. That’s how I got into composition.

I had a wonderful flute teacher named Sue Anne Kahn who happened to be a contemporary music specialist. So when I first heard Edgard Varèse, the piece Density 21.5, and of course Poème électronique, it just blew my mind. I said, “I want to play this.” So it was no problem to play these pieces. I also knew a pianist named Paul Jacobs, who at the time was at the New York Philharmonic. And he very kindly offered to read through Pierre Boulez’s Sonatine for flute and piano with me. He was a friend of my father’s. The harpsichord world in New York was very small, so everyone knew everyone else. So I got to know a harpsichord builder named Hugh Gough, who built wonderful instruments. Later, I began to tune harpsichords to make money, tuning Roslyn Tureck and Albert Fuller’s instruments. I got to tune Gustav Leonhardt’s for a concert and I even tuned a harpsichord for Glenn Gould once. It was a very heavy, a horrible instrument, a J.C. Neupert, I think. I won’t talk about it, it was so heavy and horrible. Anyway, that’s how I knew Paul Jacobs, through the early music world. My flute teacher was also a pianist. So, when we played the Bach Sonatas, she could play with me. It was a lot of fun. But the Sonatine was a bit beyond her; I don’t know if you know the piece, but it was a bit beyond her technical capacity, so I was really lucky to have Paul play it with me.

Reminiscences About Growing Up

I grew up in a Christian scene. My father was a Trotskyite and my mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. So, you could sort of take it from there. One was waiting for the revolution and the other was waiting for the Kingdom of God. I did the Jehovah’s Witness thing for a time with my mother, but when they didn’t want me to take lessons with Pandit Pran Nath and they didn’t want me to do music full-time or as anything but a hobby, I got myself thrown out for apostasy, for singing songs to Shiva. And I must say that I was quite happy to be thrown out. So that was what growing up was like. This was during the hippy era, so when I left the JWs, my hair went from being short to very long. I got heavily into Hatha Yoga and later Japa and Raja Yoga. And of course, I became involved completely with The Kitchen.

Rhys talking to the audience during a solo show at Fringe Arts in Philadelphia on 24 May 2016. Image © Ken Weiss. [Click image to enlarge]

My father wasn’t very interested in me as a young child, because he couldn’t really relate to young children. I would go with him to demonstrations — “Hands Off Cuba” in front of the United Nations — but that was the extent of it. Or sometimes go to a Socialist Worker’s Party meeting. Then, after I started really getting into flute, we would play duets together. We would play the Bach Sonatas, and he started to take more of an interest after that. Both my parents were encouraging, also when I got involved with electronic music. They both loved modern music, although my dad didn’t always love the music I did.

One time, years later, I did a concert, I was very interested in noise. I made a recording of a refrigerator. I slowed it down, so it was basically 60 cycles, with interesting slowed-down noise over it, that we listened to for an hour at The Kitchen. My father was there. It was a nice piece. There was a New York Dolls concert next door. Some of the people were drunkenly coming in, so I locked the door so they wouldn’t come in by mistake. My father, when he gets angry, it is something to see, he really has a temper. So my father got completely pissed off listening to this silly hum, this refrigerator hum. After a half an hour, he stomped out of his seat saying, “This is ridiculous, this is impossible.” He got out of his seat and walked to the door and went “boom-boom-boom-boom” (banging on the door since it was locked). So I came over, smiled wickedly, and I said “Hi, dad,” and opened the door for him. He gave me a nasty look and stomped out. Everyone in the audience thought it was funny. They all knew who it was. So it was very funny. But for the most part he was very supportive.

Third Street to Intermedia: Studying with Mort Subotnick

Anyway, as part of the theory classes at Third Street, Harris Danziger had met Morton Subotnick, who was working at NYU at that time, at the Intermedia programme, which was a really interesting programme. This was 1968 and I had just read an article in the New York Times about Subotnick. He had released an album called Silver Apples of the Moon. I listened to electronic music back then like the way a 15- or 16-year-old listens to rock and roll. We had a little bit of rock and roll in the house. Of course I liked the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but my real passion was contemporary music of all kinds. And when I say contemporary music, I mean post-serial music, like Stockhausen’s Piano Pieces I–IV and Sonata I and II by Boulez, etc. And of course everything Cage ever did. I used to go to the library at Lincoln Center all the time, where I discovered Cage’s Silence and A Year From Monday and bought all those books and became a big fan.

So, when I heard that Morton was going to give a workshop for the theory students of the Third Street Music School, I was in heaven. We all met at Third Street, which was, at the time, on Third Street between 1st and 2nd, right up the street from the Hell’s Angels. They put us on a bus and we all went over to Morton’s studio at NYU. He gave us a series of weekly classes that were absolutely fabulous. Each week. The series of weekly workshops was specifically for Third Street theory students.

Morton did his Bachelor’s degree in English literature, so he’s a real storyteller. And he can tell a story in such a warm way. He had a theory that how to use the synthesizer could be taught to teenagers and that’s what he was going for. And what he did each week was focus on a different parameter of music. One week he focused on amplitude, and we looked at gates. Another week, I think this was quite early on, what frequency is. What duration is, etc. And by the end of the course, we had a very, very good introduction to what electronic music is, how it’s made. He also played musical examples, like Poème électronique by Varèse.

We finished the workshop by doing five-minute pieces on Morton’s synthesizer, which was the original Buchla 100 series. I fell in love with the synthesizer. We had the final lecture and I was so sad; it was the last one. I wasn’t going to see Mort anymore. More specifically, I wasn’t going to get to use his synthesizer. So after the workshop was over, I went up to him and asked whether it might be possible to do something privately and he graciously allowed me to do this. I was the only one of those students to do so. That’s how I learned the Buchla. He had just set up another Buchla synthesizer in a little room where, at the time, composer Maryanne Amacher was actually living. 1[1. See Bob Gluck’s “Interview with American composer and sound artist Maryanne Amacher,” published in eContact! 18.3 — Sonic DIY.]

Later on, of course Third Street knew that Morton allowed me to use his studio on weekends. Occasionally, I’d bring up another student to make a piece, so there was more interaction with some of the Third Street students afterwards.

You’ve heard Silver Apples of the Moon; there’s a certain Buchla sound. And it kind of goes like this: “boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-bop…” There was a device on the Buchlas called the “sequencer”. And so the first piece that I made was, you know, heavily oriented towards the sequencer, specifically playing with polymetric rhythms, one of them working with two sequencers, one of them set to five, the other set to seven. Maybe a number of things like that going on.

Working at the Bleecker Street Studio

Two of the pieces that I composed at NYU I’m sure I would still like today. And both of them got lost in one of my moves. Because I’d love to release them. This was before Two Gongs, which I did in 1971. Both of them were music of long duration. Both of them were purely electronic, made with ring modulators and sine wave generators. I think most of the work I did back then was music of long duration, focused on overtones and sonority. The work I did in that studio is really how I laid the foundation of turning into a minimalist.

Had I wanted to do pieces exactly like La Monte, the Buchla wouldn’t have been well suited. To do things like his Drift Studies, you need really precise oscillators. So I did music that worked with the instrument. The oscillators would drift a little bit, so that’s why I used ring modulators and make the drifting of the oscillators part of the piece. That was the instrument I had, and I worked with it. The Buchlas were a lot of fun. Then gradually, after, I can’t remember when it was, we moved the studio from Bleecker Street, for various reasons, and Michael Czajkowski moved it to the Film School on 7th Street between 1st and 2nd. And that’s when I met Éliane Radigue. She had a loft on the Bowery. She had moved from France and she started working there. She was very influential on my work. She did a piece called Chryp-tus (1971), which was premiered at the French Cultural Center. It was the first piece she made on a synthesizer. Before that, all her pieces were essentially musique concrète. It had a pulse to it that was very, very interesting, that I started incorporating into my own work.

While I was in high school, I was in the studio, as Americans say, “on the weekend.” Occasionally, I’d go there after school when I had a deadline on a piece I was working on. While I was there, I encountered composers named Maryanne Amacher and Serge Tcherepnin, and a composer that I became particularly close with; his name was Charlemagne Palestine. Charlemagne turned out to know my father.

My father was a writer. And writers, particularly in America, have to do something else to support themselves. My father’s way of supporting himself was being a waiter at a crazy place, on Third Avenue and Twenty-First Street. And all sorts of crazy people went there. And one of the crazy people was Charlemagne Palestine and a composer named Eric Richards. So that’s how he got to know my father. I didn’t know that he knew my father. I met Charlemagne in the Bleecker Street studio. After a while, we had Maryanne working there, we had Charlemagne, we had Ingram Marshall.

I was no longer in high school and so I asked if I could join the group that, after moving to its new location, became the Composer’s Workshop and I talked about it with Michael Czajkowski, who graciously let me become a full-fledged member. Each of us got, I think, twenty-hours a week to work there, which was enough time, and which we needed since we couldn’t afford to buy our own synthesizers. By the time the Composer’s Workshop came into existence, I knew every single thing about the Buchla, as only a teenager could. The only tech support issues that would come up would be when a speaker blew. And so I’d call Michael and say one of the speakers blew. And he’d go, “Oh, darn it!” He’d take care of having it fixed. This all took place a long time ago and we each saw it from different perspectives. I don’t remember ever attending meetings about the studio. In addition to the Buchla, we had two Ampexes so it was possible to do tape pieces. So, lots of tape pieces, sometimes musique concrète, since it was tape we were working with. My perspective of the Composer’s Workshop would be so different from the others because I was a kid — I was a teenager; I was everyone’s kid brother.

I started going to the Workshop when was 16, and I was still a Jehovah’s Witness then. I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses in around 1970, I think. I didn’t leave Composer’s Workshop until ’73. I was there until the very end, when it closed. I have this recurring dream that I’m making a piece on the Buchla. Not all the modules are there, because it’s old, in my dream. But I make a really cool piece of it.

To summarize, the friendships I made at NYU have lasted me for a lifetime.

Changing Musical Perspectives: La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath

But when I started working with the Buchla, I was, I suppose, a post-serialist. I was essentially an “Uptown” composer. That was my orientation, but then I walked into the likes of Maryanne and Charlemagne and my orientation became a bit different. And I think it was partly due to my own research, but I had just become aware of La Monte Young. I had gone to a concert of his at NYU at the Loeb Student Center and it was a tape concert where he played his sopranino sax pieces. He did one of his Drift Studies. Not the usual ones with the low tones, but one of those high ones that very close intervals and where if you turned your head, because of the air pressure, you’d hear different pitches, different frequencies. He also did The Tortoise, His Dream and Journeys (1964) with Terry Riley and him singing a duet version using nose microphones.

I went to a later concert with Charlemagne. This was in 1970… Here’s how I got into minimalism. I had seen a book called An Anthology that was edited by La Monte and Jackson Mac Low, and it had a piece of Terry’s in it. (I think that I have it here; I’ll show it to you later.) It looked very much like Cage’s Variations V — it was kind of a score with blotches and a piano score — and at the time I was into very dissonant music and noise. So I said, “This is going to be a very noisy concert, I’ll check it out.” I went to the Electric Circus; Thais Latham was organizing a Monday night series there. And I saw this red-haired guy with an electric organ playing what sounded to me like circus music, you know, everything tonal and I was really, really pissed off. I wanted to get my money back. So I tried to get my money back, because it was $5, which was a lot of money back then, especially for a kid. I tried to get it back and they wouldn’t give it to me. So I went back and I changed my mind. I said, “This is great.” That’s how I became a minimalist.

Charlemagne Palestine (left) and Rhys Chatham (right) the morning after a performance together in Berlin in 2014. Image © Udo Siegfriedt. [Click image to enlarge]

It was a bit afterwards that I started getting into long-durational electronic music pieces. Instead of using the sequencer of the Buchla, I started using sine wave generators. Lots of pieces with ring modulation and then Charlemagne came to the studio; he came after me, and I realized that he was into music of long duration also. He started right away doing these beautiful, beautiful pieces whose main focus was on sonority. So we got to talking and he became a kind of older brother figure for me. We went to a concert that La Monte did, another tape concert. That was where La Monte and Terry were doing nose mic things and La Monte’s Drift Studies. Charlemagne got so pissed off hearing the Drift Studies, thinking “Oh my God, someone’s been doing this before me!” But I must say Charlemagne was not influenced by La Monte. Charlemagne arrived at it on his own back in the ’60s and the early ’70s. He was a little upset to discover that La Monte had been doing these durational things since the early ’60s. But of course, Charlemagne’s work was very, very different from La Monte’s. And Charlemagne, even back then he very, very much had his own voice. I didn’t personally know La Monte back then. I just had read his book, Selected Writings, again only in the way a teenager can; I read Selected Writings the way a philosophy student reads Kant for the first time, making sure I understood every little thing. And then I saw in the Village Voice an advertisement for a weekly series of workshops with Pandit Pran Nath. Henry Flynt was in the class also. I saw these two very strange-looking people playing the tambura, and it was La Monte and Marian Zazeela. La Monte was as thin as a stick back then. It was Pandit Pran Nath who told him he had to fatten up, because the Indian tradition was that you are well to do if you put on a little weight. But he was as thin as a stick and they were both playing tamburas. He just taught us basic scales, like instead of “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-si-do”, “sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-sa”. Even non-musicians could do it.

The Kitchen

After that, I founded the music programme of a place called The Kitchen. Woody and Steina Vasulka I had met around the NYU studio. I was doing music for a choreographer named Daniel Nagrin, playing conga for his dance class, and after the dance class we would have a three-hour jam with his company. He’d invite different musicians and Woody and Steina came. She was playing violin or viola, I don’t remember which. I think Woody was playing Putney synthesizer. We got to talking and they were great. They were really interested in the Buchla, so I brought them over to the NYU studio and it turned out that a composer named Robert Mason was charging them for doing lessons there, which was a real no-no. So I offered to give them lessons for free — we became friends that way. And then they invited me to do electronic music using the Buchla with their videos, which they were showing in the context of Andy Warhol’s Max’s Kansas City things. Then they opened up a place for video on Mercer Street called The Kitchen.

The Kitchen founders Woody (second from left) and Steina Vasulka (right) ca. 1971 at The Kitchen’s early Mercer Arts Center venue (Mercer Street in Soho) with Dimitri Devyatkin (left) and Rhys Chatham (second from right). From the archive of Woody and Stena Vasulka. Photographer unknown. [Click image to enlarge]

I noticed that Monday nights were dark and so I decided… I wanted to base a series there that was similar to what Thais Latham was doing at the Electric Circus, so I asked them if I could do a Monday night series there. They agreed, and that’s how I got started at The Kitchen. Initially, I invited all my friends from the Composer’s Workshop. A composer named Laurie Spiegel was one of the first people to play there. And Jon Gibson. I called up Milton Babbitt first. He lived up the street from me. He was a childhood hero. So I got to talking to him. I said, “Mr. Babbitt, we’d like to invite you to do something at The Kitchen.” For some reason, he sensed that I was quite young, so he asked, “How old are you?” I had to confess that I was of a tender age; I was, like, nineteen. He said, “That’s ridiculous! Someone 19 can’t do a serious series!” After that I became really paranoid about my age and so I afterwards I told everyone I was 23.

The next person I called was Phil Glass and he was just the sweetest man. What I was offering was the door. They would make 100% of the door. All the people working at The Kitchen — Woody, myself and Steina — were working for free. We just donated our services because we were doing it for love, because Downtown composers really didn’t have a place to play. You could do a Columbia University Composer’s Workshop; that was open to Downtown composers. But to play at Columbia’s McMillan Hall… the composers in charge of booking there weren’t really open to it. So we had a need for a formal place. “Leave your minimalism downtown” — that was the Uptown composers’ attitude.

So what the Downtown composers were doing, like Phil and Jon Gibson and people like that, was simply performing in people’s homes, in their lofts, downtown. It worked out fine like that. But The Kitchen was at a really slick place called the Mercer Arts Center. It was really unusual to have an underground place like that in a five-theatre complex with a bar. So, we took care of publicity for the composer. All they had to do was show up and play. Phil couldn’t do it because of his already busy schedule, but he said, “I know someone who might be interested,” and he recommended Jon. And so, Jon did a concert there and invited me to be in it. I played sine wave generator, and it was a really cool piece, too.

The Kitchen ca. 1971 at its early Mercer Arts Center venue (Mercer Street in Soho). From the archive of Woody and Steina Vasulka. Photographer unknown. [Click image to enlarge]

Finally I worked up my courage and asked La Monte if he would do something. I was really lucky because, you know, La Monte always charges as much as he can for a concert. But I was really lucky because he couldn’t pay his grocery bill that week. And his wife Marian said, “You know, La Monte, we can’t pay our grocery bill. Maybe we should do this.” So that’s how I met La Monte. They came down and decided that the concert would consist of them playing their record. They took their record, put down the needle, and they played the record. Very elegantly. You know, trying not to scratch anything. And they sold their records at the concert. They were the first to think of selling their records at The Kitchen. And they made enough money to pay their grocery bill that week. I thought it was pretty gutsy. Pretty funny, actually.

He then brought me to his loft and played me The Well-Tuned Piano, an early version on an upright. I told him, “You know, La Monte, I thought I heard something out of tune there.” He smiled because he knew what I was doing — he knew I tuned pianos and that I was trying to get lessons out of him for free. I wanted to study with him, but I couldn’t afford it at his prices. So we made a deal where I tuned his piano and he gave me lessons. So I studied with him, eventually joining his group. Terry Riley sang with us a few times. In the group at that time was Jon Hassell, also a trombone player named Garrett List, who later became Music Director at The Kitchen. Garrett was also responsible for — one might even say “guilty” of — bringing jazz musicians into The Kitchen.

I didn’t invite Charlemagne to play at The Kitchen during the early years. Not because we were fighting, but because unfortunately he — my dearest friend, my adopted older brother — went out to Cal Arts. And was very happy to go out to CalArts. Serge Tcherepnin went out there also. Maryanne Amacher stayed. Ingram Marshall went out also. I couldn’t go out. Morton invited me to go out, but I couldn’t because I was still doing The Kitchen and I wanted to do that. Aside from booking people from The Composer’s Workshop there weren’t other points of overlap between the NYU studio people and The Kitchen. Of course when Charlemagne came back to New York and actually moved into the same building as me (I had a loft on the Bowery at that time), of course we did have him at The Kitchen. We didn’t do Ingram until 1980. We didn’t do Morton until around then also, because he was out at Cal Arts and we couldn’t afford the airfare.

Composer and Village Voice music critic Tom Johnson (left) and Rhys Chatham (right) ca. 1971. From the archive of Woody and Stena Vasulka. Photographer unknown. [Click image to enlarge]

We actually programmed “Uptown” composer Otto Luening at The Kitchen. A great guy. I’m remembering back a long time ago. There was a real demarcation between Uptown and Downtown music and the twain never really met and there wasn’t much contact. They thought the thing we were doing was tinker toy music. By “tinker toy music” I mean very simple, not complex enough, not intellectually rigorous. Which was ok, because we didn’t appreciate their music either. All of us came from the same background, though, it was just that downtown composers felt that contemporary music needed a bit of air. It was a little bit too stuffy up there. So I didn’t programme many uptown composers. One time as a joke I invited Charles Wuorinen. But somehow, he never made it. There’s a famous quote from him that Tom Johnson heard, that “the execution of music is a necessary evil.” That the Platonic essentialism of it is the most important thing. Wuorinen denies saying it, but Tom Johnson says he remembers hearing it at a lecture that he gave at St. Mark’s Church.

As soon as we started producing things at The Kitchen, WKCR, the Columbia University radio station, put our music on the air. That’s largely because they are student-produced. The students tend to come out of Linguistics, so they aren’t dead set against it.

Electric Ear at the Electric Circus

I was too young to do a show at the Electric Circus; I was just a spectator there. It started out as a discotheque. Tony Martin, who was one of Mort’s collaborators, a painter, designed a light show there. The first concert I saw there was in ’68, a concert by John Cage. 2[2. Chatham is referring to the performance of John Cage’s Reunion on 27 May 1968.] In this concert, he and Marcel Duchamp were playing chess. Depending upon where the chess pieces were, it would open up gates, allowing us to hear the music of various composers who were doing live electronics come through at different times and in different balances. The composers there were David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, David Behrman. Nam June Paik was also doing something, making noise with oscilloscopes, I believe. Gordon Mumma was explaining to people what he was doing. They were very curious. He then said, “Oops, they must have moved a chess piece, my sound just went off.” I was really young, but I was so excited to see one of my heroes, David Tudor. I wanted to ask him a question, but I couldn’t think of an intelligent question to ask him so I said, “Where are your gates?” He looked up, kind of surprised and said, “I have no need of them.” He was doing a long-tone kind of thing, using frequency modulation. But I was very glad I got David Tudor to say a few words to me. And then I noticed there was a tall man standing in front of me. I looked up to see who it was and it was Merce Cunningham. I was so scared. I said “Hello”, He said “Hello” (in a low, elegant voice). That was the extent of our conversation. So that was my first experience at the Electric Circus. It was a real happening. That was a special event. Then Thais Lathem did her series there.

David Rosenboom played a concert, as did Terry Riley. Then there was Sal Martirano, the piece he does wearing a gas mask. There was a whole series, very inspiring. Kenneth Gaburo also did something there once. David Rosenboom played in that Terry Riley piece. Terry did A Rainbow in Curved Air, the long version. Then David joined him and they did Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band: All Night Flight. David played viola in that. I was very impressed. For his own concert, David did this very funny thing where he wore a Batman costume. The highpoint of the piece was where they projected the Batman symbol, which they could do quite well at the Electric Circus. David was in his Batman suit and tried to crawl up to it, unsuccessfully. It was a performance piece.

WBAI Free Music Store

The WBAI Free Music Store was one of the places where you could play Downtown music, even though it was actually located Uptown 3[3. The Free Music Store’s first homes were in fact downtown in the Village, originally at the Public Theatre, then the Peace Church on West 4th Street, before moving uptown to East 62nd Street.] There were all sorts of concerts there, which was fantastic. 4[4. For more on the “WBAI Free Music Store and Dark, Dark Nights at the Electric Circus,” see Bob Gluck’s conversation with music theatre composer and producer Eric Salzman, published in eContact! 18.3 — Sonic DIY.] Once I did a concert with Charlemagne and Tony Conrad. It was a trio that we did at WBAI another couple of times. I think we did it once in Pennsylvania. I have a recording of it somewhere here. On the record, Charlemagne writes that it was a three-hour concert, but he was wrong. We played all night; we played until dawn. Charlemagne was at the time playing on sifters, cognac glasses, so you can get a drone with your finger, singing over it. He had this wonderful singing technique. It came out of Pandit Pran Nath, but as with all of Charlemagne’s music, it was uniquely his own voice. A bit out of Pran Nath, a bit out of Polynesian music (he had visited Bali). So he was doing that. I was playing an harmonium. Tony was playing the only melody there is, on violin.

Soho to Tribeca

And what a time that was! It was very special in New York, because every society needs a place where it can dream, a place where artists congregate in a ghetto. In the ’50s it was in Greenwich Village in New York and when that got too expensive, artists pioneered the Soho area. No one wanted to live in Soho in the ’60s. It was completely industrial — there were no bars; there was just one bar for all of Soho. You had to “pretend” — it was illegal to live there, so you had to black out your windows. So it took people like Yoko Ono, Robert Morris, Yvonne Rainer, La Monte and Marian were really pioneering spirits, to go down there. The first place that I lived in after I moved out of my parents’ was a loft on Soho. A student from Third Street said, “Hey Rhys, I found this loft apartment for $180. Do you want to share it with me?” And I said “Cool!” And so that was my first place; it was in Soho. By that time, it had become semi-legal. Just imagine, you had this huge concentration of composers, musicians, choreographers, visual artists, sculptors, all living in this same neighbourhood — what that does for communication and what that does for ideas, it was really fantastic. Today we have the Internet, but it’s not the same as face-to-face contact. We’d have a concert by a Yvonne Rainer and everyone would be at the bar at McGoo’s talking about it, or we would see Richard Serra and Philip Glass talking together about it at the Puerto Rican breakfast place around the corner the next morning, discussing it. Things advanced very quickly. Ideas advanced very, very quickly. It’s a very, very exciting time.

Just imagine, you had this huge concentration of composers, musicians, choreographers, visual artists, sculptors, all living in this same neighbourhood.

Soho eventually, by the early ’80s, got quite pricey, and architects and lawyers started moving down into it, thus forcing all the artists to move down to Tribeca. So we had Laurie Spiegel in the same building as Richard Serra; she’s still there today. They all bought their places. I used to rehearse in the basement. Then, when that got too expensive, we all moved to the East Village and that worked out very well for much of the ’80s. And then of course, although today’s its finished, there’s Williamsburg and Greenpoint, although those are now also done. If I ever move back to New York, I’d move to Queens, because it’s lovely there and it’s family-oriented. We have the same problem in France, now. The most expensive city to live in Europe is Geneva. After that it’s London. After that it’s Paris. If you go anywhere to any of the cities, it’s expensive — this is a problem. In order to be a young person in their 20s, just out of school, to make music, you need a combination of cheap rent, somebody to write about your music to encourage you, and preferably some kind of government support to get the occasional grant. In New York, we had all three in the ’70s and ’80s.

New York Music Elettronica Viva (MEV)

After about ’73 (it might have been ’74), I had decided that I wanted to move back to focusing on an instrument, rather than making the Buchla my main instrument. I felt a certain lack of a visceral connection that I felt I could only get on an instrument. So I started playing flute again. Frederic Rzewski had come to town and started a MEV group in New York, so I joined that. Not the core group, but the orchestra. We had weekly meetings where we would simply jam for, I think, three hours. I was there, Tom Johnson was there every once in a while. Garrett List was there every week. Frederic of course. Interestingly, people from the jazz community came as well. Frederic had invited people from the jazz community. Specifically Karl Berger would drop in. Not Braxton.

Creative Music Studio and Changes at The Kitchen

Frederic started working with the Creative Music Foundation, which was Karl Berger’s school started in cooperation with Ornette Coleman. Karl had started the idea for a school while in New York and he opened it and began giving courses there once he had, with the encouragement of Marion Brown, moved to Woodstock.

I had left The Kitchen — I got burned out, as did Woody and Steina. We had been there a couple of years. You get burned out working gratis in places like that. So we gave it to Robert Stearns and a composer named Jim Burton. And the Music Director after him was Garrett List. There’s a story to be told there. One thing that Garrett and Frederic did with MEV and The Kitchen was make Downtown composers aware that we weren't the only people working Downtown who were “composers with a capital ‘C’”. There was a notion — that still exists here in France — of a hierarchy that composers in a Classical tradition are on top, jazz somewhat below, and rock wasn’t even considered music. What we were working on was — and this was the pre-history, starting with Terry Riley — wanting to make music that was accessible.

There was a famous article by Milton Babbitt entitled “Who Cares if You Listen?” 5[5. Originally published in High Fidelity (February 1958), the title of the article was neither proposed nor authorized by Babbitt. It is the title that seems to have caused the most controversy, not the article’s actual content.] Music had gotten to a point where you had to have a master’s degree or at least be in love with someone who did to appreciate it. A real current among Downtown composers was to make music that was somehow accessible to people but that wouldn’t melt in your hands, at the same time. And that’s what everyone was working on. It got us interested in tonal music. La Monte and Phil and Terry and Steve. But then composers began thinking — especially MEV which was doing improvisation, and even Stockhausen, who was incorporating improvisatory techniques in Piano Piece No. 11, also with Stimmung and Aus dem Sieben Tagen — “Hey, wait, there are other people who have been working with this,” that is, jazz composers. And so Frederic started working with them. I got exposed to them. I got a tenor saxophone and started taking lessons and got interested in it. And Garrett List started programming composers like Don Cherry, the Art Ensemble of Chicago to play at The Kitchen. This caused quite a stir in the downtown community… it doesn’t sound so controversial today, but back then, the downtown composers didn’t agree. Because they said, “These jazz guys can play Studio Rivbea, they have places they can play; we only have The Kitchen.” But Garrett felt it was necessary in helping break down this musical hierarchy and also to show where groups like Music Elettronica Viva were coming from, to show current trends.

Discovering Rock Music

I came back to The Kitchen and I followed in Garrett’s footsteps. Except instead of working with jazz, I had heard Patti Smith, I was listening to the Ramones. I had never been to a rock concert. A composer friend named Peter Gordon said, “Rhys, what do you mean you’ve never been to a rock concert! Come down to CBGBs with me. There’s this interesting group playing.” This was in ’76 — it was the Ramones. While growing up I wasn’t interested in rock music. I just screamed when I heard Jimi Hendrix’s Freedom the first time. I hadn’t heard any of them until 1975. I was completely into contemporary music. But then I heard the Ramones. I saw, well, these guys were playing three chords; that was two more than I was playing. I could see a relationship! I was just at the point where I was trying to find my own voice. Prior to that CBGBs concert, one could say that my music either sounded very, very similar to Charlemagne or to Maryanne Amacher. I had done pieces that were almost copies of Maryanne. Because I was a student, you have to start somewhere, you have to be influenced by someone. So I was influenced by Charlemagne, by Éliane Radigue, by Maryanne and, of course, by Terry. Don’t even talk about it! I was a closet Terry Riley player.

In jazz you have to find your voice; for music coming out of a Classical tradition, one has to do the same as a composer. Steve Reich went to Ghana, and incorporated elements of Ghanaian music and drumming. That was really cool. Philip Glass used jazz instrumentation in his pieces. So, what was I going to do? The music of my generation, a guy like me… I should be using guitars. So, that’s exactly what I did. There’s a composer named Scott Johnson, who I had met playing in the Love of Life Orchestra founded by Peter Gordon, I was playing flute. I said, “Scott, I’ve got to learn to play bar chords.” And he happened to have a Strat lying around. He told me, “Go listen to Freedom” and he showed me how to play bar chords. And I’ll tell you, I had bloody fingers, my fingers were really sore. But the nice thing about guitar… any instrument takes ten years to play really well, but with guitar you can be playing in the band in the matter of months. With the trumpet you can’t even get a sound out of the damn thing for three years. So I was in luck with the guitar. I put down the tenor saxophone and I started playing guitar.

Performance of Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio (1977) at The Kitchen in New York in April 1980. Left to right: Robert Longo, Wharton Tiers (on drums) Rhys Chatham and Jules Baptiste. Image © Paula Court. [Click image to enlarge]

But I didn’t want to be a “Composer” doing a rock piece in an alternate place like The Kitchen. Because at The Kitchen or an experimental place like Phill Niblock’s Intermedia Foundation, I could play virtually anything. Let me give you an example. Maryanne Amacher was up in Massachusetts and couldn’t make it down to New York for her concert so she said, “Rhys, I’m going to play the concert on tape and everyone should try to listen to it in New York; maybe you could have some soft lighting and incense.” About forty people showed up for the concert. I explained to people what we were going to do; Tom Johnson was there to review it. One person actually heard the music and Tom wrote a review about it; he didn’t hear it, he was kind of pissed off about the whole thing, but he wrote about it anyway. That was the kind of music we did back then. My point being that if we could do a piece like that at The Kitchen and if I wanted to do a rock-influenced piece there, I knew I could do that.

But what I felt would be more interesting or more authentic was to actually play in clubs rather than art spaces — to use rock musicians in a rock setting, to do compositions that came out of a minimalist context, but also worked as rock. And at the time, if people thought you were “posing” or if it were “Art,” all I can say is, at CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, even if they liked you, they threw beer bottles at you. So you can imagine what they would do if they didn’t like you. For the first year, I didn’t attempt to do compositions in rock. I just learned to play the instrument and play in other rock bands, to learn how to play the guitar. But after a year I felt I was ready and did a piece called Guitar Trio. I think it was in ’76 and we premiered it in February ’77, at an alternate art space called Franklin Furnace, because the rock clubs at the beginning of the punk movement there was only CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, and everyone wanted to play there, so getting in there was a real big deal.

Performance of Rhys Chatham’s Drastic Classicism (1982) during Danceteria in New York in 1983. Left to right: Thurston Moore, Tim Schellenbaum, Jonathan Kane (on drums), Rhys Chatham and Ned Sublette. Image © Catherine Ceresol. [Click image to enlarge]

But finally a composer called Jeffrey Lohn, who had a band called Theoretical Girls that had Glenn Branca and him in it, got in touch. I had booked them at The Kitchen because I was programming rock there that was coming out of the downtown community. A bit later on, to return the favour, Jeffrey said, “Rhys, I got a gig at Max’s Kansas City! Do you want to do something also, Guitar Trio maybe?” And I said “Sure.” And then Glenn found out about it and got really jealous and he said, “You guys can’t do that without me!” And so we added Glenn on it and it ended up being my band, Glenn’s and Jeff’s that played different sets. Then I started playing regularly in the clubs and that’s when I knew G3 was authentic. I was working with a visual artist named Robert Longo, who was very influential upon the æsthetic basis of my work from that period. Robert did pictures that were representations of an image that wasn’t actually the image but somehow told a story about it that was somehow your story. I wanted to do the same thing with music: to make a “representation” of a rock band, but one that told a story to the listener. And the “story” would be the overtones, of course, because we were just playing one note, but everyone heard a different set of overtones depending on where they were sitting in the room. But at Max’s they liked it, you know, the kids there, and said, “Where are you hiding the singers?” Over course they were hearing the overtones! That’s when I knew it worked, so I could relax. That I wasn’t just an egghead composer doing bullshit that would never in a million years work in a rock club…

I was just happy that G3 was really rock, that it incorporated the things that were happening on the punk scene at the time, but also with my minimalist background and experiences as a tuner, putting all these things that I love into one piece. Guitar Trio became my signature piece; I did a short version at every concert throughout the ’80s and ’90s, but the original version was concert-length. You know, we’d do two 20-minute sets; the second 20-minute set would be Slides by Robert. But somehow by 1982 it got down to eight minutes, and that’s what we did until a year ago, when my record company decided, “Let’s do the original version.” We tried it at a concert in Atlanta and we liked it, so now we’ve been doing a re-creation of the long version that we’ve been touring in the States and Europe.

Computer Programming

I used to programme in Forth, a procedural computer language initially used by astronomers, but later used by composers such as David Behrman, George Lewis and Ron Kuivala. David Behrman turned me onto it. He said, “But you know, Rhys, if you start programming in Forth, you’re going to start having problems with your wife.” I didn’t know what he meant, but I found out later. Because you become a space case when you get in to programming. I started out with an Atari, spent all this time in front of a computer. After 2000, I started to attempt to get away from computers as much as possible, but even today, I still have to learn new software. That’s why I’m not working with software in a live context so much these days; I’m just playing acoustic instruments like trumpet, guitar and flutes, and putting them through analogue effects.

Reflections on Music in France Today

Today, in electroacoustic music in France, there are interesting things going on. When I hear certain composers played, although I know there are new things going on in their music, sometimes I really must say that I feel I am in a time warp going back to 1950. The reason for that is simply that it is often difficult for the French to think outside of the box. While they are quite good at packaging and embellishing, eccentricity often frightens them.

During my trumpet period, I was playing my trumpet going through my rock and roll distortion modules, with drum and bass beats. I took it to record companies here in France and all of them knew me of course and said, “It’s great, but we don’t understand it.” “We don’t know how to categorize it.” Which I suppose is a normal reaction from the land of Descartes! Then I went to Great Britain and the red carpets came out. A label called Ninja Tune put it out immediately. The point I’m making is that things are rigidly in categories here. The French make wonderful software and are innovative in this area, but in other realms they are much better at taking something and elaborating upon it. There seems to be a fear of going outside a specific category. It’s very, very curious. Of course we have mavericks like Éliane Radigue and composers like Kasper Toeplitz, but both Kasper and Éliane up until very recently generally have acted outside the usual academic centres in France.

Postscript (March 2017)

During the Mitterand era in France, when over one percent of the national budget went to the arts, artists, dancers and musicians did quite well here. But since then, funding for the arts has gradually dried up, not to the minuscule level that it has in the States, of course, but relatively speaking, it has. So the only people left doing music here are the people that have no choice, the ones that have to be doing music, because one thing is for sure, they ain’t doin’ it for the money! There are all kinds of little underground places popping up in Paris with names like No Jazz and Sonic Protest. People are doing all kinds of interesting music in an underground kind of way, using everything from analogue synthesizers to home-built instruments. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing how this music evolves.

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