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Clip: Rhys Chatham

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  • Carl Z.
    Chatham s noise-guitar excess is a success By
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 4, 2007

      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
      electric guitars.

      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

      Rhys Chatham

      When: 10 p.m. Thursday

      Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave.

      Price: $10; 773-276-3600
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