Other Minds Lifts the Veil on Rhys Chatham's Grand Secret

Jeff Kaliss on November 11, 2013
A Secret Rose

If conjoining genres can be risky music business, you’d better hope it’s good for business, as well. That’s how Charles Amirkhanian, artistic director of San Francisco’s Other Minds, is regarding his organization’s presentation next week of an ensemble formed from the stuff of rock ’n’ roll: one hundred electric guitars, partnered by a drummer and a bassist. It’s the West Coast premiere of Rhys Chatham’s A Secret Rose, at Richmond’s stadium-sized Craneway Pavilion.

“I’ve noted that some of the people who’ve contributed to us over the years, and are classical music patrons, also love rock,” says Amirkhanian. “And they think it’s very interesting that we’re doing this.”

Chatham (whose Welsh given name is pronounced “Reese”) is a good bet to appeal to fans of the new music generally showcased by Other Minds, as well as to rockers, because his own career path has meandered through multiple genres without confining him in any. “I came out of a completely classical background, conservatory-trained, and my first instrument was the virginal. I was an early-music person,” Chatham confided during a trip to San Francisco in June of this year, to visit the venue and to initiate local recruitment of the guitarists.

“When I was at NYU, I’d studied with Morton Subotnick, and in his studio I met Charlemagne Palestine, Ingram Marshall,” and others, continues Chatham, who’s now 61 and a resident of Paris.

I was this ‘nice’ composer doing post-serialist pieces, and I hated anything that consisted of major triads and tonality. The more atonal it was, the better. Then I went to a concert in 1969, and it was Terry Riley, Rainbow in Curved Air. I realized that there was something going on that I had never heard before — David Rosenblum on violin, with a drone in the background, and Terry with his two Revox tape recorders and playing soprano saxophone. I walked in a post-serialist, and came out as a minimalist.

In Subotnick’s studio, Chatham had encountered Charlemagne Palestine, “who was working with music of long duration. Back then, in the late ’60s, it was in the air, it was the era of psychedelia and expanded consciousness, and sometimes I expanded mine, with a little help from my friends, and the use of completely natural biodegradable plants. Also, to support myself, I was a harpsichord tuner, and I developed an interest in working in harmonics. I realized it was possible to do music with drones and just listening to timbres.”

“I went to a concert in 1969, and it was Terry Riley, Rainbow in Curved Air. I walked in a post-serialist, and came out as a minimalist.” – Composer Rhys Chatham

Chatham’s exploration of drone expression was encouraged by another composition teacher, the minimalist composer La Monte Young, who also recommended him to his own teacher, Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath. A quite different influence was brought to New York, and to Chatham, by a pair of composers from Oakland’s Mills College.

Peter Gordon and Jill Kroesen were doing this weird thing of incorporating rock elements into their pieces, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I’d never been to a rock concert in my life! But I played flute in Peter’s rock band, The Love of Life Orchestra. And we were walking home from a rehearsal when he said, ‘We have a nice club in the neighborhood called CBGB’s, why don’t you come down?’ It was May of 1975, and it was the Ramones, these four guys with these strange electric instruments. It was romantic, in that visually it was very powerful, and they were playing a music that I felt a relation to. They were playing with three chords, but it was minimalist enough! I was thinking, there’s Steve [Reich] with the gamelan music, Philip [Glass] working with saxophones — I’m gonna work with guitars! And that’s how it all started.

Turning to a friend for help and for the loan of an unused Telecaster, Chatham learned the rudiments of electric guitar and found himself among “people who were incorporating noise into the sound palate of rock in a way that we, the conservatory-trained composers, had been doing for a long time, but putting it into a rock context, which had never been done before. And eventually this scene, thanks to Brian Eno, became known as No Wave.”

A Secret Rose

Chatham was asked by a couple of artist friends to serve as the first music director of The Kitchen, an alternate art space in Lower Manhattan, where he initiated weekly concerts. He also developed his first composition for his new instrument, Guitar Trio, involving a couple of guitar-wielding friends, Nina Canal and Glenn Branca, to whom “I explained what harmonics were, and overtones, and they took to it like ducks to water.”

Initially, we’d do it in art galleries or lofts, which was ‘safe’ for me, but I didn’t consider the piece finished until we played in a rock context, at CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City.

It was a time when punk was at its height, and if they liked you, they would throw beer cans at you. So you can imagine what they did if they didn’t like you. I was already viewed with suspicion in that scene, because I was music director of The Kitchen, in the heart of SoHo, so I was considered too arty.

But when he introduced Guitar Trio at Max’s, “everyone came out of it smiling! People from my SoHo scene were hearing it as a new, radical strain of minimalism, the others were hearing it as ‘noise rock’, and they were both right.

“There’s no fuzz pedals or reverb or phasers, no trickery. What you’re hearing is all the wood and metal, and the inner connectedness of the instrument.” – Guitarist Andrew Burnes

Chatham married a Frenchwoman and moved with her to Paris in 1989, where he created his first hundred-guitar piece, An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, which has since been recorded and performed worldwide, as have several of his other compositions. He began to develop a widespread, ardent fan base, particularly among progressive guitarists, some of who will be flying from as far away as Europe and South America to be part of next week’s assembly in Richmond.

Andrew Burnes, raised on Lynyrd Skynrd and the Allman Brothers, will be coming from Atlanta. He was turned on to Chatham by the manager of his college radio station when he was a student at Georgia Tech, in the early ’90s. “I don’t know if I’d ever considered the idea of getting a huge number of guitar players in one place at one time,” reflects Burnes, “unless you’d see in a newspaper, ‘New Guinness World Record Set: 200 People Play “Smoke On the Water’.”

Chatham, by contrast, was no gimmick; his massed guitars “sounded like some other instrument, some kind of giant synthesizer or like a big string orchestra.” Burnes was finally able to connect with the composer through a longtime friend, David Daniell, one of the designated “section leaders” for Chatham’s large ensembles.

Tapped for an Atlanta performance of Guitar Trio, Burnes met the composer and found him “extremely friendly, really easy to talk to. But when you’re in a rehearsal with him and trying to work the music out, he’s really stern and hardcore; he doesn’t have any time for nonsense. He’s really trying to find all the tonalities of a guitar. You’re responsible for exploring those aspects, how where you drag the pick across the strings will affect what kind of overtones are developed. These are things guitar players know, but we don’t worry about ’em much.” Burnes went on to perform Chatham’s A Crimson Grail, which can engage between 100 and 400 guitarists, both at New York’s Lincoln Center and in Liverpool.

Putting Out the Call

Last June, Other Minds started recruiting for A Secret Rose, making use of its own website and of local media. “We couldn’t accept beginners, they had to be at least serious amateurs,” says Chatham. “We weren’t gonna audition people, but we had to look carefully at what equipment they had,” including electric guitars and access to a basic amplifier. (“There’s no fuzz pedals or reverb or phasers, no trickery,” notes Burnes. “Because [Chatham] limits it to just the clean guitar sound, what you’re hearing is all the wood and metal, and the inner connectedness of the instrument.”)

“I’m hoping that some of the [indie rock] people we haven’t been able to sign to do things with us, will become part of our regular, annual groove after this.” – Charles Amirkhanian, Other Minds

“About a week after we announced, we were shocked,” recounts Charles Amirkhanian. “We had 150 people apply, a lot of them from Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.” Among those chosen, about 20, including those from overseas, had performed with Chatham in other cities.

Oakland resident Carolyn Keddy responded to an ad in the East Bay Express, and was “very surprised” to be chosen for the gig, because “who would want a punk rock guitarist like me?” She’d become aware of Chatham through his acknowledged influence on the early alternative rock band Sonic Youth. Keddy was sent the score of A Secret Rose, and began rehearsing it with Michael Millett, another of the selectees. “We have our own style we’re putting into it,” she says, “so it’ll be interesting to get together with Rhys and see what he wants us actually to play.”

Secret Rose

The composer will work on Thursday of next week with his three section leaders, who, in turn, will rehearse each of their sections on Friday, at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. “Section One, you could say, is like the first violins,” according to Chatham. “And Section Two is maybe the violas, Section Three the cellos. There are three discrete lines [in the score], but within each section, we have all three lines, so that the music can be heard immediately. I’ve written five discrete riffs of 16 bars for each of the three sections to play, and the section leaders will cue the riffs, but I’ll be conducting the piece throughout. There are five movements in the piece, and one of them is Guitar Trio. Another of the movements is multimetric: one of the groups is in 5/4 [time], another in 7/4, another in 9/4, and when you put them together, they make these complex melodies that are constantly phasing. And it’s really beautiful.”

In the process of gathering to form what Chatham refers to as “a hundred points of sound,” guitarists will have the chance to bond, musically and otherwise, in a massed arrangement unfamiliar to them. “It’s something every violinist knows: the feeling of being swept up with the orchestral urgency of a Tchaikovsky symphony,” says Amirkhanian. “Guitarists never get to play in this kind of ensemble. But this will be so much like that; they’ll get involved in the groove of the music, and get carried away.”

A Secret Rose

On the social level, “There are five- or six-hour rehearsals, but you don’t play for all that time,” reports Burnes. “So you have plenty of time to sit and chat with your neighbors — as long as Rhys isn’t in the room, because there’s no talking when he’s around. It usually starts out with ‘Where are you from and what kind of stuff do you play?,’ because we’re coming from every musical direction. And some of the guitar players have gone on to benefit professionally from these connections.” In matters of the heart, Chatham cites the case of a couple of guitarists whose courtship during rehearsals led to marriage and parenthood.

Amirkhanian thinks A Secret Rose might also prompt other kinds of unions, helpful to Other Minds. “I’m hoping that some of the people we haven’t been able to sign to do things with us, because they’re just too well-known for operating in the indie rock field, will become part of our regular, annual groove after this,” he says. “It’d be fun, because those people are not ignorant of new music, though most of the new-music people are ignorant of indie rock. So it’ll be a nice crossover, in the way that in the past we’ve had people who have stretched the boundaries of [both] jazz and world music. It’s kind of a loosening up of the ‘composer’ image we’ve cultivated.”

But will the loosening involve a tightening of Other Minds’ purse strings? The James Irvine Foundation is covering about half the cost of the project, which includes the rental of Craneway Pavilion and fitting it out with a four-tiered stage, acoustics, and lighting, as well as the rental of rehearsal space. “I had hoped to raise [additional] money from some local corporations who’d want visibility in front of a thousand people [the anticipated audience], but I’ve had no luck whatsoever,” laments Amirkhanian. “So we’re still seeking more underwriters. We also have a small Kickstarter campaign of our own to try to bridge some of the gap.” And in the spirit of stadium rock shows, there’s “merch” available in the form of designer T-shirts, at the gig and also online.

Amirkhanian is also looking for a videographer to record the event, which will take place under a full moon, stunningly visible through Craneway’s massive glass walls and roof. “This is an unknown for us, but I do have some confidence we can do it,” he confides. “We think it’s going to be the sensation of the season, if not the decade.”

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