Although he’s spent decades living in Paris, composer Rhys Chatham remains a cornerstone of New York City’s avant garde. He notably took over the job as the first music director of The Kitchen, in 1971, when he was a mere 19. A fateful encounter with the Ramones sparked one of his best concepts, merging 1960s minimalism with 1970s punk rock and its feverish energy in Guitar Trio, and plenty more mutable, massed-string pieces to follow – ever an echo of downtown Manhattan in its ruinous glory days, when musical genres high and low got it on loudly and promiscuously.
Chatham, who just had a birthday – “I’m not 70 yet! I can’t wait to be 70, but I’m getting there” – is back in New York this week to celebrate another cultural icon: Suzanne Fiol, the founder of performance space Issue Project Room, who died on Oct. 5, 2009. His concerts Friday and Saturday (the 10th anniversary of Fiol’s untimely departure) at Issue are part of the annual Crossing the Line festival, the multi-disciplinary Gallic blowout overseen by the French Institute Alliance Française in partnership with multiple venues across the city.
Chatham will premiere two new pieces: Le Possédé, for solo bass flute, and The Sun Too Close to the Earth, for a full ensemble that features three guitars and a horn section, plus Chatham’s stalwart rhythm section – bassist Ernie Brooks and drummer Jonathan Kane – with Anthony Coleman on keyboard. To open the evening, Kane will join harpist Zeena Parkins to perform “On Suzanne,” an interpretation of a poem written by Holly Anderson, Kane’s late wife and a close friend of Fiol’s.
“She was very close to the musicians she worked with,” Chatham said of Fiol, who launched Issue in the East Village in 2003. The venue migrated through multiple locations in Brooklyn, including a refurbished oil silo on the Gowanus Canal, where Chatham and an all-star band including artist Robert Longo and three-fourths of Sonic Youth played an epic Guitar Trio in the mid-oughts. “She poured everything into that space, her whole heart and mind.”
Although Chatham is most readily associated with the “guitar army” he rallies for massive concerts featuring 100 or more performers, he plays and writes for a range of instruments. The North American premiere of his flute piece makes use of his own “Pythagorean dream system.” It involves three Line 6 delays made by Boomerang—“that green box thing,” Chatham explained, outlining what sounds like minimalism’s “greatest hit.”
“I’d have one set at eight seconds, another set at nine seconds, and another at ten seconds. I play a riff into the first one and that would go on the left speaker, and I’d play the exact same riff on the second looper, and that would go on the right speaker, and the third looper would be in the center. It would be the same riff, but because [the boxes are set at] eight seconds, nine seconds, and ten seconds, you get this Steve Reich kind of phasing relationship. Instead of sounding like a loop, it sounds like this one single very long, very complex melody that’s being played. It’s kind of a Terry Riley Poppy Nogood kind of sound, where it’s like having two Revox tape recorders 20 feet apart. As I play new material, the old material fades out. It’s got this kind of Theater of Eternal Music kind of feel—not with the harmonies, but kind of the rhythmic quality to it, and the eternalness of it.”
Chatting last week as he was finishing the music for The Sun… in his Paris studio, Chatham was most excited to talk about the band he had organized to play the piece. He reunites with guitarist Karen Haglof, who first worked with the composer in the No Wave days, with Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Sarah Register also wielding axes. The horn section features stellar jazz improvisers Jaimie Branch on trumpet and trombonists Jen Baker and Reut Regev.
“The piece is fully notated, but I want to take advantage of peoples’ improvisational abilities,” said Chatham, who also incorporated aspects of the band members’ own sound into the piece. “Reut Regev has a certain way of playing, for instance, so I’m calling it the ‘Reut Rhythm.’”
Although The Sun… alludes to the global climate crisis, its deeper sources speak to an intense focus of the composer’s spiritual life. “I don’t know if I ever shared this with you,” he said, in a conspiratorial aside, “but I’ve been practicing cabalistic magic for 20 years.” He’s also an astrologer. “I’ve kept those parts of my life very separate until now. I wanted to get more of a mixture of my spiritual beliefs and put them through the context of the music I’m doing. If Harry Partch can do it, maybe I can do it.”
Chatham cites Druidism and the English cabalistic tradition of occultists like Israel Regardie, Aleister Crowley, William Butler Yeats, and especially Dion Fortune, a one-time student of psychoanalysis and a soy-milk advocate whose writings had a formative influence on the Wiccan movement. “It’s a meditative practice,” Chatham said. “The ecstatic Kabbalah, which involves mantras of various kinds. It’s not dissimilar to Tibetan Buddhist practices.”
This weekend’s audiences will get to partake of a rite Chatham has incorporated into the piece, “with poetry coming from The Mystical Hymns of Orpheus, written by God knows who—ostensibly by Orpheus, but we’re not sure,” said Chatham of the mystical text, alleged to be some 10,000 years old.
“What we’re going to do is have a kind of spell to improve the environment.”
Rhys Chatham presents The Sun Too Close to the Earth and more at Issue Project Room Oct. 4 and 5, as part of French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival; issueprojectroom.org
Steve Dollar is a freelance journalist and critic for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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