TOFU AND WHISKEY Rock 'n' roll guitarists do not typically have the opportunity to play with full, live orchestras. Though legendary avant-punk composer Rhys Chatham has long challenged that notion.
"I thought it would be nice to write a piece for a literal orchestra of guitars, both for its unique sonority, as well as for the social element of massing so many guitarists together, to give them the experience of playing in an orchestra, the way classical musicians do," the 61-year-old writes from his home in France.
His first piece for multiple electric guitars was back in '77 — Guitar Trio — and by '84 he upped the number to six. But this is where the electric guitar orchestras of Chatham took a huge leap: 100 guitars, wailing, riffing, battling, rising in unison and twisting on their own windy paths.
Since then, Chatham has launched multiple pieces based on 100 to 400 electric guitarists, including An Angel Moves Too Fast to See (1989), and A Crimson Grail (2005). His newest piece, A Secret Rose, is back to 100 and will have its Bay Area premiere Sun/17 (7pm, $10–$75. Craneway Pavilion, 1414 Harbour, Richmond. otherminds.org).
The difference? A Secret Rose was a piece intended to be learned quickly, without placing "unreasonable demands" on the participating musicians' time.
"An added plus as far as ease of mounting the piece is concerned is that I wrote the piece for guitars in a standard tuning, so the musicians can simply arrive with the strings they normally use, cutting down on the time it takes to restring the guitars, not to mention the purchasing of special strings for 100 guitarists!"
Like much of his other work, A Secret Rose is informed by Chatham's strong connection to the roots of the '77 punk scene, a world the minimalist composer cracked open in his early 20s. He says at the time he was trying to find his voice as a composer.
He grew up in New York City playing his father's harpsichord, which he first picked up at age six. By age eight he was playing clarinet, and at 12, he switched to flute. "Luckily, my flute teacher was a contemporary music specialist, so she taught me Density 21.5 by Varèse, Sonatine for flute and piano by Boulez, and many others."
In his early 20s, he first became entranced with the burgeoning loft jazz scene in NYC.
"I switched to tenor saxophone because the fingering is almost the same as flute, also because it was louder."
There, he studied alongside the greats, including La Monte Young — he even sang in his group, the Theater of Eternal Music — along with Terry Riley. He was an early member of Tony Conrad's the Dream Syndicate, and played alongside Charlemagne Palestine.
Around this time though, there was the punk awakening. Everything changed with an electrifying Ramones concert in 1976 at CBGB.
"I had never seen anything like it in my life. Wow! I felt that I had something in common with their music. I mean, as a hardcore minimalist composer, I was only using one chord in the music I was doing at the time — the Ramones were using three — but I loved the repetition, and that's when I decided to embrace this music into my own."
He dropped the sax and picked up a Fender Telecaster guitar, and he was soon playing minimal music in a rock context at Max's Kansas City and CBGB.
The classic Fender is still integral to his performances more than three decades later. For A Secret Rose, each guitarist will bring her or his own electric guitar. Says Chatham, "The piece was written for a Fender kind of sound...so we ask the guitarists to bring guitars that have a Fender type of sound."