Rhys Chatham Harmonie du Soir

[Northern Spy; 2013]

Styles: minimalism, no wave, post-rock, semantic impenetrability.
Others: Glenn Branca, Larval/Bill Brovold, Charlemagne Palestine, Xenakis.

Excerpts from Wallace Berry, Structural Functions in Music (1987):

.”.. changes in dynamic intensity or textural density have more palpable persuasive force than a relatively elusive factor like that of tonal fluctuation.” (p. 5)

Relevance to Rhys Chatham, Harmonie du Soir (2013): the album is nothing but dynamic intensity and textural density. It’s an insurgent denial of the importance of pitch and a single-finger salute to the expressivity of melody.

“For example, it is clear that the process of digression from and resolution into a primary tonal system will have little or no significance in certain styles; or the action of melodic line in rising and falling […] may in particular instances be in part irrelevant or utterly inapplicable.” (p. 5)

Relevance: Harmonie du Soir has no melodies; there are barely any descents or ascents of tone, yet the mastery of rhythm, volume, and accentuation exhibited by Chatham and his six-guitar ensemble in the title track imbues it with enough variation and potency to hint at the kind of sublime narrative that would be denuded to the point of evisceration by something so crudely explicit as a tune. Such sublimity isn’t of the transmundane order conveyed by, say, Glenn Branca’s Symphony No. 2 or “The Ascension,” since the piece is grounded more in rock tropes than classical, yet the absence of tonal articulation still nonetheless intimates an experience suspended just beyond the effable.

“The rates at which events (changes) take place within the various structural parameters, and the patterns into which events group themselves, are of decisive significance in expressive effect of the musical experience.” (p. 301)

Relevance: The eschewing of melody and intonation entails that the album is more repetitive than most of its obvious counterparts (including Die Donnergötter, to which it bears mainly a superficial resemblance), since the same chords and notes are reiterated throughout the duration of entire sections and movements. This would imply a deficit of “expressive effect,” but in actual fact there is no such lack, the reason being that a sufficient number of non-tonal “events” and “changes” occur across the 22 minutes of “Harmonie du Soir” for absorption, anticipation, and acceleration to implant themselves. These events not only include crescendoes and abrupt increases in volume, but also accretions of texture, subtle digressions in the rhythm and emphases of particular phrases, and surges in tempo. Together, they suggest the dispensability of the melodic, that it was only ever a vessel for and inflection of rhythmic events (and not the other way around), and ultimately they transcend its constraints and captures, since in its scalar parallel of the enunciative human voice, in its simulation of speech and song, melody essentially functions to assimilate and integrate a piece of music within semiotic systems, that is, within the Western Logos.

“The range of significant, plausible interpretations of rhythmic structure is often of particular breadth and diversity; and the possible validity of differing conclusions must be noted as an important object of analysis. The subjective and often elusive criteria at the root of particular interpretations are especially evident in the study of accent-delineated metric structure.” (p. 303)

Relevance: Harmonie du Soir’s focus on rhythm, repetition, and stress, its serialization of motives that on their own deviate only fractionally from their insistent amelodic pulsations, engender a scenario where the listener — if she is to “discover” any meaning — is forced to devote a greater share of her attention to subtle variations and permutations in how, for example, electric guitars are strummed and snares are percussed. It’s often said that compositions of this kind are “meditative,” but what isn’t so often remarked is that meditation arises because, in the courting of under-stimulation and sensory deprivation, such music compels the agency of the auditor to enter the fray, where it augments and accentuates the object of its attention, exaggerating alterations in timbre, texture, and timing, in order to sustain the impression (or illusion?) of its movement through space-time. This effect is generated often throughout the LP, and in foregrounding the listener’s active involvement in micro-digressions, inconstancies, and partitions, Chatham and co. effectively end up causing her to question whether her perceptions of more tangible escalations (and there are several) might also be shaped by the dithering of her senses. Such questioning assumes an ominous overtone with “Harmonie du Pontarlier: The Dream of Rhonabwy,” in which the sustained yet (almost imperceptibly) wavering cries of a brass section foster an insecurity that’s only amplified by their periodic bursts into a wall of portentous sound. It’s almost as if the whole piece and its pregnant swaying from stasis to bluster is a dramatization of the misgivings, suspicions, and anxieties that can be cast over the subjective arbitrations of perception.

“Texture functions in complementary relation to the structures of other elements, in the end achieving the release of spent intensity in a number of aspects, texture included, a release which is compensatory to the persistently static (finally dissonant) tonal condition resolved only in the main body of the movement.” (p. 280)

Relevance: Aside from its often cathartic structuration of rhythmic events, Harmonie du Soir justifies itself and conveys its power through sheer physical weight and thickness, which wouldn’t have been possible if the complications of melody had been a central figure in its monomaniacal symphonies. Final track “Drastic Classicism Revisited” is the clearest example of this tendency, its fleet tempo and brutal drum rolls amassing extra force simply via the sheets of feedback, distortion, and chord-thrashing that are layered on top of each other in a prolonged flight of vitriol. Definitely the album’s most energized track, and even more crushing than the “Drastic Classicism” it revisits, it stands as the completion of Chatham’s repudiation of pitch as the essence of music and its eloquence, breathing as it does a tumult that wouldn’t be as captivating or enigmatic if it were crudely spelled out in the voyeurism of melody. And even if it can be said that this track, as well as the album as a whole, does repeat over some of the ground that’s been covered before — both by Chatham himself and by his few peers — its heightemed fixation on the surprisingly rich nuances of rhythm and texture ensures that it’s worth every second of rapt concentration it demands.

“My wife, to whom this book is dedicated, has helped in many ways, even in such tiresome chores as proofreading, but particularly, and critically, in her quiet encouragement through pressured times, and in her everlasting patience with my brooding preoccupations during such times.” (p. xiv)

Relevance: None.

Links: Rhys Chatham - Northern Spy

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