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Rhys Chatham

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Title: Rhys Chatham  
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Subject: Totalism, Table of the Elements, Glenn Branca, Joseph Nechvatal, Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine
Collection: 1952 Births, 20Th-Century American Musicians, 20Th-Century Classical Composers, 21St-Century American Musicians, 21St-Century Classical Composers, American Classical Composers, American Composers, American Expatriates in France, American Experimental Musicians, American Male Classical Composers, American Male Composers, Experimental Composers, Living People, Microtonal Musicians, Moers Music Artists, Musicians from New York City, No Wave Musicians, Northern Spy Records Artists, Postmodern Composers, Pupils of La Monte Young, Pupils of Pran Nath (Musician)
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Rhys Chatham

Rhys Chatham
Background information
Born (1952-09-19) September 19, 1952
Origin New York City, New York, U.S.
Genres Minimalism, No wave, experimental rock
Occupation(s) Composer, guitarist, music theorist, trumpeter
Instruments Electric guitar, trumpet
Years active 1971–present
Labels Northern Spy Records
Nonesuch Records
Moers Musc
Dossier Records
NTone/ Ninja Tune
Table of the Elements
Wire Editions
Associated acts Tony Conrad
Eliane Radigue
La Monte Young
Band of Susans
Martin Wheeler
Notable instruments
Electric guitar, amplified trumpet

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. He has lived in France since 1987.


  • Early years 1
  • Compositions from the late 1970s and early 1980s 2
  • Recent activity 3
  • Discography 4

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.

His concert productions included experimenters Maryanne Amacher, Robert Ashley, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and early alternative rockers such as Fred Frith, Robert Fripp, Arto Lindsay, and John Lurie. He has worked closely with visual artist/musician Robert Longo, particularly in the 1980s, and on an experimental opera called XS: The Opera Opus (1984-6) with the visual artist Joseph Nechvatal.

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 was particularly intrigued by and influential upon the group of artists 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").

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.)

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
Photo Hreinn Gudlaugsson

In 2002, he enjoyed a resurgence following the release of a limited-edition 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.

Chatham has continued to tour the original version of Guitar Trio in Europe throughout 2007 and 2008, including performances at:

  • Festival Desgressions - 7 March 2007, Barcelona, Spain
  • L'Ecole Régionale de Beaux Arts - 25, 26 April 2007, Valence, France
  • Kosmische Club - 10 August 2007, Oslo, Norway
  • ZXZW Independent Culture Festival - 22, 23 September 2007, Tilburg, the Netherlands
  • Festival Soy - 29 October 2007, Nantes, France
  • Galleria Toledo - 26 March 2008, Naples, Italy
  • State-X Festival - 12 December 2008, The Hague, the Netherlands

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.

was on August 8, 2009A Crimson GrailThe American premiere of . 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.


  • Factor X (LP), Moers Music 1983
    • For Brass (1982)
    • Guitar Ring (1982)
    • The Out Of Tune Guitar (1982)
    • Cadenza (1981)
  • Die Donnergötter (LP), Dossier Records (Europe)/Homestead Records (USA) 1987
    • Die Donnergötter (1984–86)
    • Waterloo No. 2 (1986)
    • Guitar Trio (1977)
    • Drastic Classicism (1982)
  • Neon (12", CDEP), Ntone 1997
    All compositions in collaboration with Martin Wheeler.
    • Charm (1996)
    • Ramatek (1994)
    • Hornithology (1996)
    • Neon (1993)
  • Septile (12", CD EP), Ntone 1997
    All compositions in collaboration with Jonathan Kane & DJ Elated System.
  • Hardedge, The Wire Editions 1999
    Made in collaboration with Pat Thomas, Gary Smith, Gary Jeff, Lou Ciccotelli.
  • A Rhys Chatham Compendium (CD), Table of the Elements 2002
    Limited-edition CD featuring selections and edits from the An Angel Moves Too Fast To See box-set.
    • An Angel Moves Too Fast To See (1989) [edit]
    • Guitar Trio (1977) [edit]
    • Drastic Classicism (1982) [edit]
    • Two Gongs (1971) [edit]
    • Guitar Cetet (1977) [bonus track not contained in box set]
    • Waterloo, No. 2 (1986) [edit]
    • Die Donntergötter (1985) [complete version]
  • An Angel Moves Too Fast To See (Selected Works 1971-1989) (3xCD box set), Table of the Elements 2002
    • disc 1:
      • Two Gongs (1971)
    • disc 2:
      • Die Donnergötter (1985)
      • Waterloo, No. 2 (1986)
      • Drastic Classicism (1982)
      • Guitar Trio (1977)
      • Massacre on MacDougal Street (1982)
    • disc 3:
      • An Angel Moves Too Fast To See (1989)
  • Echo Solo (LP), Azoth Schallplatten Gesellschaft 2003
  • Die Donnergötter (LP, CD), Table of the Elements/Radium 2006
    • Die Donnergötter (1985/86)
    • Waterloo, No. 2 (1986)
    • Drastic Classicism (1982)
    • Guitar Trio (1977)
    • Massacre on MacDougal Street (1982)
Two Gongs (1971) album cover.
  • A Crimson Grail (For 400 Electric Guitars) (CD), Paris Version / Indoor Version, Table of the Elements 2007
  • The Bern Project (CD), Hinterzimmer Records 2010
    • War In
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