Spy Music Fest: Rhys Chatham interviewed by Colin Langenus
“I’ve gotten really good at having a form in my head for something that makes a good 20-minute piece. But it all happens in the moment.”

Starting today, label Northern Spy will launch its second annual Spy Music Festival, a 16-day music marathon in New York that features the likes of Rhys Chatham, Loren Connors, Thurston Moore, Arthur Doyle, Magik Markers, Jason Lescalleet, Diamond Terrifier, and many more. This week, we’ve been posting interviews of artists playing at the fest, conducted by other artists playing at the fest. Read the previous feature, between PC Worship and Guardian Alien, here, and stay tuned for one more special feature on Monday.

For an artist like Rhys Chatham, whose pioneering works like Guitar Trio and Drastic Classicism were written decades ago, it’s tempting to contextualize his current musical output within a tight, narrative framework, with the implication that his best work remains in the past. But Chatham, who’s turning 60 this year, is not only entrenched in the ever-shifting modern music world, but also so attuned to his own methodologies that these sort of value judgments are besides the point. If Chatham himself has revived any of his earlier achievements (which he has in fact done with both aforementioned pieces), it’s because the music still had something to say. And so we get déjà vu and a trio of guitars that has, at one point, expanded to 100. But luckily we get a lot of new compositions and performances, too: aside from another massive guitar project, A Crimsom Grail (which saw a failed, then fantastic performance), Chatham of late has shown a renewed interest in the trumpet, with works like The Bern Project, Rêve Parisien, and his 2011 album on Northern Spy, Outdoor Spell.

Check out the the following Skype interview by Colin Langenus, formerly of USAISAMONSTER and currently of Colin L. Orchestra, CSC Funk Band, and Alien Whale. Chatham, who was in his adopted homeland Paris during the chat, talks about his outlook on composition/improvisation, his charmingly nerd-like interest in recording software, and how his shoulder is in good shape for Spy Music Fest.

Rhys Chatham plays trumpet with Ryan Sawyer (drums) tonight at Union Pool . Tomorrow, he’ll be playing guitar alongside a slew of six-stringers (Sarah Lipstate, Steve Gunn, and Chris Weiss, as well as members of Extra Life, Blues, and Bear In Heaven), with Kid Millions (Man Forever, Oneida) on drums. Meanwhile, Northern Spy, who released Colin L. Orchestra’s Infinite Ease/Good God and the final USAISAMONSTER album, will have Langenus’ Orchestra play July 6 at Death By Audio with Bird Names, Guardian Alien, and K Salvatore.


The first record I did with Northern Spy was made up entirely of trumpet stuff. You know? So I was playing trumpet on two of the pieces going through various looping devices — “Outdoor Spell” and “Crossing the Sword Bridge.” The third piece, “The Magician,” had Kevin Shea on drums and featured a French improviser named Jean-Marc Montera. And that worked out really nicely, but, I’ve had a number of trumpet records come out, so I think the next one I’m gonna do with Northern Spy… what I’d like it to be is a guitar record!

Great.

And so I’ve been working on a series of shorter pieces; pieces in the eight- to 10-minute range for the second album with them.

How big are the bands?

That’s a very good question. I’d like to bring back the smaller bands featuring maybe six electric guitars, bass, and drums, something in that area. But something definitely less than 100 electric guitars.

Cool. You know Rhys, one of the first times I heard you play electric guitar was backstage, and all you were doing was warming up.

Was Thurston there, too?

No, this was in Knoxville at that theatre, when you were playing with the metal band.

Oh, I remember that, yeah! That was a great gig.

I know you were just warming up, but I was blown away by your solo guitar. I just walked by to go to the bathroom or something. It sounded cool though. I’d love to hear you do something solo.

Oh wow, yeah. You know, in the context of the trumpet pieces I’m doing, I have a solo program. And I’ve taken to playing solo guitar in it.

Cool.

Yeah. You know… working guitar back into that act. And we’ll be performing that as part of the Northern Spy Festival. I’ll be working with Ryan Sawyer on drums for that particular engagement.

Great guy. Have you been writing for any other types of ensembles lately?

I just got a commission to write a 22-minute piece for a brass band.

Wow.

A big brass band with all the brass instruments and percussion. I just started working on it, and I’m very excited. I think there are, oh I don’t know, maybe 70 serious amateur musicians or so in this band. I’ve seen them on YouTube. It’s a French band that’s playing in a small town called Pontarlier. There’s going to be a documentary about the band. The filmmaker, Blaise Harrison, asked me to make a piece especially for them so he could do a documentary about the musicians learning it and performing it.

That sounds great… It’s going to be performed outdoors?

No, it’ll be performed in a concert hall. And I wasn’t quite sure what kind of music the filmmaker wanted. I don’t know if you know my piece “For Brass” that I did in 1982. It was for a brass octet. And I was really fortunate to get all the trumpet players from the Broadway musical Cats on the gig. Ron Tooley and Bob Sinclair, among others, and Olu Dara was playing on it, too. And they were hitting those high F notes: the high F above the high C, so it was really a kind of aggressive piece written for a brass section, for doing what brass players are supposed to do with section-like rhythms. [Chatham begins imitating horn ensemble rhythms]. So I played it for the filmmaker, but evidently what he was wanting was some of my more minimalist stuff. Like something cool and calm, you know… for the beach? Which I’m perfectly happy to do. So it’s going to be minimalist in nature. Inspired by composers like Phill Niblock, Gavin Bryars, and people like that.

Great. When you’re writing for pieces or anything [else], do you use MIDI programs, or manuscript paper, or recordings, multitrack; how do you compose?

It depends on the piece really. For the past year, I’ve been working mostly in an improvisational fashion. My trumpet pieces, when I play solo or duo formation, or even with a trio, all start out with improvisation. I’ve gotten really good at having a form in my head for something that makes a good 20-minute piece. But it all happens in the moment.

When I’m working on a piece, I record myself playing every day. Then I pick the one I like best and put it into a score format. I have a vocabulary of different things that I can play on trumpet, so I’ve either got my low pedal tones that I play or my George Lewis-type, frenetic kind of playing. In general, when I’m making a piece for trumpet or with me playing trumpet in an ensemble, it will start out as improvisation, and I score it afterwards. But when I’m writing a minimalist piece, like the current brass piece I’m working on, it’s different. I have to map the whole thing out in terms of its form. I need to know as much as possible about it — how long it’s going to be, what the tempo is going to be, what the instrumentation is going to be — and get everything mapped out. And what I know about this piece so far is that the tempo is going to be 126 and it will be in four sections. First section, seven minutes. Next one, six minutes. Next one, five minutes. Next one, four minutes. And I’ll probably start out on a B flat, but I’m not going to decide that until tomorrow.

Cool.

But with pieces like “Crimson Grail” or the piece I’m working on right now, in general, I take long walks and I hear the music in my head. I go back into the studio and write it down on paper. Once it’s sketched out in pencil on paper, I’ll put it into Sibelius. For notated pieces, [what] I was working with for a long time was Finale, but the problem for me was that you work with it for three months, you learn all the key commands, and then you go on tour with your improvisational gigs. Then you come back from the tour and you’d like to do another notated piece, but by then, one has forgotten all the key commands! The thing about Sibelius is that it’s much more user-friendly. I’ve just started using it. I’m excited to be working with it on this piece.

I’d like to bring back the smaller bands featuring maybe six electric guitars, bass, and drums, something in that area. But something definitely less than 100 electric guitars.

Okay cool. I haven’t used those programs yet. But I do a lot of recording and recording and recording… demo… demo…

Oh, so when recording I use… Whenever I pick up the trumpet, put it to my mouth, and start playing, I record. And it doesn’t matter what sequencer you use, whether it’s Pro Tools, or Logic, or Mark of the Unicorn; they’re all good. My personal flavor of the day is Logic Pro. Most of my electronic music composer friends use [Ableton] Live. Which I also have, but somehow I just ended up using Logic Pro.

Cool.

What do you use?

Well, I’ve used Pro Tools for years.

Me too.

And I’ve just started using Live.

Oh, you’re going to be so happy.

I already am. I’ve been using it a few months. It’s just so intuitive. I’ve never really written using grids and loops, but now I’m really excited to write with loops and grids with a tempo you can count on. And when I was young, I was against tempos that you could count on. Now, I’m pretty into it.

Most of my friends use Live. I have Live 6 or some earlier version, and for some reason I went back to Pro Tools. I use Live for certain things. Live can do so many things right now. And If you’re into using Max [an object-oriented programming language for music], it works well with that. I’m going to probably upgrade; what is it now, Live 8 or something like that?

Maybe even 9. I mix everything thing in Pro Tools though. I end up taking it out of Ableton and get it into Pro Tools, often adding overdubs. Just singing or acoustic stuff on Pro Tools on top of the thing.

Which Pro Tools are you on?

I have [Pro Tools] 3. But my studio-mate has 10; he has the new one. And we have a studio with a bunch of outboard gear and a nice old mixing board and Pro Tools 10.

Wow, man. I’m on 7, which I quite enjoyed but you had to use their hardware interface; with the later versions, you don’t have to use their hardware.

Exactly, it’s unbelievable.

And I think that the rendering time on 7 is the same time as the piece. That’s one of the reasons I switched to Logic, because it just renders it in like a minute. Does the new Pro Tools render very quickly?

Well there is a function that I figured out in the not-too-distant past, which is taking the piece and exporting it. I guess it would still have to be a mono or stereo wave at that point, so there would have to be some ‘real time’ I guess. Or maybe you could just consolidate it and then export it and then, instead of a long real time bounce, it just takes a minute or 30 seconds or something.

In any case, they’re all good. They’re all good at doing different things. So it’s nice to have your fingers dabbing around in all of them.

Yeah, I’m just kicking myself right now because I wrote this thing in this one tempo and I changed the tempo two BPMs. Now, I’m between two programs. That’s the one thing I have to learn about programming drums now. It takes a while to figure that tempo out, and when you’re wrong, boy, you’re wrong.

I saw the piece with Oneida at the Lincoln Center thing. Maybe you want to talk about the pieces that you brought to that?

Yeah with Oneida; we got together a number of times at their studio in Brooklyn. I think I made maybe three pieces for them and they contributed three pieces. We arrived at them basically through jamming. We did a lot of playing together. For a couple of pieces, after I played with them and after I had an idea of what their sound was, I came in with some written material. For their pieces, they would have a basic riff or a basic idea or a basic feeling. “This is what the feeling is and… go for it.” That’s how we worked with them. I had a really, really good time playing with those guys. I felt very comfortable with them. And I’m very happy that for one of the shows that we’re doing on the Northern Spy festival, we’re going to do a version of “Guitar Trio” at the Issue Project Room. I’m pleased to report that Kid Millions of Oneida will be playing drums on that.

Great, he’s a great drummer. And you’re doing two performances during the Spy Music Festival? One with Guitar Trio and one with Ryan [Sawyer]?

Yes. The one with Ryan will be at Union Pool.

Whenever I pick up the trumpet, put it to my mouth, and start playing, I record. And it doesn’t matter what sequencer you use, whether it’s Pro Tools, or Logic, or Mark of the Unicorn; they’re all good.

Yeah, and then the piece with Sawyer is the piece… or the music you’re playing… that is also stuff that you do without drummers, guitar, and trumpet?

Yeah, the material that I do can be done as a solo or with other instruments.

I’m going to get together with Ryan beforehand, so undoubtedly working with him will change the nature of the music. It will start out with a trumpet piece, going through the looping devices that I use. And there will be a guitar piece where I have the guitar tuned to just intonation. And we’ll finish with another trumpet piece.

Before, what I’ve been doing is taking a mono trumpet line and going through an ABC switcher so that I can channel it to different parts of the room. Stage left, stage right, or center. And before, I was using three Line 6 delay modelers to do this. But I just did a performance in Paris with the image artist Angie Eng and my equipment case weighed 30 kilos, which I guess is about 75 pounds. Anyway, I put my shoulder out carrying it after the gig! I said, “You know, it’s time for me to find a software solution for these looping devices.” And I did. And it’s working out very nicely.

There’s this program which you can download for free on the internet called Super Looper, which does similar stuff. The nice thing about the Line 6 and the reason that I got into it in the first place is that it’s not like the Boss looping device, wherein you put a loop in and it just continues to play the loop indefinitely. With the Line 6, you put the loop in and as you add other loops, the previous loops start to die out. It sounds like kind of a Frippertronics effect with the two Revox machines, or the Terry Riley Poppy Nogood & The Phantom Band kind of thing where you have two Revox tape recorders with the tape delay happening and feeding back from the second one to the first one. You get multiple layers but as you add things, then previous things die out, and it’s very, very beautiful.

The Line 6 simulates this effect quite well, and I’m happy to report that the Super Looper does the same thing. So instead of my equipment bag weighing 75 pounds, I think it’s only going to way about 30 pounds! So my shoulder should be in good shape for the gig.

Beautiful. Beautiful, Rhys. Well I didn’t have any brilliant ideas or questions to ask you, but what I wanted to talk about was writing and not gear, but essential just sort of nerdy technical stuff, so I’m glad we did that.

So we got that in, yeah? Excellent.

That’s what I want people to think about: the process. Gigs are cool, but the writing and stuff, that’s my favorite part.

Everyone has a different way of going about it, and it’s interesting to know what the different musicians do.

Good luck with the new piece; I’m excited about it.

Good luck with your mastering.