Prairie Pop: Experimental rock pioneer Rhys Chatham gets Iowa City into the loop

Rhys Chatham

Gabe’s — Saturday, Nov. 5 at 10 p.m.
Tickets available here

Photo courtesy of Rhys Chatham
Photo courtesy of Rhys Chatham

Punk pioneers the Ramones stripped their music down to three chords, creating an austere wall of sound that brought rock and roll back to its basics. Composer Rhys Chatham, however, might be the only artist who was inspired to use more chords after discovering that punk band.

Deep in the thrall of minimalism, Chatham learned his craft in the early 1970s playing with paradigm-shifting artists La Monte Young and Tony Conrad (the latter of whom is the subject of a documentary, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, which is part of the Witching Hour Festival lineup along with a performance by Chatham himself). At the time, Chatham was completely immersed in the avant-garde world, and serving as Musical Director at the legendary New York performance space The Kitchen.

“Rhys,” his friend Peter Gordon asked him in May 1976, “have you ever in your life been to a rock concert?” He told his fellow composer no, admitting in the retelling, “I was 24 years old, never having been to a rock concert.” Gordon told him that there was a great club near where they lived in New York’s East Village, and he insisted that they should go to see “this really cool band playing there tonight.” The band was the Ramones, and the place was CBGB.

“Just at that time, I was in this place where I had to break away from my teachers,” Chatham said. Those teachers were composers like Young, who explored the possibilities of musical minimalism with his ensemble Theatre of Eternal Music, often performing a single tone for hours at a time. By the mid-1970s, Chatham had been wondering how he could make his own unique musical contributions. “That night, I found my answer. I saw these four skinny guys playing, and it was just so romantic to me. I had never seen anything like it.”

“The music was complex,” Chatham said of the Ramones, with a straight face. “I mean, I was playing one chord. They were playing three, but I felt something in common with that music. So the day afterwards I got an electric guitar, a Telecaster. A friend lent me one and showed me how to play barre chords. I knew I wanted to do something that would incorporate rock, and I knew I wanted to be part of the scene.”

“But my attitude was fairly arrogant, you know, ‘I’m a classical musician. I can count to four. This is going to be easy.’” He laughs. “And I tried playing in a punk band and it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t until I really got it in my body that I felt like I could make a piece that represented everything that I was,” Chatham said of his groundbreaking 1977 composition, Guitar Trio — a droning, dissonant epic that contains the core DNA found in Sonic Youth and dozens of other post-punk artists who followed.

“You know how you get these classical composers saying, ‘I want to use the raw energy of rock. My work is very influenced by Jimi Hendrix,’ and it’s such bullshit.” Chatham knew he could get away with performing Guitar Trio at The Kitchen, but the real test was performing that piece in CBGB and other punk venues. The shows in those clubs were a success, and his career course was set for the next three decades (“I’ve been working my way up to three chords for thirty years,” Chatham jokes).

That journey culminated in his 2005 piece, A Crimson Grail, originally commissioned by the city of Paris where he has lived for years. “I did a performance a while back at Lincoln Center for 200 electric guitars,” he said, recalling the American debut of A Crimson Grail. “After that performance I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do after 200 electric guitars? Do I do a thousand guitars?’ But I said, nah.” The logistics of corralling that many guitar amps, guitars and — egads! — actual musicians were a bit too much, so he went to work on a solo piece instead.

Chatham settled on trumpet, flute and guitar as the basis of the new piece, Pythagorian Dream, which was recently released by the British label Foom. During Witching Hour, on Nov. 5 at the Mill, he will perform Pythagorian Dream. This will be his third visit to Iowa City since 2007. In previous visits, Chatham performed with a small ensemble of guitarists, but this time he will be accompanying himself.

“I’ve been working with a looping system. It’s essentially three looping systems in one box,” he said. “What I do is set the first loop to eight seconds on the left channel and play a riff on one of the instruments that I play. And then I’ll go to the next loop on the right channel that is set to nine seconds, and play the same riff. And the third loop is on the center channel, and that’s 10 seconds.”

“What happens is you have this eight to nine to 10 ratio, so it doesn’t sound like a loop anymore,” said Chatham, explaining how each sound eventually fades out and is replaced by a new riff—a technique he compares to the work that experimental guitarist Robert Fripp did with Brian Eno on albums such as No Pussyfooting.

“It’s like an infinitely repeating melody. As soon as I get one loop in, I start on the next one.” Pythagorian Dream is a marvelous composition on record, but as with all of Chatham’s pieces, it needs to be heard in a live setting to get the full synapse-frying experience. Be prepared for a hazy, woozy aural dreamscape that puts the “Ambien” back in ambient music.

Kembrew McLeod is looking forward to Witching Hour, and is ready to cram his head full of art, music and ideas over the course of the festival’s two days. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 209.

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