Clip: Rhys Chatham
Chatham's noise-guitar excess is a success
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published February 2, 2007
Rhys Chatham's name may not be widely known outside of art-music
circles, but he is one of noise rock's founding fathers. Without him,
there would be no Sonic Youth, no Jesus and Mary Chain, no My Bloody
On Thursday at the Empty Bottle, the composer will reprise his
ground-breaking 1977 work "Guitar Trio" with his collaborator David
Daniell and an eight-piece ad-hoc group of Chicago musicians:
Tortoise's John McEntire, Doug McCombs and Jeff Parker, plus Josh
Abrams, Ben Vida, Adam Vida, Todd Rittmann and Rob Lowe.
It should be an extraordinary night, with eight guitars ringing out
over a rhythm section, and the slides of visual artist Robert Longo as
a backdrop. "Guitar Trio" was originally conceived for three guitars,
but Chatham has since expanded it to include at least six guitars and
as many as 24, to achieve the series of celestial overtones triggered
by the reverberations of an E string. Though the composition is
carefully plotted, a few subtle inflections in how the guitarists
strum the strings can shift the mood and drastically alter the
harmonics. If everything's clicking, listeners may think they're
hearing voices or instruments that aren't in the room.
"That is the ideal," Chatham says. "If we get the [sound of a] choir
of human voices, then we know we're doing something right. It's one of
the verbal instructions I give to the musicians: `Listen for the vocal
choir. If you get that sound, whatever you're doing, keep doing it.'"
In the late '60s, Chatham was studying electronic music at New York
University and working as a piano and harpsichord tuner for such
luminaries as Glenn Gould. His day job triggered a fascination with
overtones, and he began scoring minimalist classical pieces that would
exploit these otherworldly harmonics, first with gongs and later with
In loft spaces and art galleries in Manhattan, lines were being
blurred between "art music" and rock, classical and jazz, Western and
non-Western music. Then punk entered the mix. Chatham, already steeped
in the experimental rock music created by LaMonte Young, Tony Conrad
and John Cale in the years before the Velvet Underground, was blown
away by the Ramones. By the late '70s, he was working regularly with
electric guitars and rock musicians, and playing rock clubs such as
CBGB and Max's Kansas City.
"I thought it was bull to make a piece that was influenced by rock
music and just play it in art spaces," Chatham says. "If people liked
us, they threw beer bottles at us that were still full. If they
didn't, you got the empties. It was a real acid test, but through it I
managed to find my voice in that context."
His bands from that era became a training ground for the cream of New
York's no-wave and noise scenes, which blended the experimental
tunings, harmonics and composing ideas of the avant-garde with the
visceral punch of rock. Among the musicians who performed Chatham's
pieces were future Sonic Youth members Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and
Kim Gordon; Robert Poss and Susan Stenger, who went on to form Band of
Susans; and Page Hamilton, the founder of Helmet.
Chatham himself became a notorious figure in the Lower East Side
scene, with his volatile stage persona and wall-of-noise performances.
"I hadn't started out with the intention of invoking the time-hallowed
rock tradition of aurally assaulting an audience," he wrote in the
liner notes to the box set "An Angel Moves Too Fast to See: Selected
Works 1971-1989" (Table of the Elements), "but I gradually grew
comfortable with the idea."
The composer is only slightly more sedate nowadays, and he remains a
towering figure among six-string aficionados. He recently scored a
piece for no less than 400 guitars. It was performed over a 12-hour
period at a church in Paris, where he has been living since 1987. "I
told the rector [at the church] that we could take a half-hour break
so people could pray," Chatham says with a laugh. "I'm not sure how
much praying was actually done, but it was definitely a spiritual
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave.
Price: $10; 773-276-3600