Q&A: Rhys Chatham On Playing With Oneida, Taking Up Trumpet, And The Survival Of New York


Even via Skype, Rhys Chatham remains profoundly, permanently enthused. The giddy 100-guitar maximalist/minimalist yin to Glenn Branca’s foreboding 100-guitar maximalist/minimalist yang, Chatham’s ’70s/’80s innovations—rounded up by Table of the Elements on 2002’s An Angel Moves Too Fast To See—remain a cornerstone of contemporary music. But, give or take performances like 2007’s mammoth 400-guitar Crimson Grail (staged with 200 guitars at Lincoln Center two years later), Chatham has moved on. Born and raised in Greenwich Village, studying with avant-garde stalwarts like LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad, Chatham, 59, famously discovered the power of electric guitar after seeing the Ramones at CBGB. In recent years, he has returned to trumpet, for a series of albums that tip into tender, third stream improv.

This Saturday, he will take the stage with Oneida—and guitar in hand—as part of the Ecstatic Music Fest, which spotlights music that seems poised to reconnect his two modes of music. Paired by festival organizers, the night won’t be the 10-hour Ocropolis extravaganza that he and the O-brahs originally proposed, but—with a half-dozen new collaborative pieces between them—it’ll be assuredly be something new. Though Chatham moved to Paris in 1989, he remains a New York musician in absentia, befriending successive generations of underground Gothamites passing through Paris. When he caught Liturgy on a recent trip to New York—where he also played violin with Kid Millions’ Matter Waves—he was surprised to see guitarist Bernard Gann, who he’d last seen as a 15-year old crashing on his Paris floor.

How familiar were you with Oneida before working with them on this performance?

I had heard them before, and was vaguely aware of their music, and took a serious listen to it and thought it was awesome. My manager checked it out and said, “Rhys, holy shit, these are not boys, these are men, and you’ve got to work with them.” I was in Brooklyn for the Neon Marshmallow festival in October, and we did five rehearsals together at their rehearsal space in Brooklyn. We got together and jammed. I played trumpet through delay devices. They seemed like they were bending over backwards to play with me, and I got a little paranoid, and they said “no, man, that’s the way we play.” We were just jamming at that point, and I said, “wow, if that’s the way it is, things are going to be okay.”

They explained to me, “Well, what we really like to do is play for 10 hours, invite a bunch of different musicians.” We proposed it to Merkin Hall, but decided—with union regulations—maybe we wouldn’t do 10 hours. I went back in January especially to rehearse with them. In those sessions, I ended up playing guitar most of the time, and it was awesome. It seemed like a perfect fit, so I brought in some compositions and they brought in some compositions. They had like four or five. Plus, we recorded a 7-inch single together, though that may or may not come out.

Oneida aren’t a minimalist band. They’re what’s happening today, but somehow I just didn’t feel any difference in age or mindset or anything. We just all worked together as musicians because they’re great musicians. In all our discussions we never talked about history, we just talked about stuff and then, when we actually played, I was just so surprised. It just seemed to work like a hand in a glove. I didn’t have to do anything. I mean, seriously. I brought my stuff in and they played like they’d normally play. They nailed it. No problem-o. With their stuff, they come in with very specific ideas, an approach to sonority, and an approach to form and structure. I played guitar with it. I seemed to blend right in. I was so proud! I think [Ecstatic Music Fest] will mostly be a guitar program, but the men of Oneida have insisted that I play some trumpet, too, so one of the pieces will be a trumpet piece. But I really don’t think we’ll hear much of a difference between me and Oneida. i think we sound like a unified band.

You’ve been playing mostly trumpet lately, it seems like.

I practice guitar and I practice trumpet every day. I’ve been getting into some new techniques on guitar. I’ve been doing fingerpicking lately, which is a technique I got off of [Lambchop’s] William Tyler, who played in one of my 200 guitars things, The Crimson Grail, and we became pretty good friends, and played together in North Carolina—though not together—and I saw his long fingernails, and i thought, “Maybe i need some long fingernails, too.” My girlfriend is not very happy with these long fingernails for various reasons we won’t discuss, but at least they’re only on my right hand. And then with [Chicago musician] David Daniell, he’s into this e-bow thing, so that’s worked into some of the stuff I’ve been doing also. There’s some new stuff that’s happening. There’s a little bit of [Chatham’s 1978 piece] “Guitar Trio” in there, too.

How do your guitar playing and your trumpet playing fit together?

With trumpet, I’m coming out one place. In terms of vocabulary, I’m comng out of Don Cherry but also Jon Hassell and Bill Dixon. But as soon as you say “Don Cherry” and “Bill Dixon,” you think “free.” But I’m a minimalist composer. Frederic Rzewski [of A.M.M.] started a New York version of MEV [Musica Elettronica Viva] that came out of the classical tradition. Take Stockhausen or even Berio, who tried to get us away from the enslavement of the notated page to make things freer. Frederic realized “there’s this American tradition of improvisation that goes back a lot further than we do,” and started invited Anthony Braxton and Karl Burger, a free music tradition, and [playing with them] is where I come out of. I was really Tony and LaMonte’s student, coming out of early minimalism. I’m thinking of doing a new brass album with Northern Spy, but I’ve got so many brass albums. I think we might need a new guitar album. It might be with the [Oneida] guys. We’ll see.

Do you miss New York?

I’d like to go on record saying that I love New York. I was born in New York Hospital and grew up in Greenwich Village and I spent the first 36 years of my life in New York. I met this French lady and we got married and lived in New York and then, all of a sudden, she wanted to back to Paris. I thought it’d be an adventure, and it was. I’ve been here ever since. I love visiting New York, my father lives here. But in about the year 1999, I thought New York would be dead, because the rents were too high. What we had, the people of my generation: we had cheap rent, we had the Village Voice and the New York Times writing about our music, and we had grants. And so you could have this combination of working-class kids and rich kids. I have nothing against rich kids, but I had to put myself through college working as a harpsichord tuner and a bartender. I thought the rents were so expensive that it would kill the art and music scene in New York. I was certain of it. But I was wrong.

We were in Manhattan for A Crimson Grail and I took my daughter to see where her mother and I met, and I took her to St. Mark’s Place, and it was all Japanese tourists and sushi restaurants and everything was very expensive. I have nothing against Japanese tourists. But the day after the concert, some people in the 200 guitars band were playing at this great little bar in Williamsburg that was also a record store. And we got out of the subway and it was like New York in 1980 except there were less drugs and more grandmothers on the street. There were people walking around there that were young that I’d actually want to talk to! It’s great! Me? I’m in Paris. My life is here.

Oneida and Rhys Chatham perform at Merkin Concert Hall on Saturday.

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