Guitar Trio  Paula Court

From the Archives: No Wave

By Kate Moger

Aug 11, 2017

“All the ‘straight’ people were trying to get out of New York but all the freaks… we were trying to get in.”

-Maripol in Blank City (2010)

The Kitchen regularly invites summer interns to write blog posts related to their ongoing projects. While working in the archives, I was impressed by the variety of musicians who have performed at The Kichen throughout its 46 years. Upon further research, I became interested in the role The Kitchen played in shaping the downtown New York music scene in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Rhys Chatham, David Linton, Nina Canal, and Ned Sublette performing Guitar Trio at The Kitchen in 1981. Photo: Paula Court

The Kitchen was founded by Steina and Woody Vasulka in 1971 as a presentation space for video artists. Later that year, the Vasulkas added music to their programming and named Rhys Chatham the first music director. During his tenure, Chatham programmed more than 250 concerts of living composers including the New Music/New York Festival, which was a landmark retrospective of experimental music emerging from New York’s downtown. After its move to Soho in 1973, The Kitchen became the nexus of the downtown avant-garde scene, hosting composers that engaged in a panorama of movements ranging from free jazz and Art rock to the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Among the various movements that The Kitchen nurtured and hosted, No Wave surfaces as one of specific importance due to its pioneering attitude towards rock-music composition and lasting impact on experimental music. Furthermore, Rhys Chatham’s involvement in the movement as both a musician and director of The Kitchen’s music program created a direct dialogue between No Wave compositions and The Kitchen’s music program.

The No Wave movement arose from a specific moment in New York’s history. The blight that afflicted 1970’s New York as the city descended into bankruptcy and disrepair is well documented in films like Panic in Needle Park (1971), Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976). The city was quite literally disintegrating; neighborhoods like Brownsville in Brooklyn were compared to Dresden after World War II while parts of The Bronx lost more than 97% of their buildings to fire and abandonment between 1970 and 1980. Violent crime had been increasing rapidly for years. The number of murders in the city had more than doubled over the past decade, from 681 in 1965 to 1,690 in 1975. As the city scrambled to balance its budget, the citizens of New York were left to eke out an existence in the detritus of a once great metropolis. There was a sense that 1970s New York marked the end of an era of liberal idealism as tuition-free universities, local health clinics and other social services were dismantled and sold for scrap by the city government. "The clinical term for it, fiscal crisis, didn't approach the raw reality.” Jonathan Mahler, author of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning (2006), opined “Spiritual crisis was more like it.” 

The desolation of New York, its inertia and hopelessness, pushed No Wave artists like Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks towards experimental and extreme forms of music. She explained in an interview with Marc Masters in No Wave (2008) “I had to document my insanity, my anger, my history, in a very direct and specific way, I had to document what was driving me insane.” The bankruptcy of liberal idealism in the 1970s and failures of the 1960s free love movement created a generation of disenfranchised artists resentful of establishment values and commercial co-option. The sprawling emptiness of the Lower Manhattan provided the ideal catalyst for these artists to form the No Wave, a short-lived avant-garde scene that thrived in the nihilism of the era.

Formed in reaction against the perceived commercialism and co-option of rock by New Wave and Punk rock movements, No Wave was comprised of a small group of musicians and artists interested in challenging the establishment of commercial rock and the limits of popular music. No Wave musicians like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, the Contortions, DNA, Theoretical Girls and Rhys Chatham experimented with noise, atonality and dissonance in an expanded sound palate more concerned with sonic texture than melody. Lyrics, if any, were often abrasive, fragmented, repetitive and surreal—reflective of the movement’s deeply rooted nihilism, boredom and anti-establishment values. The harsh style was demonstrative of their cynical worldview and disintegrating urban environment. Musicians of the No Wave were uninterested in commercial success, perceiving mass appeal as disingenuous and limiting. Glenn Branca of Theoretical Girls was quoted in The Soho News, “There’s no way in the world I’m going to have a mass audience… I see the music that catches on, and some of it may have a twist to it. But I’m all twist.”

Although at times stylistically similar, it is important to note that many musicians and artists of No Wave rejected the movement itself, as James Chance of the Contortions put it when asked if he belonged to a movement, “AARGHH!!! NO!! I DESPISE movements!! I'd never be part of any movement!” Perhaps the instinct to avoid this type of branding, used successfully by New Wave and Punk movements, was an attempt to avoid the commercial appeal of the mainstream that No Wave artists found so unappealing. Ironically, a year after the movement’s swan song at White Column’s 1981 Noise Fest, Steve Anderson of The Village Voice claimed that the No Wave scene was "New York's last stylistically cohesive avant-rock movement.”

The Kitchen’s specific involvement with No Wave is evident in the work of Rhys Chatham, director of The Kitchen’s music program from 1972-1973 and 1977-1980. At the time, No Wave groups commonly performed at bars such as the Mudd Club and Tier 3 as well as alternative art spaces like White Columns and Artists Space. Therefore it is not anomalous that Chatham programmed many No Wave concerts throughout his tenure at The Kitchen including DNA (described in the program bluntly as “a band”) in 1979, Theoretical Girls in 1978 and Glenn Branca in 1980. However, Chatham’s involvement in the No Wave as a musician and the lasting impact of his work at The Kitchen is worth examination. 

When Rhys Chatham founded The Kitchen’s music program in 1971 his own compositions engaged with the chance operations of Fluxus and John Cage as well as the serial music made by contemporaries like La Monte Young, Tony Conrad and Terry Riley. In 1972, Chatham performed “Music with Voice and Gongs” at The Kitchen, described by Tom Johnson in The Village Voice as “not so much a composition as a presentation of the sound of gongs.” This subdued composition of gongs played in sequence was emblematic of his serial work from this period. Although on his way to becoming a successful minimalist composer, by 1973 Chatham was questioning the vocabulary of minimalism and the limits of working in a classical tradition. In somewhat of an artistic crisis, he withdrew from his position as music director in order to focus on his own compositions. 

Chatham’s epiphany finally came in 1976 after attending a Ramones concert at CBGB with Peter Gordon. He was impressed by the complexity and raw power of The Ramones’ instrumentation and sensed a connection between the pared down minimalism he had been involved with and the noise of rock music. After the concert, he became increasingly interested in incorporating rock instrumentation into his own compositions. He imagined his extended-time compositions would sound interesting played on an electric guitar, but with a rock beat instead of an evolving pulse. 

Although initially inspired by The Ramones, Chatham had no desire to produce commercially successful rock music. Instead, he began to experiment with the techniques used by No Wave musicians to achieve sonic complexity in his own work. Chatham, in describing his initial interest in the No Wave, explained;

What amazed me about the No Wave bands was that they were incorporating elements that we normally associated with a classical tradition; like in the Contortions, James Nares was playing tone clusters on keyboard. In Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia Lunch was playing this completely out of tune guitar, and Arto in DNA was incorporating all these elements of noise in a way that was visceral rather than intellectual. (quoted in the program for Rhys Chatham: A 15 Year Retrospective, 1989)

However, Chatham shared motivations with other No Wave artists beyond stylistic. Like Lydia Lunch, Chatham wanted his music to “give feeling of what it means to be a young person living in New York today—the violence and the energy.” Furthermore, relating to his roots in Minimalism, Chatham was interested in pushing rock music past its limits as a genre. He wanted to introduce rock to non-rock contexts and challenge the dichotomy of classically inspired high music and popular low music. 

Chatham first picked up an electric guitar for the first time in 1976, and by 1977 he had composed his seminal guitar composition, Guitar Trio. He recommenced his role as director and began programming No Wave musicians and composers working with rock orchestration. His performance at The Kitchen in 1979 as part of New Music, New York was radically different than his 1972 performance of Music with Voice and Gongs. The serenity of gongs played serially in a simple setting was replaced by a trio of raucous guitars played atonally in front of Robert Longo’s video Pictures for Musi

Chatham described Guitar Trio as “a piece for rock musicians played by rock musicians in a rock context that was not rock.” This piece, though a definite departure from his earlier work, maintained a basic interest in music’s internal processes. His core focus was to create a work that used overtones as the primary material, itself a minimalist impulse. (Years earlier he had attempted the same feat with a harp.) However, Guitar Trio marked the replacement of Chatham’s classically trained serial style with the hardcore tonality of No Wave. As Chatham explains, “People of my ilk heard a new strain of extreme minimalism. The rock people heard a wall of noise.” 

Following Guitar Trio and the demise of the No Wave movement, Chatham would continue experimenting with “extreme minimalism.” In 1981 he presented Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments at The Kitchen, a concert premier of his new piece Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments accompanied by a series of his No Wave compositions including Guitar Trio, The Out of Tune Guitar and Acoustic Terror. Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments used the techniques Chatham had developed over the previous four years playing dissonant rock music to reintroduce “juxtaposed melodies” and harmonic movement, ending his No Wave period. 

The legacy of the No Wave is evident in bands like Sonic Youth, Bill’s Friends, The Beastie Boys (before 1983) and The Swans that continued exploring the scene's forays into noise and more abrasive territory. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth described the band’s use of layered guitar and dense rhythms as “evoking an atmosphere that could only be described as fucked-up modernism.” In a New York Times review of The Beastie Boys’ 1982 performance at The Kitchen, Jon Parales disparaged that “The Beastie Boys, none of whom is over 17 years old, jeered at the audience’s ages and college degrees.” Although the No Wave period had ended, an attraction to experimental, compositionally complex rock and abrasive, anti-establishment sentiment persisted. Lydia Lunch contends “If No Wave truly had influence, music today would be more psychotic, more outlandish, more dissident, more personal.”                                             

The influence of Rhys Chatham and the No Wave is still detectable in The Kitchen’s music program. Focused on experimentation, musicians, artists and bands that push the boundaries of genre and medium regularly perform here. Although lacking the nihilism of No Wave, works performed at The Kitchen have been described as psychotic, outlandish, dissident and personal. Synth Nights, a program with roots in The Kitchen’s electronic music program created by Rhys Chatham, represents a broad spectrum of musicians working across genres and disciplines. Recent performances include Penis (Sophia Cleary and Samara Davis) a self-described ‘feminist punk band’ committed to hardcore instrumentation and vulnerability in 2015 and I.U.D. (Lizzi Bougatsos and Sadie Laska) whose industrial noise, abrasive screams and inventive drum work has been described by ArtForum as “minimal, contagious noise” in 2016. 

No Wave, and specifically the work of Rhys Chatham, broke down the boundary between rock instrumentation and serious compositional work. This transgression, and others since, has fueled the activities of the music program as a lab for experimentation and innovation. From the Women’s Synth Workshop to the presentation of Helado Negro’s collection of songs for computer and voice, The Kitchen’s music program continues the pioneering work of Rhys Chatham, as both composer and music director, through experimentation and transgression.

Rhys Chatham and Robert Longo performing Guitar Trio at The Kitchen in 1981. Photo: Paula Court

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