Rhys Chatham – Harmonie du soir (2013)

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The 1970s No Wave movement spawned some dark, aggressive, and beautiful music. Do those adjective belong together? Of course! Though I didn’t know it at the time, my first exposure to the genre came indirectly via Sonic Youth, as members Thurson Moore and Lee Ranaldo both spent some time in the ensemble of guitar terrorist Glenn Branca. A short step back in this musical history reveals that Branca played in Rhys Chatham’s early guitar trio. Chatham and Branca were kindred spirits, sharing a penchant for the sound of many electric guitars (sometimes hundreds!) playing in unison, generating throbbing walls of sound along with endless waves of overtones.

Many years later, I was channel-surfing and came across a segment of video that featured a sound stage full of modern dancers and a rock band of sorts. The music was kinetic and abrasive but the pairing drew me in — the seemingly “incorrect” juxtaposition of modern dance with these loud, ravaging sounds. That music was Rhys Chatham’s “Drastic Classicism,” a composition Chatham has rerecorded for the closing piece on Harmonie du soir, being released today on Northern Spy Records.

The chosen instrumentation aside (over the years, Chatham has included percussion, strings, horns, and voice in his repertoire of sound), his career has been heavily influenced by the music of his early colleagues, namely Tony Conrad and (especially) La Monte Young. Their systems of just intonation were adapted for use with his early compositions as well present day work.

On the title track, we have electric bass, drums, and six electric guitars: four strung with two low D strings tuned up to E, and then four high E strings; a fifth guitar set up with two low A strings and four G strings tuned up to A, and a final guitar loaded with two low E strings and four D strings tuned up to E. The piece begins with two repeated notes forming a pedal point that will be joined by the drums, setting up a light vamp. The bass arrives later to increase the pulse. Guitars are slowing layered on as the resultant chord takes on more harmonic weight. With the players employing clean tones, the generated overtones end up sounding like a seventh guitar, particularly in the sections where the insistent groove pauses for a series of crashing, open chords. Nearing the composition’s midpoint, there’s a bridge section that features chains of ascending, tension-building chords. We’re then off into a different groove with the guitars dropping chords to the left and right in the stereo image (headphones do help here). It’s a great change of pace, one that builds up a decent head of steam before the restatement of the original theme.

A similar slow construction occurs during “Harmonie du Pontarlier: The Dream of Rhonabwy,” though with completely different instrumentation. Written for the 70-piece brass ensemble, Harmonie du Pontarlier, Chatham worked out the melody on his instrument of choice (trumpet), and then proceeded to extend the harmonic possibilities to their logical conclusion. The glacial addition of tonal color is reminiscent of Philip Glass, particularly his Music With Changing Parts. But then Chatham breaks the hypnotic movement just prior to the 12 minute mark with an abrupt injection of melody. The change is almost shocking. From that point on, further layers materialize to form a giant, shimmering beast of a chord. Tremendous stuff.

Finally, we have “Drastic Classism Revisited.” Chatham has added some trumpet to the original material. It’s a bright red line drawn through the gray, atonal mass of chords. Coming on the heels of the relatively well-behaved “The Dream of Rhonabwy,” what we have here is one scabrous sonic punch to the kidneys. Also, a fine example of what the original No Wave period was all about.

Like a lot of Chatham’s work, Harmonie du soir is a hybrid of rock music infused with classical/new music ideas. Tough to pin down, but endlessly rewarding.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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