We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Is the electric guitar a percussion instrument? Yes, of course. But it’s also a stringed instrument, an electronic instrument, and a portal to the universe. The electric guitar is simply life itself.
Or so it seemed in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the twin devils of punk rock and minimalism met at the crossroads of pop and artat the time, lower Manhattanand signed a extraterritoriality treaty. In the shadow of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and the Velvet Underground, bands such as DNA, Sonic Youth, Mars, the Static, and Theoretical Girls combined monomaniacal theory with willful amateurism, rigid processes with free noise, post-serial experimentation with jet-engine volume.
Rhys Chatham and former Theoretical Girl Glenn Branca were the Steve Reich and Philip Glass of the minimalist-rock scene: former allies and colleagues who came to have bitter battles about who got where first. Just as Glass played in Reich’s early ensemble, so Branca performed with Chatham’s group, strumming such pieces as 1977’s epochal “Guitar Trio.” That exercise in power-guitar harmonics, one of only a few Chatham compositions previously released in the United States, is reprised on a new three-disc compilation, An Angel Moves Too Fast to See: Selected Works, 1971-1989. Not all of the set’s pieces were written for guitarand one of them was actually composed before Chatham had ever seen a rock band playbut they do encapsulate a moment when rock’s aggression and minimalism’s austerity seemed ideally matched.
Since then, both Branca and Chatham have largely abandoned the guitar, and Chatham quit New York for France, where he’s lived for the past two decades. Electronics, which offer a wealth of tones but less physicality than the guitar, have upstaged that instrument among art-noise types, and it now seems as if Suicide was the most influential of ’70s New York’s underground phenoms. Guitars have even been downplayed in the work of Sonic Youth, most of whose members played in Chatham and Branca’s massed-guitar troupes, and of Robert Poss, who graduated from Chatham’s group to form Band of Susans, whose massed-guitar sound was more song-oriented than its inspirations.
Poss, who now augments guitar din with such predigital devices as oscillators and resonant filters, titled one recently released album Distortion Is Truth, so he might still be a believer. Chatham, however, sees the electric guitar as just as a phase he went through. In fact, only about half the music on An Angel Moves Too Fast to See was played by guitar-based ensembles, although some of the pieces for horns and percussion were shaped by Chatham’s guitar compositions. Still, the composer always had an ear for overloaded overtones, as the set’s opening fusillade demonstrates.
The 62-minute “Two Gongs” was composed in 1971, when the 19-year-old Chatham was studying electronic music with Morton Subotnick at NYU and making money as a tuner of pianos and harpsichords. (Among his clients were LaMonte Young, the crazy prophet of “just intonation,” and Glenn Gould, who was just crazy.) Chatham began experimenting with a set of large Chinese gongs at an instrument-rental company where he worked and was delighted by their “electronic” timbres. Included on Angel in a version recorded by Chatham and Yoshimasa Wada in 1989, “Gongs” sounds like a gamelan orchestra in a hurricanethrilling and kinetic and meditative and stationary all at the same time.
The piece’s shimmering harmonics led to amplified guitars, but not immediately. Chatham had founded the experimental-music program at the Kitchen, a Manhattan arts space, and he soon met some of the proto-punk musicians who were similarly engaged in blurring categories. It was former Modern Lovers bassist Ernie Brooks (who plays on the set’s title piece) who took Chatham to his first rock show: the Ramones at CBGB’s in 1975. The composer soon began playing guitar, producing overtones via E-string drones. This technique was to become the basis of Chatham’s massed-guitar works, which intensified the buzzing, hovering timbres simply by adding more people to play the exact same riff and then boosting the volume. First, though, Chatham spent a year limbering up his “stiff” technique by playing with a band called Arsenal. Then he and various musiciansincluding Branca as well as Chatham’s then-girlfriend, Nina Canal, who later founded noisy-rock outfit Utbegan performing “Guitar Trio.” These 30 minutes of chiming, detuned, one-handed guitar (Look, ma, no frets!) attained near-mythical status among high-minded noisemongers.
Yet here’s where Angel gets frustrating. “Guitar Trio” originally took its power from both volume and duration, but by the time Chatham recorded it, in 1982, he’d “distilled the piece into its purest form,” which runs only about eight minutes. (A recording of a 30-minute version existed, Chatham writes blithely in the set’s liner notes, but “somehow it disappeared.”) This abbreviated version of the piece principally reveals Chatham’s declining interest in the technique that made his name. To get a sense of how powerful the original must have been, you’ll have to leave Chatham’s oeuvre completely, to listen to such endurance-testing Branca opuses as 1989’s Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven).
This condensed take was released by indie-rock label Homestead in 1987, on an album named for 1986’s galloping guitar-ensemble piece “Die Donnergötter” (“Thunder Gods”). Die Donnergötter also included another composition from 1986, “Waterloo, No. 2,” which playfully transposed the lessons of Chatham’s guitar pieces to a marching-band formatthree trumpets, two trombones, and a parade-ground drummer. A brass-band tribute to minimalism’s looping melodic structures, the piece even ends with a snippet from Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air.” The box set adds two more recordings from this era, both intriguing but hardly reputation-enhancing: “Drastic Classicism,” another truncated example from the composer’s early guitar-extremism period, and “Massacre on MacDougal Street,” which is a rock-derived piece, “The Out-of-Tune Guitar,” transcribed for horns and percussion.
Bored with overtones, Chatham gravitated back to trumpet, which he’d played before picking up guitar, and then to electronics. (None of the latter work is included here.) He was still too associated with massed guitars, however, to abandon the idea entirely. Thus, “An Angel Moves Too Fast to See,” which is basically “Die Donnergötter” times 16100 guitars instead of six. The Ventures-meet-Wagner-as-played-by-Sonic Youth, this 43-minute piece, written in 1989 and recorded in 1997, has been performed wherever government arts subsidies are sufficient to pay Chatham and his ensemble of pick-up guitarists (in other words, mostly in France). It’s vivid and lively, certainly, but also conventionalin fact, its prelude-allegro-adagio structure is rather 19th-century.
Indeed, for a guy who took so zealously to ’70s minimalism in both its academic and its bar-band incarnations, Chatham seems to have lost track of some essential principles. Minimalists adopted amplified instruments in part to escape the labor-intensiveness of the symphony formatafter all, it’s been a while since a full orchestra was needed to make a big noise. Yet no matter how formidable Chatham’s 100-guitar orchestra must look onstage, it doesn’t sound any more powerful than the quintet that recorded “Guitar Trio”or, for that matter, the duo that performed “Two Gongs,” which is the knockout among this set’s previously unreleased pieces.
During the period covered by this compilation, Chatham faced the fundamental minimalist dilemma: After jettisoning almost everything, what do you put back? In expanding his post-extremist palette, the composer didn’t venture as far into kitsch as, say, Philip Glass. Yet it can’t be said that Chatham’s music got more interesting as it moved from stark conceptual coup to neoclassical orch-rock. Much of An Angel Moves Too Fast to See catches Chatham between the two, which is an interesting place to visit. Still, it would add significantly to the composer’s legacy if full recordings of such early pieces as “Guitar Trio” were discoveredand if he were accepting enough of his place in minimalism’s history to allow them to be released. CP