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Rhys Chatham, An Angel Moves Too Fast to See: Selected Works 1971 - 1989  

Reputations deceive. Isn’t it always the case?
     Composer Rhys Chatham’s reputation rests, as so often happens, on claims staked for various firsts. Very generally, Chatham is known as one of those Eighties composers who massed large numbers of electric guitar players onstage. More precisely, with his 1977 Guitar Trio he became one of the first composers to write music for the electric guitar in which the work’s primary melodic content is supplied by the natural overtone series. One of the many guitarists who filtered through Chatham’s performing ensemble for Guitar Trio was Glenn Branca, who shortly thereafter began composing works for his own large ensembles of guitar players. For a spell, confusion reigned in sorting out the reputations of Chatham and Branca, and then the question arose of where Sonic Youth – members of which had played with both composers – fit into the whole business. The last time Chatham was spotted playing with an ensemble of electric guitarists, it was with a group of 100 players – thus establishing him as undisputed champ in the category of Largest Electric Guitar Ensemble. (I’ll confess to a large-scale cringe when first hearing of the project. Whatever happened to Guitar Trio happily exceeding, trumping, overspilling Guitar Trio’s parts?)
     I only bring up the business of reputations because it’s deceptive to boil down Chatham’s work to these meager entries in new-music chronologies – guitar plus overtone series; largest guitar ensemble. Table of the Elements’ lovingly compiled three-CD anthology, with its accompanying 140-page booklet, should help to short circuit the conventional wisdom about Chatham’s music. I’m going out of my way to throw water on the shorthand version of events because it’s far from what’s most interesting about the recordings in this collection.
     To give an example, Die Donnergötter (1985-6), a piece for an ensemble of six guitars, bass, and drums, doesn’t come with the pedigree of innovation. It’s not held up as a signal, influential work from its period. In fact, it appears positively isolated from much of what else was happening at the time – and I count this as one of its strengths. It’s an exquisitely atypical work that’s given an absolutely thrilling performance in the present recording. May I just come out and say that it rules? In his notes, Chatham seems ill-at-ease when discussing the work’s relatively conventional style: “Die Donnergötter was significant for me in that a special compositional emphasis was placed on its melodic content, which was achieved by fingering directly on the fret board of the electric guitar . . . “ Die Donnergötter emerged from a compositional lining up of the planets that included an excellent ensemble of musicians, the loan of a rehearsal space, a sympathetic performance venue, and a gestation period of two years. When it was originally released in the mid-1980s, it was hard to place stylistically. It still is. Who knew that Chatham had such melodic gifts? You won’t read about it in the chronologies. But it’s a superb work, and you should hear it.
      Interestingly enough, Die Donnergötter’s melodic inventiveness is revisited in several sections of An Angel Moves Too Fast to See (1989), the 100-guitar piece that comprises the third and final disc of the set. Does it sound like what one imagines from an ensemble of 100 guitars? Not especially. It sounds like a core group of four guitarists, fewer than on Die Donnergötter, and the enormous ensemble fails to deliver any particularly vivid textural novelty. People typically refer to An Angel Moves Too Fast to See as a 100-guitar piece, but in its recorded form the size of the ensemble appears to be one of its more dispensable elements.
     In addition to works featuring the electric guitar, the anthology contains an hour-plus recording of the rich, potentially deafening Two Gongs (1971) and two brass compositions that distantly approximate the electric-guitar sonorities that have served Chatham so faithfully.

Rhys Chatham, An Angel Moves Too Fast to See: Selected Works 1971 - 1989 (Table of the Elements Lanthanum SWC-CD-57; 3 CDs)


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