Rhys Chatham: “Drastic Classical Music for Electric Instruments”


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.

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! 

watch the video HERE