Video Viewing Room: Rhys Chatham


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Rhys Chatham, Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments

Performed at The Kitchen on April 17, 1981

Please visit The Kitchen OnScreen to view this page alongside other content from the Video Viewing Room series.

Newly Released Introductory Text by Rhys Chatham

At the end of the 1960s, I was making electronically generated music whose vocabulary consisted entirely of overtones and pitches tuned in just intonation. I had been trained as a harpsichord tuner and had tuned La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano at the dawn of the seventies during my student days with him, so tuning the pitches by ear in my own pieces was a relatively simple procedure for me. 

My music evolved from this starting point. I was a hard-core minimalist and was experimenting with non-notated music of various sorts at that point. This led to my interest in improvisation and my work with Frederic Rzewski’s group, Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) NY. The “jazz loft” scene was in full swing in New York during this period. By the mid-1970s New York was saturated with improvised music. I grew tired of it and searched for something else.

I took a look at the various musical strains prevalent on the art music scene in New York at that time: composers such as Young and Charlemagne Palestine were working with music in just intonation; Philip Glass was pioneering process music; Steve Reich was exploring the implications of phase music; and Frederic Rzewski was weighing the differences between notated and non-notated music.

It was around this time I went to hear my first rock concert at CBGB’s—it was the Ramones. While hearing them, I realized that, as a minimalist, I had more in common with this music than I thought. I was attracted by the sheer energy and raw power of the sound as well as chord progressions, which were not dissimilar from some of the process music I had been hearing at the time.

Although it was true that I considered myself an art music composer working with rock instrumentation in a rock context (making music that I insisted was art music), the fact of the matter was that my music at this time was not “not rock.” The point of interest was that the signification of my pieces radically changed depending on the audience and context I was playing in, even though the music we played for each was virtually the same. 

Chatham Pc 81

In 1981, I made a piece entitled Drastic Classicism (alternately known as Drastic Classical Music for Electronic Music) for four electric guitars, electric bass, and drums. The guitars were in special, dissonant tunings in just intonation—dissonant both in relation to themselves and to each other. Because a good deal of the melodic movement in Drastic Classicism rested with the higher overtones generated by the electric guitars, and because these overtones are rather soft, the musicians in my ensemble tended to turn their guitar amplifiers up to obscenely high levels of sound in order to reinforce the amplitude of the delicate higher harmonics. This poetic gesture was interpreted in different ways, depending on who was doing the listening.

For an art-music audience at a venue such as the Kitchen, both Guitar Trio (1977) and Drastic Classicism were vigorous new strains of overtone-based minimalism—lyrical in content and structurally austere—that synthesized two different traditions of music to arrive at a striking new form. On the other hand, in a rock context, I can say with considerable pride that Drastic Classicism was one of the pieces which inspired the noise-rock movement. The sonority of Drastic was so complex that what the musicians in my ensemble were hearing as a kind of viscous, gelatinous sphere of shimmering overtones, the rock community heard as an ear shattering wall-of-sound! 

At first, I wasn’t sure I liked this characterization of what I was doing. But then I realized that Drastic Classicism was a composition that told a story to the listener, but somehow it was the listener’s story. Everyone heard the piece in a different way. I hadn’t started out with the intention of invoking the time-hallowed rock tradition of aurally assaulting an audience, but I gradually grew comfortable with the idea. Since I was evidently taking the use of noise in rock to new extremes, I decided to let the label stick for the time being.

Chathamand Armitage

Drastic Classicism was originally performed at Dance Theater Workshop as part of a dance/theater piece by the choreographer Karole Armitage. We have since presented the music portion in both rock and art contexts all over the world. In the video recording of a performance at The Kitchen in the spring of 1981, we see and hear a live recording of Drastic Classicism, which was presented as part of a mini-retrospective of my rock-influenced pieces spanning the years 1977–1981.* The performers included the musicians who premiered the piece: Nina Canal, Scott Johnson, and Ned Sublette on electric guitars and David Linton on drums. 

 It was David who defined the drum sound of Drastic Classicism. And it was Scott Johnson who actually taught me how to play electric guitar, but that’s another story! I’m pleased to say that I continue to play with these musicians in various contexts, to this very day. And I’m delighted that Karole revived and revised the complete version of Drastic Classicism in 2009 and has toured extensively with it with Steven Gunn, Sarah Lipstate, Tom Gerke, and Matt Motel on electric guitars and Kevin Shea on drums.

Drastic Classicism was first released in 1982 on the compilation New Music from Antarctica, put together by Kit Fitzgerald, John Sanborn, and Peter Laurence Gordon with help from The Kitchen. It was also included on the 1987 album that includes my 1982 composition Die Donnergötter (German for “The Thundergods”). Drastic Classicism was re-released on Radium records in 2006 as part of the boxed set An Angel Moves Too Fast to See.

Rhys Chatham, Paris, April 2020

*  Click here to view the press release for the 1981 mini-retrospective Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments, which included six compositions by Chatham—Wild Romance (1980), The Out of Tune Guitar (1979), Guitar Trio (1977), Acoustic Terror (1980), Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments (1981), and 36 Short Stories (1981).

Chatham Press Release Detail

Chatham Longo Pc 81

Rhys Chatham is a composer, guitarist, trumpet player, and flutist from Manhattan, currently living in Paris. Chatham was the first Music Director of The Kitchen from 1971–1973, and he returned to that role from 1977–1980. He studied under La Monte Young and Morton Subotnick. Influenced by minimalist, experimental, and electronic music and punk rock, Chatham has collaborated with artists across genres, including Glenn Branca, Karole Armitage, and Robert Longo. Other performers in his ensembles have been Maryanne Amacher, Philip Glass, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and Arto Lindsay. To learn more about Chatham’s work, visit our Archive Site.

Images: 1) Still from recording of Rhys Chatham: Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments at The Kitchen, April 17, 1981. 2) Recording of Rhys Chatham: Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments at The Kitchen, April 17, 1981. From the collection of The Kitchen Archive, ca. 1971–1999. The Getty Research Institute. 3) Rhys Chatham, David Linton, Nina Canal, and Ned Sublette performing in Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments at The Kitchen, April 17, 1981. © Paula Court. 4) Rhys Chatham and Karole Armitage, date unknown. Photographer unknown. 5) Detail of press release for Rhys Chatham: Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments at The Kitchen, April 17, 1981. 6) Rhys Chatham and Robert Longo performing in Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments at The Kitchen, April 17, 1981. © Paula Court.

The Video Viewing Room series makes recent video works and archival performance recordings available online for one month at a time. This initiative revives The Kitchen’s longstanding Video Viewing Room—a dedicated space within our buildings from 1975 through the early 1990s. Functioning at first as a resource facility where visitors could watch their own tapes or view videos from The Kitchen’s archive and collection, in fall 1978 the Video Viewing Room began to feature curated programs of artists’ videos. To see a hand-drawn floor plan that shows where the Video Viewing Room was located within The Kitchen’s space at 59 Wooster Street circa 1984, click here.

Video Viewing Room: Rhys Chatham is made possible with the support of the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund in The New York Community Trust; annual grants from Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation and Howard Gilman Foundation; and in part by public funds from New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

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