For solo gigs, Chatham has an evolved rig that includes a Mackie mixer, a Boomerang looper, and an ART Studio V3 Tube MP preamp. He often goes direct into the PA. Photo by Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
You mean, you weren’t just checking your email?
It was really overkill! I hate standing onstage with a laptop, because I don’t want people to think I’m running a program. There were a couple of times when I tried to use Super Looper, which is a software program that does essentially what the Boomerang or the three Line 6s will do. As a touring musician, I’m always looking for ways to make my touring gear more compact. During a certain period, it might have been around then, I had the idea that things might be lighter if I had the looper in the computer. And it was lighter, but the problem with computers is if something goes wrong onstage, you’re not gonna figure it out if it happens during the concert. It’s just too complex.
I use programs like Finale or Sibelius, or sequencers like Logic or Ableton Live—things like that. If I was an electronic composer working, let’s say, exclusively with Ableton Live, and it was simply a matter of turning various loops on and off within the program, I’d feel confident enough with that. But the thing about Super Looper was that it had to interact with an external MIDI device, and there were just so many things that could go wrong that it scared me. I could have spent maybe six months mastering it, but I just preferred to go back to the stompboxes.
Do you have an amp preference? I’ve noticed sometimes on your solo shows that you go direct through a mixer.
For a long time I used the Roland Jazz Chorus 120, but I didn’t turn it up very high. Three on the gain would be plenty. I liked it because of its clean sound. The hardest, most difficult amp to work with, on Guitar Trio for example, was always a Marshall. A Marshall just isn’t made to be clean. It’s made to put a Gibson guitar through, and to be highly distorted. It sounds great like that. But for Guitar Trio, I’d have to put the preamp on 1 or one-half just to get a halfway decent sound.
So I preferred the Jazz Chorus, but what I’ve been using for the last 10 years or so on tour has been the Fender Twin. It makes sense, right? Compared to the Roland, they’re bloody heavy, but in general the sound works out perfectly.
Can describe some of the specifics of the Telecaster sound that appeal to you?
Well, again, it’s on the twangy, trebly side, and because I’m working… you know, I got my start as a harpsichord tuner. I’ve always been involved in tuning, and later having studied with La Monte Young and worked with [avant-garde composer] Tony Conrad, I got into just intonation heavily. And I found that the overtones are very soft, but when you put them through an amplifier, of course they become very loud. And I’ve found the Fender sound has been perfect for working with these overtones directly. Like in Guitar Trio, the overtones generated by the low E string are the entire melodic vocabulary of the piece. When you first hear it, everyone is just playing the low E, but then you start hearing all this other stuff happening on top of it, which, of course, is the overtones.
That’s what I’ve always loved about your piece. It develops slowly, but then the melodies start emerging and you can sense the movement.
Yeah, and later on in the piece it gets into angelic choirs, which are coming from the fundamental frequencies, but it’s the overtones that are generated by the six strings of the guitar. I’ve found, for that kind of music, the Fender sound just works best for me.
What are you working on now?
I’m playing a concert in Budapest next week, which I’m really excited about because I’ve never been there. I’ve seen all those Matrix movies [laughs] and I understand it’s a very beautiful city. I’m billing it as a Pythagorean Dream concert. But what I’ve been working on most recently is trying to change the material. I’ve had this set for the last year or so, and I’ve perfected it, so now I’m trying to break it into something else.
The next project is to develop a new son or daughter of Guitar Trio. It’s a piece that’ll come out of that, probably in 2018. We’re hoping to develop that at the Issue Project Room in New York, with locally recruited musicians from Brooklyn. We’re still settling on the guitarists, but I’ll develop the music in my studio here in Paris, and then work on it with the actual musicians.
Compositional ground zero for Rhys Chatham is his work Guitar Trio, which was a breakthrough piece in the mid 1970s as he set out on his exploration of harmonic minimalism on guitar. For this performance at a French arts center in 2011, he’s reunited with his longtime guitar foil Nina Canal, who’s playing a very bright green Telecaster.