Rhys Chatham: Harmonie du Soir


Rhys Chatham performing in Richmond, CA 2013

Rhys Chatham performing in Richmond, CA 2013

Chatham’s new CD “Harmonie du Soir” on Northern Spy records was thoughtfully made available for sale at the ‘Secret Rose’ performance this past November. Of course I had to buy it but after that concert I found I needed time to digest the performance before I dare move on to listening to another of his deceptively simple sounding compositions. The CD consists of three compositions, Harmonie du Soir (2012), The Dream of Rhonabwy (2012) and a bonus track Drastic Classicism Revisited (1986/2012).  All the pieces represent aspects of the artist’s output which will be familiar to fans of his work.

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The first track Harmonie du Soir (after the poem of the same name by Charles Baudelaire) was premiered and subsequently recorded in France in 2012.  In his liner notes Chatham points out that he uses tunings like those used previously in An Angel Moves Too Fast to See (1986) and Crimson Grail (2007).  It reminds this listener of Die Dönnergetter (1986).  It employs the same configuration of 6 electric guitars, electric bass and drum kit.  It is not, however, a reworking of the 1986 piece but rather a new piece which developed from similar methods.  Harmonie clocks in at 22’26”, similar in length.  The comparison ends there.  The difference between Dönnergetter and Harmonie is more like the difference between a Beethoven middle string quartet and a late string quartet.  Same ensemble, similar gestures but an overall very different impact. Like all of Chatham’s guitar pieces this is best heard at a substantial volume level if you want to appreciate the harmonics which result from the tuning system he uses.  This is post-punk after all and the wall of sound is frequently an essential part of the piece.  It begins with a minimalist type repeating of a 2 note pattern punctuated after a few repeats by the drum kit and on to some droning harmonies aching for a melody in an insistent rhythm.  This moves on to a faster section which takes on not the dance-like character like he does in Die Dönnergetter, rather it is a sort of deconstruction.  It is consists of guitar tremolos and rolls on the drum kit and moves into a new somewhat pointillistic  guitar figure accompanied by a throbbing bass line and a steady rhythm on the drum kit.  This  is followed by a return to the music which opened the piece.  Clearly this is a composer whose work continues to develop and show variety.

The second piece is another with precedents in the composer’s previous compositional efforts.  This is essentially a piece for a wind and brass orchestra with percussion.  No strings, no guitars or bass.  It marks a return for Chatham to writing for and playing trumpet.  The piece was written for a 70 piece brass band called Harmonie de Pontarlier, named for the town of their origin. It is 20’26” in length and Rhys plays trumpet along with the band.  One is reminded of pieces like his Waterloo No. 2 (1981) which appeared on his CD “Die Dönnergetter”.  The composer takes his approach to writing for band but here expands into symphonic proportions.  According to the liner notes this was written as a soundtrack to a film.   After multiple listenings I came to hear this as though it were an homage to grand romantic symphonists like Bruckner or Mahler.  This is a briefer symphony than those ancestors would have written but the spirit is there if dressed in more contemporary guise.  The music relies on sustained tones and intervals which, like Chatham’s guitar pieces, produce cascades of harmonics, a mesmerizing experience.

The last piece is listed as being a “bonus track”.  It is Drastic Classicism Revisited and is a sort of reworking of Chatham’s earlier work Drastic Classicism from 1981.  It was originally written for a dance choreographed by Karole Armitage and was performed by the musician live on stage with the dancers.  Post-punk for modern dance.  At 9’36” it is the shortest track but well worth its inclusion on this beautifully produced disc. I can’t wait to hear more from the Northern Spy  (http://northernspyrecords.com/artist/rhys-chatham/) catalog.  All in all a great listening experience by this wonderful expatriate American composer.  I highly recommend it.

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Secret Rose Blooms: Rhys Chatham at the Craneway Pavilion


Craneway Pavilion

Craneway Pavilion

On Sunday November 17th I attended one of the most unusual concerts in my experience.  The performance of Rhys Chatham‘s ‘A Secret Rose’ at the beautiful Craneway Pavilion in Richmond was produced by Other Minds and the eclectic bay area new music bloodhound Charles Amirkhanian.

Charles Amirkhanian speaking briefly to introduce the performance.

Charles Amirkhanian speaking briefly to introduce the performance.

Rhys Chatham is an American musician and composer who has spent much of his career in living in France.  He was a part of the New York post-punk downtown music scene in the 70s working with musicians like Glenn Branca, La Monte Young and Charlemagne Palestine.OMChathfinal0131

English: Rhys Chatham at Islington Mill, Salford

Sunday’s concert was the west coast première of this piece which is scored for 100 electric guitars, bass guitar and drum kit.  It is sufficiently complex as to require at least 3 conductors in addition to the principal conductor (Chatham).  In this respect it brings to mind the work of Charles Ives and Henry Brant.  But this music resembles neither of these composers, at least not precisely so.  Beginning with his work with drones and harmonics Chatham has developed compositional techniques and honed them to a point of mastery.  The multi-movement work was microtonal, polymetric, aleatory/improvisatory, dissonant, melodic and enthralling.  Did I mention that it was loud?  No?  Well loudness may be the most obvious aspect of this music but that loudness is organic to the music.  The volume paired with the very live acoustics of the cavernous performance space elicited a wide range of harmonics which, through Chatham’s skillful techniques evoked a variety of timbres.  (Complementary ear plugs were provided.  I took a pair but did not use them.)  I heard guitars, certainly and drums and bass.  But at times it sounded like there were brass instruments and even vocals.  (I swear I heard words being sung.)

Craneway Pavilion is a 45,000 square foot former Ford assembly plant that was remodeled for use as a performance space and conference center.  Its size and waterfront location remind me of Chicago’s ‘Navy Pier’ on  the lakefront.  Craneway is on San Franciso Bay and faces south with a view of the bay bridge eastern span as well as views of San Francisco.  The appearance is that of a large loft space with metal beams and a general industrial appearance.  Its floor, walls and ceiling are surfaces that are highly reflective of sound and therefore ideal for this performance.  As promised in the promotional materials the full moon rose in the east over the bay before the performance began.

Full Moon rising over the bay just before the performance.

Full Moon rising over the bay just before the performance.

Looking toward the seating and the stage in the performance space at Craneway Pavilion.

Looking toward the seating and the stage in the performance space at Craneway Pavilion.

Chatham’s music was not about complexity for the sake of complexity.  His compositional strategies required the complex goings on we heard on Sunday.  The room itself became a sounding chamber itself amplifying, canceling and propagating the swirling harmonics that resulted from specialized tunings in addition to the other techniques mentioned.OMChathfinal0101

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The multiple movements ranged from drone-like structures to more rhythmically complex sections and even melody.  Yes, melody. Chatham writes catchy melodies and motives that sound like they’ve been taken from one rock album or another.  Sonic gestures evoked impressions of Ozzie Osbourne, Eric Clapton, and many others depending on your personal listening experiences.  This music was ritual as much as expository.  His techniques were not limited to rock music but extended to free jazz and classical techniques as well.  Taken as a whole the piece was a multi-movement symphony, each movement sustaining its own argument in service of the whole.  For the finale Chatham set aside his conductor’s baton and picked up his guitar, not for a solo as one might expect in an ordinary concert, but to participate in the ecstasy of performance.

Chatham conducting.

Chatham conducting.

It is tempting, if a bit cliché, to suggest that this ritual music stirred the ghosts of the past.  While standing in the ticket line one gentleman said to me, “I walked out of a Jimi Hendrix concert in 1967 because it was too loud”.  Almost immediately someone else said, “I was at that concert…”.  Perhaps the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Pretty Things were stirred from their slumbers.  They were certainly evoked.  I don’t know if the aforementioned gentleman ultimately stayed for the performance but I suspect he probably did, maybe in honor of Jimi.

Chatham playing guitar in the finale of 'A Secret Rose'

Chatham playing guitar in the finale of ‘A Secret Rose’

The crowd was several hundred strong ranging in age from about 5 to 85.  Most appeared to be enjoying this loud and driving rhythmic composition.  Some rocked or nodded to the beat.  Some sat entranced and/or perplexed but attentive.  At the end there was a standing ovation and, from Mr. Chatham, a welcome encore featuring seriously de-tuned guitars.

The encore piece was also captivating and inventive though certainly not as long.   Chatham’s music is not easy to categorize or describe.  Even having heard a fair amount of his music on recordings over the years I could not have anticipated what I heard at this concert.  I now understand how some music cannot be adequately represented even by our best recording technology.

I’m not sure of the significance of the title but it does bring to mind William Butler Yeats’ book, ‘The Secret Rose’.  Its stories steeped in Irish mythology are introduced by an opening poem which reads in part:

 

Far of, most secret, and inviolate

Rose,

Enfold me in my hour of hours; where

those

Who sought thee at the Holy Sepulchre,

Or in the wine-vat, dwell beyond the stir

And tumult of defeated dreams; and deep

Among pale eyelids heavy with the sleep

Men have named beauty.

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