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
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