Rhys Chatham, on an ‘absolutely perfect’ performance of Guitar Trio in Raleigh
A highlight among highlights at this year’s Hopscotch Music Festival, a rare performance of Rhys Chatham‘s landmark 1977 composition Guitar Trio, featuring an All-Star team of Triangle musicians (plus Chatham, who lives in Paris, Chicago-based David Daniell and Nashville’s WIlliam Tyler), left this viewer spellbound.
I was familiar with the piece, thanks to the 2008′s wonderful Guitar Trio Is My Life! collection, which contains 10 performances of the piece. But nothing could have prepared me for the real deal. The stately Fletcher Auditorium was a perfect venue for Guitar Trio‘s overwhelming momentum and trance-inducing currents. Famously built upon one single chord, E, Guitar Trio was meant to be a distillation of rock & roll energy through musical minimalism, and it was a wild success.
And the performance in Raleigh, Chatham said after the festival, was one of the best ever.
We caught up with Chatham by email to find out what made the Hopscotch performance so special, not just for me, but for the composer himself.
—Bryan C. Reed
Shuffle: I saw on the Hopscotch Festival’s Twitter page that you said the Guitar Trio performance in Raleigh was one of the best ever. What made it so great?
Rhys Chatham: The performance was absolutely perfect in that the musicians had carefully looked over the score I sent them, which calls for certain things to be done at certain times, and sometimes, despite the volume, they must be played in a sensitive way! The musicians executed all these musical moves flawlessly during the performance. And not only flawlessly, but in a highly musical fashion. The performance was really special.
Also, two of the musicians, Cheetie Kumar (Birds of Avalon) and Paul Siler (Trucker, Cherry Valence, Birds of Avalon) jointly own a fabulous Fender Telecaster Deluxe, which they lent me for the concert. The action on it was so smooth — it was the best Fender I had ever played on — and I actually had to practice with it in order to get used to the action. But at the performance, it seemed to play itself, the touch was so light. I’ll remember that guitar for the rest of my life, and Cheetie said that if I can get my butt back to Raleigh, I can play it again!
Another thing that I should mention is that I ask the musicians to play in a way that most Western musicians are not used to playing in.
G3 sounds on one level as if all we’re doing is playing one note the whole time, but in fact, through a special picking technique that I developed back in the late 70s, each guitarist can elicit different overtones — pitches which can be heard over the fundamental frequency being played, in this case a standard guitar low E — and the musicians can improvise beautiful melodies using the overtones as the entire melodic vocabulary. They sound to the non-specialist like voices singing over the guitars. The Raleigh musicians took to this kind of playing like ducks to water, playing in counterpoint to the riffs that I was playing, and with respect to each other.
And to completely answer your question, a word has to be said about the sound system, and the professionalism of the sound engineers: It was superb, they were superb. I can’t begin to describe how much it helps the musicians to enjoy playing this piece when they have a good sound system with lots of monitors, so we can all hear each other. If we don’t, it can make the piece a drag to play. The monitors were fantastic, so this ensured that we all had a great time and could really get into the music.
How did you feel about the North Carolinian musicians that were selected to perform with you?
Everybody was well prepared at the rehearsal, and we got into a strong group spirit early on to things. I’d have to say that there was a very friendly feeling right from the start.
Did any of them stand out to you in any particular ways?
All the guitarists were brilliant, but special kudos must go to the drummer, Lee Waters, who hails from Carrboro, N.C. and has played with many local and not so local bands for over 17 years now. Lee and I had been in touch by email before the performance to discuss musical style as far as drumming is concerned. He put a lot of work into Guitar Trio, listening to past performances and records to see what had been done, and then coming up with something that was uniquely his own voice, a way of playing that kicked all of us guitarists in the butt! He was the wind behind the fire of the guitar playing. Special mention, too, should go to bassist Mike Robinson (Annuals, Sunfold). I had also been in direct touch with Mike to go over bass styles, and I think the work he put in on it really paid off in spades at the performance.
Were you familiar with any of their music going into it?
I was fortunate to have already played with three of the guitarists in the past, so it was kind of like a family get-together. David Daniell (Antiopic Records), who hails originally from Atlanta, Ga., I’ve been working with him on G3 since at least 2006. He’s clocked in over 50 performances at this point, and has become the concert master of this piece. For example, my flight was very late into Raleigh due to hurricane conditions on the East Coast, so David took over the rehearsal and went over all the charts with the musicians. I got there for the last half hour, just in time to do the final run-through of the piece! Thank god David had arrived the day before, if he hadn’t been there to literally take up the baton, things could have been embarrassing.
Jenks Miller (Horseback), I had played with at a 100 guitar show of mine that we did in Williamsport, Pa., it was great to play together again here in Raleigh. I had seen William Tyler’s solo performances a number of time in the States and in Europe. He had played on Crimson Grail, my piece for 200 electric guitars and 16 electric basses at Lincoln Center in New York a while back, which is where we actually met. When I heard that Grayson Currin, the associate director of Hopscotch, had asked William to play, I had a big smile on my face, let’s put it that way! And while I didn’t know Ash Bowie personally, I had certainly heard of his band Polvo, who I understand have just reformed.
Although I wasn’t familiar with Rich Ivey (Whatever Brains), Jenny Waters (Workclothes, Clok-Lok and Shallow Be Thy Name), and Craig Hilton (independent composer/guitarist), it was a real pleasure meeting and working with them and I’m looking forward to staying in contact and learning more about their music, now that we’ve played so well together.
You’ve been playing Guitar Trio, in various incarnations, for more than 30 years now. What about the piece still excites you?
Precisely because I know the piece so well, I can enter into a kind of Dionysian state while I’m playing it. I become completely one with the sound, the musicians I’m playing with, and the audience. For the Raleigh performance, it was if I had entered in a kind of rite, perhaps a ritual to the goddess of music! There’s an ecstatic feeling that happens and electrifies things when the piece is played well, and well, I just can’t get enough of it, even after all this time! For me, it’s like celebrating Mass, but without the organized religion implications. I’d have to say that G3, if anything, is more on the pagan side of things, pagan in the sense of, “It ain’t nothin’ but rock & roll.”
Outdoor Spell was released not too long before you played at Hopscotch, and it features trumpet as the most prominent instrument. How did it feel to go from that mindset back to guitar for the Raleigh performance?
While it’s true that playing trumpet is, physically speaking, a very different experience than playing electric guitar, I augment the trumpet with electrical devices, and we can definitely hear it is the same composer: that the person who composed Outdoor Spell is definitely the same composer as the one who made Guitar Trio. I practice both guitar and trumpet on most days of my life, so making a switch from one to the other is not a problem for me. In fact, I’ve recently begun playing both on the same program. Maybe one of these days I’ll play trumpet on G3. My god, that would be a first!
Now that Outdoor Spell is out, and the G3 performance has passed, are you playing more guitar or trumpet — or another instrument entirely — these days?
Like I just said, I practice both every day. I’ll practice trumpet a little more if I know I have a brass concert coming up, or guitar when we’re doing one of my guitar pieces. Funny you should ask the question about a new instrument… I recently bought a Yamaha electric violin. I’m not sure if I’ll ever play out with it, I just wanted to familiarize myself with the instrument in case I ever write string quartets. I’ll be taking lessons on it soon, so, who knows? I might end up not being able to resist using it during a live performance, we’ll see.
What’s next for Rhys Chatham?
We’re mixing a brand new album for Northern-Spy Records, the American label that Outdoor Spell was released on. I’m on electrically augmented trumpet, David Daniell plays the electric guitar using a special looping setup that he created himself. On drums we have Ryan Sawyer, the drummer who worked with us on A Crimson Grail. The record will have three new pieces on it, plus a new version of an oldie but goodie guitar piece (not Guitar Trio, eh?) that was last recorded back in the early 80s. I’ll practically be committing sacrilege by playing trumpet on this piece, I promise you! But it sounds great, and I’m looking forward to hearing what people think about the new version.