The implicitly condescending appellation “Guitar God” has been perhaps somewhat jealously applied to virtuosic guitarists in various popular rock bands. Whether your taste runs to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen you cannot discount the technical skill of these and so many other rock/pop guitar players.
Rock and pop artists have distanced themselves from the classical music circles who initially disdained and even condemned their work. But that did not and does not mean that they eschew classical music. Many were initially schooled in classical performance technique and/or were provided a favorable view of some classical masterpieces.
Ian Anderson’s group ‘Jethro Tull’ utilized a movement from a Bach Lute Suite (taking a few rhythmic liberties) in their piece, ‘Bouree’. Roger McGuinn of ‘The Byrds’ acknowledged channeling Bach when he created the now instantly recognizable intro to their version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man‘. Rick Wakeman, keyboardist of the band ‘Yes’ as well as a solo artist peppers his work with snippets of classical melodies no doubt learned in his piano lessons that served him so well. Keith Emerson of ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer‘ went as far as to write a piano concerto.
From the classical side of the aisle there have been composers who wanted to utilize some of the techniques and ideas of rock and pop within the context of their classical training. Stanley Silverman wrote an opera titled, ‘Elephant Steps’ which was championed by the ever eclectic Michael Tilson Thomas. (This piece deserves at least a second hearing and I hope that Columbia will some day release it as a CD.)
Leonard Bernstein, no stranger to popular musical theater, embraced rock and blues including such ensembles alongside the orchestra in major works such as his ‘Mass’. Similar, though less successful collaborations occurred when symphony orchestras were added to the production of albums by the likes of ‘Deep Purple and, more notably, ‘The Moody Blues’.
Many such collaborations have been and occasionally continue to be attempted but the end result most often appears to keep the division between classical and ‘pop’ rather separate. That is not necessarily a bad thing either. Philip Glass‘ work appears to have been pretty heavily informed by rock music. He played piano in a couple of tracks on one of the New York punk rock band, ‘Polyrock’. The driving rhythms of rock are endemic to much of Glass’ music. Steve Reich’s work as a jazz drummer seems to be evidenced in his intricate use of rhythm patterns in his music.
So while ‘pop’ musicians incorporated some of their classical training and influences and ‘classical’ musicians acknowledged and collaborated with their pop counterparts the classical aspects remained for better or worse more decorative than organic. Jazz became an organic part of many classical works starting in the 1920s. And, as mentioned before, rock influences have certainly found an organic role in the music of Philip Glass and, more recently in the music of Michael Daugherty.
Along came Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Jeffery Lohn and their various collaborators. These musicians with strong roots in rock music began to explore what has become, in this writer’s opinion, the epitome of the organic implementation of classical music into the ‘pop’ medium. Using primarily guitars (in ever-increasing numbers) as well as drum kits and the usual accoutrements of rock bands these musicians began writing music that is definitely not pop or rock (neither does it actually resemble classical at times).
Branca who had worked with Jeffrey Lohn began writing his Symphonies in the 1970s. They now number 12 or 13. Working with multiples of guitars, modified keyboard instruments, alternate tunings and basking in the glory of loud he has created an arguably classical set of works grown out of clearly rock/pop beginnings.
Rhys Chatham, a trumpet player initially, worked with Branca and Lohn for a while and began to develop his own classical path within the rock ethic. Beginning with Guitar Trio (1977). And continuing into increasingly massive multiple guitar works he has created another distinct set of works that are clearly not rock or pop. He does not use the classical form titles like ‘symphony’ favored by Branca but these pieces like, ‘An Angel Moves Too Fast to See’ and ‘Crimson Grail‘ feature large numbers of guitarists which by necessity must be locally sourced. Even without classical form or titles these are clearly not pop or rock pieces. And perhaps they can’t be called classical either but they are certainly of symphonic proportion.
Both Branca’s and Chatham’s works have been recorded and I highly recommend the recordings. But these musics cannot be fully captured by current recording technology. The acoustics of the space in which they’re performed and the volume levels which elicit their own effects are best experienced live because of the volume levels and also because of the overtones which are elicited by the instruments in the performing space and more audible because of the overall volume and the characteristics of the listening space.
Such a rare opportunity awaits Bay Area audiences this November when Rhys Chatham comes to town under auspices of ‘Other Minds’ and the delightfully insightful and eclectic producer Charles Amirkhanian. They have engaged the architecturally and sonically fascinating space of the Crane Pavilion in Richmond (a few miles north of Berkeley and Oakland) with sweeping views if San Francisco Bay and enlisted many locally sourced musicians to produce the west coast premiere of Chatham’s “A Secret Rose” (2011) for 100 guitarists.
Tickets can be purchased through the Other Minds website (www.otherminds.org).
This is a rare opportunity to hear a uniquely different music in a visually stunning and acoustically interesting space. Hope to see you there.
- Rhys Chatham Interview (avantmusicnews.com)
- Cabaret evenings in Chatham showcase talented perfomers (barnstablepatriot.com)
- Electric Guitars Amp Up New Classical Music (wnyc.org)