With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
When I was in my 20s and 30s, I was politely familiar with the work of my colleagues. These days, I find that I am politely unfamiliar with their work. I make an effort from time to time to keep up with what’s going on, and of course I read about what’s happening in the press, but I’ll tell you what the problem is: I usually spend all day in my studio listening to or thinking about the music I’m working on. The last thing I want to do when I get home is listen to more music. I find I’d rather read a book. So that’s what I do.
That being said, I had another thought… I’m waiting for the next big thing to happen. I mentioned earlier that the invention of the S-900 changed everything. When rap first came out, when drum n bass first came out, it was so fresh. The drone metal movement was fresh. Since then, I’ve heard lots of interesting things and new developments in the context of the live concerts and festivals that I go to, but I haven’t heard anything truly revolutionary, I guess the last thing I heard that took me completely by surprise was Sleep’s Dopesmoker. Again, lots of good music since then, but all I’m saying is I’m waiting for the next revolutionary thing. A sound that comes out that no one has ever heard before and that gets everyone’s blood running hot!
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I feel that improvisation is simply another way of composing, so the strict answer to your question would be that I don’t separate them at all. However, I think that what is really being asked here is how strictly do I separate improvising and fully notated music, no? In any case, that’s what I’ll go into here.
I feel comfortable with free improvisation and improvisation over chord changes and have worked extensively in these areas over the years. However, these days, in a live performance context, I prefer to work from scores, whether there is improvisation involved or not. While there are elements of improvisation in my work, particularly in the solos or trio work that I do, we work off a scores with strict timings as to what happens and when.
In my large group pieces I find that everything needs to be notated, otherwise the sound becomes confused. I once did Guitar Trio with 100 guitarists. I played the characteristic rhythm of G3 on my guitar, and the other 99 guitarists were free to improvise rhythms in counterpoint to what I was doing. The result was a sonic mess. Having 100 different rhythmic patterns going on at once is certainly a specific sound, but it is a sound that becomes boring quite rapidly. After this initial experiment, what I ended up doing was dividing the 100 guitarists into three groups, giving each group a number of fully notated rhythmic riffs to play. Each section had a leader who would determine which riff to play next based on what else was going on at the moment. So it is in methods such as these that I combine elements of improvisation with fully notated music.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
I enjoy working in antiphonal situations. A Crimson Grail was a site-specific piece composed especially for the Sacré-Cœur cathedral in Paris. It has a reverberation delay time of almost 15-seconds, so using drums in this context was out of the question. I decided to surround the audience with guitars and pass the sound around them, north to south, east to west, in a clockwise fashion, every way I could think of really.
In order to do this, I needed to surround the audience with guitars, and Sacré-Cœur is a large space. I thought that I would need 400 guitars to do this, so that’s what I called for. In the end though, I “only” got 126 guitars, which turned out to be fine! When we did the piece a few years later at Lincoln Center in New York. It was outdoors and the space was much larger, so I upped the number to 200 guitars and added 8 bass players, located in the north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west and northwest corners of the space.
Sometimes I would have a simple rhythmic motif played and have it passed around the space. Sometimes it would come from the North, at other times from the south. There are many possibilities when working antiphonally.
What's your perspective on the relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, video art and cinema, for example – and for you and your work, how does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?
One of my first composition teachers was Morton Subotnick, who was heavily into what in the 1960s was called “multi-media”. He often collaborated with light artists, filmmakers and choreographers. When Morton taught at NYU he was part of its Intermedia Department, which I was a member of as a student. Inspired by Morton’s lead, I teamed up with other NYU students who were filmmakers or choreographers, which is how I got my start working with artists of other media. Later on, in another context, I met video artist pioneers Woody and Steina Vasukla, who were among the first to work with electronic image. I started making sound scores to their videos, adding electronic music to their electronic images. Eventually, my work with them lead to them asking me to produce concerts at their new alternate art space in downtown Manhattan, the Kitchen.
Within the context of video or film, music often functions simply as support of the visual aspect. Indeed that is its role in most commercial films. The music needs to support and underline the emotional content of the image. What I liked about working with the Vasulkas is that music played an equal role to the image. The image itself was abstract, and music of course is ethereal, so the music and image took on equal importance. I have found the same is true of choreography. Dancers’ bodies are so fragile, they need all the support they can get, and music usually plays the same role in dance that it does in film, it plays a supportive role. And this is often a good thing. I’ve certainly worked this way with choreographers. However, there is no reason why music has to play only a supportive role in the framework of dance. It can be equal or more powerful if the choreography is up to it. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Prokoviev’s Cinderella comes to mind. When the choreographer Karole Armitage and I premiered Drastic Classicism in 1982, she had powerful dancers, they were mostly in Merce Cunningham’s company, and I had four electric guitars, bass and drums playing at full volume in a highly dissonant tuning. It worked out great!
What's your view on the role and function of music as well as the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today - and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
Most people need music as much as they need to eat, to make love, to get their teeth checked, to see a doctor or therapist, and so on. Musicians generally love to make music, but they equally need to eat, make love, have a place to live, see a doctor and/or therapist, and so on.
For people who go to live music events, well, they are supporting music. These days, a lot of people listen to music by streaming it. Apple and the other streaming companies needs to start paying artists serious royalties for using our art, they are taking too big a cut at present. One artist I read about had his song streamed 300,000 times and got a royalty check of something like two thousand dollars. Pathetic! The industry needs to change. The task of music artists today is to insist upon the necessary changes in the industry, rather than passively accepting the status quo.
Listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
For me, it depends on the context. Guitar Trio (G3) is a piece I made to be played by rock musicians in a rock context. When we play, the music gets better if the audience is yelling and hollering and jumping up and down. When they do this, it makes us, the musicians, jump up and down as well and it makes us play better. We feed of the energy of the audience and in turn give it back by playing harder and with more felling, it becomes a kind of feedback loop.
When we play G3 in a concert hall where everyone is sitting down, it’s much harder for us, even if the audience is paying attention. It’s harder for us precisely because we don’t have the physical energy manifesting from the public the way we do for rock audiences. So instead of the energy going two ways, it’s all coming from us, which means we have to work harder to pull it off.
On the other hand, for my current solo A Pythagorean Dream, I am reading off a score and the music is not about contact and interaction with the audience the way Guitar Trio is. When I play Pythagorean Dream, I have to be completely inside the music to pull things off. I have to draw the audience inside my bubble, rather than going outwards to them, the way I would do with my rock-influenced pieces. For this reason, Pythagorean Dream is best heard in a concert hall or gallery space where people can sit down.
Reaching audiences usually involves reaching out to the press and possibly working with a PR company. What's your perspective on the promo system? In which way do music journalism and PR companies change the way music is perceived by the public?
For a music scene to thrive in a city, I’ve always thought that three ingredients are needed: For new music to develop, we need places to play that pay decently, we need journalists to get the word out, and we need cheap rent. We need cheap rent because if rent is too high, as it is in NY, London and Paris at present, it means young musicians have to create new music in their spare time because they are too busy working day jobs to pay the bills. It really holds things back.
Music criticism is older than even art criticism, it goes way back and has a long tradition. Critics also come up with handles that make it easier to define music. The term “minimalism”, for example, was invented by a critic. A lot of composers never liked the term, but it certainly makes it easier to know which record bin to put the composer’s records in! I have no problems with labels. Thank god for terms like black metal, death metal, doom metal, thrash metal or drone metal. Of course one has to hear the music and judge it on its own merits, but having the label helps me to know whether I’m going to be interested or not. For example, if a critic tells me that the subject is folk-rock, I’d probably give it a pass, but if it’s said to be acid house or deep house, I just might give it a listen.
The point is, I often depend on journals, specialized or not, to let me know what’s going on out there, so hooray for music critics! They get the word out. Music critics, they’re your friends! Even when they have less than kind things to say about you, because as the saying goes, “any publicity is good publicity!”
Do you have a musical vision that you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons – or an idea of what music itself could be beyond its current form?
I’ve been very lucky in this regard. Back in 1988, I had a dream to make a piece for 100 electric guitars, which I was able to realize the very next year, in 1989. We mounted the piece, An Angel Moves Too Fast to See in Lille France, and toured it all over the world during the 90s'. Today, there are a number of composers working with this wonderful instrumentation.
Rhys Chatham's website is http://www.rhyschatham.net/ and you can check out his new record Pythagorean Dream here https://foommusic.bandcamp.com/album/rhys-chatham-pythagorean-dream