Rhys Chatham

Rhys Chatham
Rhys with trpt17xii08a.jpg
Background information
Born (1952-09-19) September 19, 1952 (age 70)
OriginNew York City, New York, U.S.
GenresMinimalism, no wave, experimental rock
Occupation(s)Composer, guitarist, music theorist, trumpeter
Instrument(s)Electric guitar, trumpet
Years active1971–present
LabelsNorthern Spy Records
Nonesuch Records
Moers Musc
Dossier Records
NTone/ Ninja Tune
Table of the Elements
Wire Editions

Rhys Chatham (born September 19, 1952) is an American composer, guitarist, trumpet player, multi-instrumentalist (flutes in C, alto and bass, keyboard), primarily active in avant-garde and minimalist music. He is best known for his "guitar orchestra" compositions.[1] He has lived in France since 1987.

Early years[]

Chatham began his musical career as a piano tuner for avant-garde pioneer La Monte Young as well as harpsichord tuner for Gustav Leonhardt, Rosalyn Tureck and Glenn Gould. He studied flute under Sue Ann Kahn, with whom he first encountered contemporary music, and studied soon afterwards under electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick and minimalist icon La Monte Young and was a member of Young's group, The Theater of Eternal Music, during the early seventies; Chatham also played with Tony Conrad in an early version of Conrad's group, The Dream Syndicate. In 1971, while still in his teens, Chatham became the first music director at the experimental art space The Kitchen in lower Manhattan. His early works, such as Two Gongs (1971) owed a significant debt to Young and other minimalists.[2]

Compositions from the late 1970s and early 1980s[]

By 1977, Chatham's music was heavily influenced by punk rock, having seen an early Ramones concert. He formed the No Wave groups Tone Death and The Gynecologists after being intrigued and influenced by the group of artists that music critics would label No Wave in 1978. That year, he began performing Guitar Trio around downtown Manhattan with an ensemble that included Glenn Branca, as well as Nina Canal of Ut. During this period, he wrote several works for large guitar ensembles, including Drastic Classicism, a collaboration with dancer Karole Armitage. 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. It was also included on the 1987 album that also included his 1982 composition Die Donnergötter (German for "The Thundergods").

In 1978, Artists Space served as a site of inception for the No Wave movement, hosting a five night underground no wave music festival, organized by artists Michael Zwack and Robert Longo, that featured ten local bands; including Chatham's The Gynecologists and Tone Death.[3]

Members of the New York City noise rock band Band of Susans began their careers in Chatham's ensembles; they later performed a cover of Chatham's "Guitar Trio" on their 1991 album, The Word And The Flesh. (This parallels the way that members of fellow NYC noise rockers Sonic Youth began their careers in Branca's ensembles; Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth did play with Chatham as well.)[4]

Chatham began playing trumpet in 1983, studying under Carmine Curuso and Andrew Crocker, and his more recent works explore an early minimalist vocabulary employing loop/delay trumpet techniques; these are performed by Chatham himself. Examples of this work can be heard on the album Outdoor Spell, released by Northern Spy Records (NS 004) in 2011, and a recent duo album with Charlemagne Palestine, entitled Youuu + Mee = Weee, released on the Belgium SubRosa Label (SR637) in 2014.

Recent activity[]

Rhys Chatham in Aarhus Denmark 2013

In 2002, he enjoyed a resurgence following the release of a limited-ion 3 CD retrospective box set on the record label Table of the Elements, An Angel Moves Too Fast To See: Selected Works 1971-1989, complete with 130-page booklet. The An Angel Moves Too Fast To See part of the title comes from Chatham's 1989 composition for 100 guitars. He has been since touring with his 100-guitar orchestra in Europe.

In 2005, he was commissioned by the city of Paris, in his adopted homeland, to write a composition for 400 electric guitars entitled A Crimson Grail, as part of the Nuit Blanche Festival. Approximately 10,000 people were present at the performance, and 100,000 more watched it on live television. A CD of excerpts from this concert was released in January 2007 by Table Of The Elements.

Rhys Chatham is currently touring the original 30 minute version of Guitar Trio in the USA and Europe, renamed G3 because the instrumentation has been increased to between six and ten electric guitars, electric bass and drums. In February 2007 he completed a twelve-city tour called the Guitar Trio (G3) Is My Life North America Tour, which was accompanied by the original film by Robert Longo that was projected behind the performance, entitled Pictures for Music (1979). The sets consisted of local musicians from each city of the performances, including members of Sonic Youth, Tortoise, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Hüsker Dü, Brokeback, 90 Day Men, Town & Country, Die Kreuzen, Bird Show and others. A three-CD box set of these performances was released by Table of the Elements in March 2008.

Rhys Chatham made his first American presentation of a composition for a one-hundred guitar orchestra in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on May 23, 2008, with an orchestra composed of local students and teachers, as well as many professional guitarists. This performance was the premiere of a new composition entitled Les 100 Guitares: G100.

The American premiere of A Crimson Grail was on August 8, 2009. Two-hundred electric guitarists performed the piece at the Damrosch Park Bandshell in New York City. The performance was part of a free concert series, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, that was being commissioned by the Lincoln Center. Originally, the piece was supposed to be performed for 2008's Lincoln Center Out of Doors, but rain canceled the concert for safety reasons. For the 2009 premiere, precautions were taken so that the concert could go on even if it rained.

Concurrent with his work for guitar orchestras and smaller ensembles, Chatham's trumpet style has evolved from its characteristic distorted sound of the 90s to its present more dreamy and laid back approach to playing the instrument, influenced by players such as Don Cherry and Jon Hassell. Examples of this style can be heard on Chatham's releases, The Bern Project, released by Hinterzimmer Records in January 2010, and Outdoor Spell, released in March 2011 by Northern Spy Records.


Album cover for Two Gongs (1971).
Album cover for Rêve Parisien.

See also[]


  1. ^ Alan Licht, Common Tones: Selected Interviews with Artists and Musicians 1995-2020, Blank Forms Edition, Interview with Rhys Chatham, pp.421-451
  2. ^ Steve Smith, "Where Classic Avant-Garde Gets a Hint of Heavy Metal", New York Times, September 13, 2006
  3. ^ Reynolds, Simon (2005). "Contort Yourself: No Wave New York". Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978–84. London: Faber and Faber, Ltd. pp. 139–157
  4. ^ Minimal Music, Maximal Impact by Kyle Gann

External links[]