Interview: Rhys Chatham


Come summer Montreal becomes a parade of constant festivals.  Suoni per il Popolo (Sounds for the People) remains my favorite festival because it’s really an anti-festival; it’s a well-curated concert series that rewards attention and reflection.  The way that the taste of a good scotch unfolds on your palette, the space between concerts lets the experience linger and deepen, rather than being immediately drowned out in a flood of performers seeking your attention. A casual glance at the Suoni  programming might suggest a random grab-bag of weird music.  What united weird psychedelic folk from Vermont with free improv, or ethereal ambient melodies with classical composition?  At closer inspection Suoni is a nexus point in which these diverse players and scenes overlap.  Forget six-degrees of separation, the web connecting the artists of Suoni is dense and direct.  Rhys Chatham is a central node, his guitar orchestras the missing link connecting avant-garde classical music with wall of sound guitars.

Chatham was the first artistic director at the Kitchen, the premiere performing venue of New York’s “downtown scene” where minimalist composers mixed with free jazz loft parties to birth the No Wave scene that gave us Sonic Youth. Though he was deeply influenced by the circle of musicians around Minimalist godfather La Monte Young – Tony Conrad, Maryanne Amacher, Terry Riley, Elaine Radigue, Charlemagne Palestine, Jon Hassel- Chatham felt the need to find his own voice as a composer.

Chatham was destined to forge his own path.  “Steve Reich used his experience learning from drummers in Ghana to make his music; Philip Glass was working with a largely jazz instrumentation to make the process music he was doing; Charlemagne, La Monte and Terry were heavily influenced by Pandit Pran Nath.  So I asked myself, what influence could I have that would make sense for me that was outside of music coming out of a conservatory tradition.  In short, what was I inspired by?”  Classically trained as a flute player, Chatham had never so much as even been to a rock concert.  A friend suggested he come along to check out a show with him, an experience that truly changed his life.

“It was May 1976, it was at CBGBs, and it was the Ramones!  I had never seen anything like it, and I felt a lot in common with the music I heard that night.  True, it was more complex than what I was doing.  As a minimalist composer, I had been working with one chord – the Ramones were working with three – but I felt a lot in common with what they were doing, so the next day a friend of mine lent me a Fender Telecaster he wasn’t using and showed me how to play bar chords and a basic blues scale… and I was on my way!”rhys_chatham_Pic-1

Not long after that he debuted Guitar Trio, which has been recorded many times and is his signature tune. Fellow guitar maximalist Glenn Branca first played in Chatham’s group in those early days, as did several members of Sonic Youth, who picked up some lessons on how tremolo strumming and alternate tunings can create really interesting harmonics with overtones.  He’s now best know for his huge guitar pieces, like the 400 guitar Crimson Grail debuted at the basilica of Sacré-Coeur in Paris and the 200 guitar version mounted at NY’s Lincoln Center in 2008 and 2009.  The shear volume of so many guitars, which are specially tuned to increase the resonant overtones, is difficult to imagine, an incredibly beautiful cloud that can’t possibly be reduced to a recording.  Participants in these guitar armies include hosts of important musicians as well as amateur enthusiasts, including many Suoni performers, from Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo to Oso Blanco’s Ryan Sawyer.

In addition to his research into the E-string, Chatham’s also developed a unique vernacular on the trumpet, and his recent works for brass, such as The Bern Project, demonstrate that he’s not a one trick pony.   This was amply demonstrated during Suoni as Chatham joined eclectic Brooklyn rockers Oneida on stage at La Sala Rossa for a psychedelic romp, splitting composer duties between the two.  Chatham and Oneida were playing a few dates together before heading to Camber Sands, UK  for what may have been the last All Tomorrow’s Parties there.

Playing flute and trumpet through a series of delays and effects, Chatham brought a welcome sonic expanse to the swirling electronics and syncopated rhythms of Oneida.  It’s the guitar that he’s known for, however, and he didn’t disappoint, bringing it out early on and strumming like the world was about to end.  Though there were some unsteady moments, at it’s best the combined ensemble was hypnotic.  Chatham’s exuberance was obvious.  He clearly was having a blast playing with these younger musicians, an energy his band mates were feeding off.   “Every time I get together with Oneida, we end up making new material, we can’t help ourselves!  We don’t decide which pieces we are doing until the last moment, so while some of the pieces might be on more than one of our shows on this tour, each show is going to be a fairly unique experience, that’s one thing that everybody can count on!”

After ATP, Chatham’s already got a busy year ahead of him.  A new record on Northern Spy featuring an 80-piece brass ensemble called Harmonie de Pontarlier, as well as new piece for 6 electric guitars, electric bass and drums called “Harmonie du soir,” mimicking the arrangement of his classic Die Donnergötter.   You can also expect to hear more of Chatham’s trumpet playing on an upcoming record with Charlemagne Palestine.   But to experience “A Secret Rose,” his latest piece for 100 electric guitars, you’ll have to go to San Francisco next November, where Other Minds, a non-profit organization specializing in unusual contemporary music will be presenting the piece.  (That is unless we can find some group here in Quebec to lure Chatham back up here.)

Though he grew up in NY, Chatham has lived in Paris with his partner since 1987.  Montreal certainly can’t compare to either city in terms of scale, it does still nurture creativity in a way that the rent in those megacities doesn’t allow.  “I always enjoy visiting and playing in Montreal.  It’s a beautiful city, and that it is francophone is fun for me.  Despite living in France for nearly 25 years, I still speak French with an Anglo accent, which my French friends assure me is charming, but I think they are just humoring me!  Anyway, who cares? The main thing is to communicate.”

I guess we in Montreal could learn a thing or two from Rhys.  “Ici on gagne à jouer de la guitare?”


About Joseph Sannicandro

writer | traveler | sound organizer | contrarian | concerned citizen


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