Interview with Rhys Chatham

October 3rd, 2011 |  Published in Articles

Rhys ChathamIn advance of a trio of UK live shows in October, Rhys Chatham kindly agreed to do an interview with Bang the Bore. If he does need an introduction then, frankly, where have you been? He’s probably best-known for his multiple-guitar minimalist masterpieces, marrying apparent simplicity to high-academic tonal theory, though his most recent record (Outdoor Spell) shows him holding up against in a brain-melting array of trombone-based loops.  He’s playing at Tusk Festival (Newcastle) with his Guitar Trio on the 8th Oct, doing a talk on minimalism (with slides!) at the same festival on the 9th Oct, and is playing a rare British solo trumpet-and-electronics show at the ICA London on the 11th Oct, and legend has it his live shows are of the not-to-be-missed variety. Also worth noting is that Chathams’ 2011 Outdoor Spell (reviewed by me here) is riding pretty high up my own top 10 of 2011.

BtB: You said in an earlier e-mail “I’ve been a little nervous about what the reaction to the release [of 2011’s Outdoor Spell] would be.” – I was wondering why that might be?

I had developed a particular style of trumpet playing during the nineties, which can be heard on the Ninja Tune Label recordings, particularly the Neon CD. At the time I was interested in making the trumpet sound as much like a distorted electric guitar as possible, playing over electronica beats.  I worked in this fashion throughout the 90s, and then in the year 2000 I began to re-focus on playing guitar.  When I first came back to playing trumpet – I guess it was about four years ago – I took up things where I left off, trumpet-wise, putting it through distortion and wah-wah effects, just the way I did in the 90s.  I did a concert of Guitar Trio (G3) at the Dampfzentrale in Bern and met some musicians who inspired me, Mago Flueck on electric bass and Julian Satorius on drums, so we did an album together, called The Bern Project (Hinterzimmer Records), with me on trumpet and electric guitar.

Already, the fact of playing with Mago and Julian changed the way I played. Also, the album was totally produced, in much the same way that Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew was.  We went into a studio and recorded all day, and the producer, Reto Mäder, took all the recordings and did a fantastic cut and paste job with them, so this album was completely produced in the editing studio and the producer has a cut of the author’s rights due to this fact.  He did a brilliant job.

After we recorded the album, I realized that I wanted to find a completely new way of playing the trumpet.  I had already defined a characteristic voice that was uniquely mine in the 90s.  I decided that I wanted to break with that and find a new one.  So I spent the spring of 2009 recording every day in my studio in Paris, trying new things.  After three months or so, I had arrived at a new way of playing with respect to myself and others.  In short, I had found a new voice.  And Outdoor Spell was the first album that I released entirely using this voice.  We hear hints of it in the Bern Project CD, but Outdoor Spell is the first release where I use it on all the tracks of the record.

I wanted to get the Outdoor Spell CD & LP out as soon as possible in order to stake a claim on this voice, as it were.  After we found a home for Outdoor Spell with Northern-Spy Records, a Brooklyn-based independent record label formed by former staff of the legendary ESP-Disk’ imprint,  I started to get a little nervous about what the reaction to it would be.  I knew from experience that it’s not because critics or my fans like my electric guitar stuff, that this means that they will automatically like the music I make when I play trumpet, which after all is quite different.  Also, it is difficult for critics to write about a completely new style of playing, precisely because it has no history.  And I believe it takes a good deal of courage on their part, not to mention effort, when they do so.  The obvious musical examples of this would be when Bob Dylan and Miles Davis went electric. They left a lot of people behind when they did so, with their older fans wishing that Miles, for example, would just keep releasing albums like Kinda Blue.  I was concerned because the music of Outdoor Spell is radically different from my rock-influenced pieces – and even my trumpet releases from the nineties – that some of my audience might similarly get left behind.
BtB: As I said in my review, Outdoor Spell felt very much ‘from the heart’, the result of private experiments. Do you make a distinction between art for public consumption and private passion?

Outdoor Spell was definitely music from the heart, and it was also the result of private experiments in the sense that I recorded every day in my studio, behind closed doors with no one else listening, for a number of months.  Over a period of a year of performing publicly and recording privately, I gradually saw what worked for me and what didn’t, as well as which areas of brass technique I needed to work on.  So it would be accurate to say that the art for public consumption was a result of a private passion!

A word on what I mean by “music from the heart”.  With all of my fully notated      compositions, for example A Crimson Grail or Die Donnergötter, I start with an  idea, not from playing.  Before I even put pencil to paper, I first determine  instrumentation, composition duration, tunings, the form of the piece: I get  everything mapped out as much as I can.  And usually the premise of the piece  comes from an idea of some sort, coming from sources as diverse as critical  theory to simply deciding that I want to do a piece in sonata form, or that the  piece would be in the cut-up style of William Burroughs or Kathy Acker, and the  like.  Once all this is all decided, the rest is a matter of simply filling in the canvas  with content, so to speak.

Similarly, with my trumpet album releases from the 90s, they also started with a  premise.  The basic idea was for me to play as fast as Tony Iommi (of Black  Sabbath fame), except on trumpet rather than electric guitar.  I liked the  electronica that was coming out of Europe at the start of the 90s.  I loved the  music that I was hearing from composers like Aphex Twin, Atari Teenage Riot,  Scanner, and the drum ‘n’ bass music that I was hearing coming out of the UK.  I wondered what would happen if I combined a highly distorted trumpet that sounded like an electric guitar with electronica beats. So I worked with an electronica composer from the UK named Martin Wheeler and we made an album together with me on heavily distorted trumpet.  I took the the recording to the guys at Ninja Tune, and they said, “Yeah!  Wicked guitar, man!”  That made me very happy when they said that, even though it wasn’t a guitar… it was a trumpet! And the album was a success.

So while most of my former work came out of an initial premise of some sort, many times a non-musical one, with Outdoor Spell I decided that I would NOT do this.  That I was simply going to follow my nose and let the music emanate from the bell of the trumpet.  I had studied with the northern Indian classical singer Pandit Pran Nath during the early seventies.  La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine and Jon Hassell also studied with him.  I let this experience of singing raga inform the trumpet pieces that I was coming up with.  While I was developing my new trumpet sound, I got very good at being able to instinctively make a form, on the fly, of a twenty-minute piece.  So while I was playing, if I started getting bored with things, I would do something to bring in a change, or a contrast.  I kept track in my head of which tonal centres I had been in and felt instinctively which new ones to introduce.  Or I might break out of a tonal centre and work with very low, undifferentiated, highly rhythmic sounds in order to achieve variety in the pieces, so that it wasn’t the same thing all the time.

Pandit Pran Nath told all of his composer students that we should take what he taught us and apply it to our own music, to put it through a kind of personal filter. I’ve been applying this advice to a certain extent throughout my compositional career, but particularly so with the Outdoor Spell Northern-Spy release. So while none of the pieces on the Northern-Spy release sound overtly like a raga, the technique used in singing and determining the form of a 20-minute raga is very similar to the approach that I take to playing trumpet in the style that I am presently working with.

BtB: I can see that there are lines of continuity between Outdoor Spell and your earlier work – do you feel that is the case?

In my guitar pieces since Guitar Trio, which was made in 1977, up through my more recent pieces, A Crimson Grail for 200 electric guitars and percussion, or A Secret Rose for 100 electric guitars, electric bass and drums, we can easily hear my minimalist influences, that this is a guy who played in La Monte Young’s group, The Theater of Eternal Music, during the early 70s.  Or for that matter someone who played with Tony Conrad’s group, the Dream Syndicate, during the same period.

The trumpet pieces are less obviously coming out of La Monte and Tony’s influence, as I added other influences later on when I started playing brass instruments. When I was finding my voice as a trumpet player back in the 80s and early 90s, I quite liked Don Cherry’s sound, especially his free way of playing when he was working with Ornette Coleman in the 50s and early 60s.  So I used that as a starting point.  I also liked the way Jon Hassell played, so I used that as an influence also.  Over the years I gradually developed a style that was an amalgamation of the two, putting all my influences through a kind of personal filter until I arrived at something that sounded like, well, for want of a better word…  me! Of course I let my background as a classically trained composer seep in, as well as that of someone coming out of minimalism.  Certainly in Outdoor Spell one hears the minimalist aspect, except this time instead of a rock feel,  there is more of a free music feel to the album, although I’m not coming out of the same background as free music people, and the way each of the finished pieces was arrived at used different compositional processes than those generally used by free music musicians. Mind you, I’m not saying that one process or approach is better than the other, I’m just saying that they are different.
BtB:Your work is marked by a few distinct qualities – repetition, meditative qualities, obviating aspects of sound – perhaps an impossible question, but do you feel that the listening public are aware of these compositional narratives? While there’s a big difference between Outdoor Spell and Crimson Grail, in a sense of music theory it’s still very much the same composer.

I don’t see how anyone who listens to Outdoor Spell can miss the repetitive aspect, given that I’m playing live through multiple digital looping systems and that I used the same equipment set-up for virtually all the trumpet tracks on the album.

While it’s true that both Crimson Grail and Outdoor Spell have meditative aspects, and in that sense are coming from the same composer, other aspects are quite different.  Obviously the timbre of the instrumentation of each of these respective pieces plays a large role in this difference – even when I’m playing sustained long tones on trumpet rather than the fast riffs that I play elsewhere on the album, it’s not gonna sound at all like the specially tuned guitars that I use in A Crimson Grail.  That being said, both pieces do have a repetitive, meditative feel to them, and in that sense they are similar.

A word must be said at this point about the difference between the sound of notated and non-notated music.  Certain music needs to be notated in order for it to sound good, for there is a certain “sound” to fully notated music.  On the other hand, there is a completely different sound to non-notated music, as well. If one tries to write non-notated music down and play it from sheet music, it sounds stiff, it just doesn’t swing.

Crimson Grail is fully notated.  It has to be notated so that the various sub-groups of the 200 guitarists can play their motifs in unison or in strict counterpoint with each other.  Outdoor Spell is non-notated.  While the structures of each of the pieces are strict and are always performed the same way and according to the same cues each time the various pieces on the album are performed, it would be too constraining vis-a-vis the feel of the performance to write every note out, as well as being unnecessary.

I like working with both notated and non-notated forms of music.  Each form has its advantages which can’t be arrived at in any other fashion. The composer has more control in notated music, and more freedom in non-notated music. I feel that both approaches are great ways of working with music, so I work with both.

BtB: In a few senses, I get a little bit frustrated when your music is aligned with this idea of ‘classical guy gets inspired by punk’. This might well be part of the case, but I think that line seriously neglects your being part of a broader series of composers/ musicians, whether that’s Glenn Gould, La Monte Young or even someone like Alvin Lucier. And part of the narrative of composition from, say, 1960-present is that ‘composition’ is no longer a hermetic, academic practice. Was any part of Outdoor Spell anything to do with working towards doing something more transparently ‘composerly’ (in so far as it’s a break from composition-in-rock format)? Or perhaps just a liberation from doing more guitar-based works?

I was inspired when I first heard the Ramones in 1976 to pick up electric guitar and start playing it myself.  So the ‘classical-guy-gets-inspired-by-punk’ tag fitted me quite well during the late seventies and early eighties.  By 1984, however, I had returned to notated music and started a group in the East village in Manhattan called the Alphabet City Brass and Battery ensemble, consisting of four trumpets, two trombones and percussion.  These pieces were all fully notated, including the percussion parts, and we performed them in the same clubs in NY where I performed my guitar pieces.  An example of one of the pieces from this period would be Waterloo, No 2 (1984).  After a couple of years of this, I decided to apply the notational techniques that I had been using with the brass ensemble to my guitar group and came up with Die Donnergötter in 1986. And I capped this period off with my first piece for 100 electric guitars, An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, which was premiered in France in 1989 and which we’ve toured all over the world since then.

At the end of the 80s, I moved to Europe and became heavily involved in playing heavily distorted trumpet with electronica, as I’ve already mentioned, culminating with the Ninja Tune recordings.  Then I went back to making new pieces for 100 and 200 electric guitar ensembles, starting in 2003.

We made a first attempt to perform the outdoor version of A Crimson Grail at Lincoln Center in New York in the summer of 2008. After you write a piece for 200 electric guitars, what are you gonna do next?  That’s what I asked myself.  So I decided to get back to basics and make a series of pieces for me playing solo trumpet and also a set for a small group, the first result of which we hear on the Northern-Spy release of Outdoor Spell.

I guess what I’m saying is that my influences at this point come out of so many places that it no longer makes much sense to peg me as coming out of one particular place. While it’s true that I may focus on different areas of music at different times in my life, I hate getting stuck doing the same thing all the time.  I keep my musical pursuits interesting for myself by changing things around every few years.  Yet somehow, there’s a string that ties it all altogether. I suppose this string would be my basic compositional voice.

BtB: How did you record Outdoor Spell? Again, I mentioned in my review of it sounding very un-forced, but it certainly doesn’t sound like a lot of ‘loop-based’ records, where there’s often a neglect for the source material in favour of the sheer effect of repetition. How did you go about creating the source material for OS, and how much was it adulterated ‘after the fact’ (in post-production etc)?

There was no overdubbing on the trumpet, on any of the pieces… All of that is live.  Nothing is cut or treated in post-production, everything is exactly the way I originally played it live.

I go through three looping devices – they are stomp-boxes, actually –  and route all the riffs I play to the P.A., either left, center, or stage right.  Once I establish a riff, it loops.  Let’s say I do this on stage left.  After the first loop is established, I play exactly the same riff on stage right, except that while the loop on stage left is 10 seconds, the loop on stage right is 11 seconds!  So the two riffs interact and phase with each other and end up sounding like one very complex riff which never repeats, due to each of them being out of phase with respect to each other.  The third riff, which is routed to a centered pan in the mixing board, is also exactly the same as the first riff, but the duration  of the loop is 12 seconds, adding yet more complexity to the line of the melody and its phase.

It’s a simple idea, but it works quite well.

The first two pieces on the album, Outdoor Spell and Crossing the Sword Bridge of the Abyss, were recorded live using my stomp boxes.  Other than tweaking the EQ a bit, all of that is me playing trumpet in one take with no editing or overdubbing.

On Corn Maiden’s Rite, Beatriz Rojas played cajó , a Cuban instrument which is basically a hallow box that one beats upon with one’s hands.  I gave Beatriz a recording of one of my live tracks to work with, and we recorded several takes of her playing with my track and we chose the best take for the album.  I added some delay on Betty’s drum, which was the only post-production technique that was used on that track.

The way we recorded The Magician, the piece with Jean-Marc Montera on electric guitar and Kevin Shea on drums, was a bit special.  I live in Paris, Kevin lives in Brooklyn, and Jean-Marc lives in Marseille, and it was a bit hard to get everyone in Paris at the same time.  So I picked a recording of me playing live that I liked, and when Kevin came to Paris to perform with one of the groups he’s in, on his day off we went into a recording studio and he laid down a drum track whilst listening to my trumpet track.  We did two takes, and we chose the one we liked best.

About a month later, Jean-Marc was in town, so I asked him to lay down some guitar tracks.  He did three takes, each of them having a different feel and sound.  One was melodic, and the two others were noise-oriented.  For Jean-Marc’s tracks, I picked the bits of each track that I liked best.  I had to leave the timing positions of all the snippets in place because Jean-Marc’s playing in all of them was closely related to what Kevin and I were doing.  But if I wanted to hear Jean-Marc’s melodic track, for example, I simply muted the other two tracks for that period, and proceeded in this way by muting and unmuting Jean-Marc’s various tracks as needed.  At one point, Jean-Marc was playing soloistically.  I felt that we had heard enough of the trumpet by that point anyway, so I faded myself out and brought Jean-Marc up in volume, and when the solo was over I simply faded myself back in.  So on The Magician track, there was definitively a good deal of post-production work going on, but it wasn’t a cut and paste job like on the Bern Project or Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.  I simply took Jean-Marc’s three tracks and faded them in and out as needed.  Kevin’s track and my track were not treated, except for a little room reverberation on Kevin’s track to make it sound more natural.

BtB: Can you tell me a little more about the other players on the Outdoor Spell – who they are, where you found them etc?

Beatriz Rojas is a friend of mine whom I’ve known for years, we both live in Paris.  She plays all kinds of hand percussion and specializes in Latin clave.  She’s a fixture on the Latin scene here in Paris.  The rhythms that she plays on the album are Cuban.

Jean-Marc Montera is an important figure on the French improv scene.  I finally actually got to meet him backstage at a Sonic Youth concert in Paris a few years back, he was playing guitar with them that night.  Since then we’ve played together in various formations and contexts.  He runs an alternative music center in Marseille called GRIM, which is an acronym standing for Groupe de Recherche et d’Improvisation Musicales. It’s a wonderful space with a bar/restaurant downstairs along with office space and a recording studio, and upstairs is a concert hall.  Jean-Marc has recorded with many musicians, as diverse as Fred Frith, Loren Mazzacane Connors, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Louis Sclavis, he even played with Patti Smith once!

I met Kevin Shea through a friend.  My friend went to see a concert by a duo consisting of keyboards and drums called Talibam! in Nantes, France.  There weren’t a lot of people at the concert, but she said what they played was fantastic and I really had to hear it.  I finally caught up with them in Paris at Instants Chavirès, and it turned out that I knew the keyboard player, Matt Mottel, who introduced me to Kevin.  I liked what I heard, a lot. So I was pleased when Talibam! asked me to sit in with them when they played in Paris.  I played with them a couple of times after that and got to know them better.  Kevin also plays with a brilliant trumpet player named Peter Evans, who both play in the Brooklyn group Mostly Others Do the Killing, which has been described as a “terrorist bebop band”.  All the players in this band are excellent and they are worth checking out for anyone who loves jazz.

BtB: Did you start out with a concept for Outdoor Spell? It’s almost tempting to say that there’s some rustic, ritual quality to it, though I’m cautious of being misled by a title like ‘Corn Maiden’s Rite’.

I did the music first and came up with the concept later!

BtB: You talked earlier about a concern of Outdoor Spell being a change from what your audience might be expecting – I wonder if a big thing with music now is that people expect less absolute aesthetics from their favourite artist. Maybe Lady Gaga fans would be upset if she turned to crust punk (which would be brilliant) but I kind of feel that, perhaps since the 90s, musicians can be a lot freer with their audience. I’m thinking of someone like John Zorn or Otomo Yoshihide, who’ve both turned their hands to multiple genres and techniques. And I also wonder if it’s a question of the musician’s audience – electric instruments weren’t necessarily unprecedented in ‘folk’ music, but they were for Dylan’s audience.

Your point is well taken concerning my colleague John Zorn and Otomo Yoshidide managing to navigate through various genres.

But the fact remains that not all people who like my rock-based pieces  like my brass stuff.  My manager notes that I draw larger crowds for  my rock stuff than I do for the brass pieces, and she has a point, at  least as far as my American performances go, although I have not  found this to be the case in Europe, for some reason.  Perhaps it’s just  a question of giving people time to get used to the new brass direction  I’ve taken, or perhaps it means developing a new audience for it.

BtB: Something I wanted to ask was about how influences  change over time – by which I mean, I remember in the  mid-90s, growing up in no-where’s-ville, finding that one Atari Teenage Riot CD was like gold dust, a real epiphany. Have you noticed any particular change in the sort of music people are producing in the last 10 years – given that you don’t have to be particularly hip or located somewhere like London or NYC to get the weirdest music sent straight into your home?

I’ve noticed that a lot – by no means all, but a lot – of people have got away from electronic music and returned to playing acoustic, like folk and electric guitar, violin, and the like.  Electronica in Europe in particular was so exciting throughout the nineties, with so much fresh music coming out, it was a real movement.  But by the year 2000 it was starting to sound stale.  Then the freak folk, psychedelic rock and the “weird America” thing began to happen, and we even had people like Mike Gira getting into playing steel-string guitar, Thurston’s doing it now too, I understand. I’ve noticed that many of these groups include the violin, which is a refreshing change. And of course there was the drone metal phenomena, with groups like Sleep and their offshoot OM, and a bit later Earth and Sunn 0))) giving us a fresh new take on minimalism, mixing it with content and gesture coming out of their heavy metal roots.  Quite heady stuff, that.

I think that the internet has sped things up and had the effect of getting ideas out faster, although I feel it is important to remember that hearing an mp3 of a group like, say, Sunn O))), is definitely not the same experience as hearing them live.  There is no substitute for live concerts. Fortunately, most of these groups do a lot of touring.

So while none of the pieces on the Northern-Spy release sound overtly like a raga, the technique used in singing and determining the form of a 20-minute raga is very similar to the approach that I take to playing trumpet in the style that I am presently working with.”

BtB: This is really interesting, and it makes sense in terms of the record. Believe it or not, my first draft of the review for OS mentioned Carnatic tala, but I took it out because it felt a smidge pretentious, and like I was reaching for an easy reference. Something I come across from a few people is this idea that it’s somehow patronising to ‘borrow’ from other traditions. Do you have any feelings on musical (mis)appropriation?  [Edit: I’ve deleted a less-than-necessary section from this question dealing with various names from American Minimalism who I feel have borrowed, to greater or lesser extents, from non-European/ American traditions: Glass, Reich, Riley, Harrison, Young etc].

I thought that Reich’s early piece Drumming was a successful amalgamation of his studies of Ghanian drumming and his Western background as a Julliard-trained percussionist.  Does Glass borrow from non-American traditions?  Somehow, I have never thought of him, particularly, as doing so.  I know he studied with Ravi Shankar at one point early on, but I don’t hear it in his music.  At least not his early music.  After Einstein on the Beach, I really haven’t kept up with what he’s been doing. I guess that I had heard so much of his music during the seventies when I was coming of age as a composer, that I kind of overdosed on it.  Same thing with Reich. Haven’t kept up, I’m afraid.

BtB: On the subject of notation: in terms of your larger-scale pieces, does ‘playability’ ever affect the composition? For instance, if you were to write a 50-guitar, rigorously composed fugue, would the difficulty in finding 50 electric guitarists who can read music to a fairly high level be a problem? I’m thinking a bit of Helmut Lachenmann or the, who I’ve fallen in love with a bit recently – his aesthetic, such as it is, seems to put enormous demands on the players, and probably severely limits the number of people who can play it. From what I can gather of your notated pieces, there’s not so much of an emphasis on ‘virtuosity’ required but certainly a pretty intense concentration. Would (/should?) virtuosity inform an aesthetic in the construction of your pieces?

I’ve only had one piece performed by a classical orchestra.  It was hideously expensive to produce and the musicians were not sympathetic and seemed to resent having to play it, even though they were being paid well.  They kept saying to the conductor, “Can we play the Stravinsky now?” If I were to write an extremely, or even moderately difficult piece to play on a technical level for 50 guitarists, I’d obviously have to ask professional musicians to do this, and it would be quite expensive, to such an extent that I doubt I would get a performance mounted.

For An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, my 1989 piece for 100 electric guitars, electric bass and drums, the promoter simply couldn’t afford to pay all the musicians, so they put out a call for volunteers.  I knew that I would getting a mixture of serious amateurs, semi-pros and a spattering of professional musicians.  So I wrote the music in such a way that the most complex part needed musicians who could read well, two of the other parts were for musicians who could read a little bit, and the final part, the musicians didn’t need to read at all, providing they had experience playing out in rock bands.  I wrote the music for these three levels, and made the parts fun to play.  And of course it had to sound great, so that the audience would have a good time listening to it as well.  I used to say about this piece, “if you like rock ‘n’ roll, then you’ll like this piece”.  And that turned out to be the case.  We’ve played it in 22 cities around the world.

For A Crimson Grail, this piece called for at least 200 electric guitarists.  I knew that most of the recruited guitarists would not read music, so as you suspected, I wrote a series of riffs that were simple to play and would repeat indefinitely until the next cue, at which point the sub-group would move on to their next riff.  The artistry comes not in the technical level of expertise, but how the parts fit together.  I have a team both in Europe and in the States who teach the parts to the musicians – many of them learned by ear and wrote the notes in above the music later – and the rest of the rehearsals focused on the ensemble work, which is where the real difficulty lies.

So in short, virtuosity on guitar is not a component of my larger pieces.  However, it forms a large component in my brass pieces – all the musicians that I work with in this context are monsters on their instruments – and some of my smaller guitar pieces.  For example Die Donnergötter requires a good level of technical ability on the parts of the 6 electric guitarists and bass player, and particularly so from the drummer, who is required at times to play polyrhythmic figures.

BtBAnd lastly, a question a Daniel Alexander Hignell (a composer friend) asked me when I mentioned this interview: he was wondering whether you had any views on the ‘changing role of the composer’? To qualify that a little – at the beginning of the 20th-century, the idea of the ‘composer’ was someone who was whipped through the academy (I’m thinking of a R Strauss or a Mahler) – now, it seems, the lines between so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ art are massively blurred – people can make exceptionally complex music with little more than a decent computer and some patience – I’m thinking of things like the drum n’ bass guys who turned to more ‘composerly’ music – like Aphex Twin, who you mentioned earlier. It’d be particularly interesting to have your opinion on that because it seems to me (and shoot me down if this isn’t the case) that the relative simplicity of something like Crimson Grail makes it possible for the non-virtuosi musician to take part in some very serious and academic music – so there’s a kind of egalitarianism to the composition which might reflect the changing, or amorphous, role of the composer.

100 Guitars in Rouen, FranceDuring the seventies and early 80s those of us on the downtown music scene in New York spent a lot of time breaking down academy-based notions of musical hierarchy, where one had academic-music-coming-out-of-a-classical-tradition at the top of the pyramid, jazz below that, and well, rock was barely considered music back then, at least not “serious” music.  In America, at least, things started changing where you had composers like Terry Riley and La Monte Young performing their own music, which was all non-notated.  A bit later on, one had composers like Frederic Rzewski (of Musica Elettronica Viva fame) taking his Cornelius Cardew-like notions of graphic scores and the like, and going a step further and simply playing free, then realizing that there was another tradition of composers who did this, namely the jazz tradition.  So he hooked up with the likes of Karl Berger and Anthony Braxton, among others.  Notions of hierarchy were beginning to dissolve.  We completed the project by the early 80s in NY with composers like me, Peter Gordon, and Arthur Russell mixing it up at CBGBs with the Talking Heads, and later DNA and Mars, to name just a few.

For me, I don’t care what tradition a person is coming out of.  If they are making music, that, for me, makes them a composer.  And I think most musicians who make their own music feel this way now, although there are still academics who consider what they themselves do to be “serious” music, and sort of look down their noses at everyone else. Too bad for them, hardly no one listens to their music anyway, apart from their students.

All I have to say to the people who look down their noses at others is, “I’m a composer, I make serious hard rock, and I’m proud of it!”  And composers coming out of jazz, free improv, whatever flavour of heavy metal, electronica, folk or any other genre should feel the same way.

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October 3rd, 2011 | by | Published in Articles