Rhys Chatham – Pythagorean Dream (2016)

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feature photo: Roland Owsnitzki

The dauntless, experimental minimalist musician Rhys Chatham has been picking up ideas and styles and incorporating them into his own sonic sculptures since he spent his teens as an understudy to the great Le Monte Young in the early 70s. Like many restless artists over a long period of time, he has gone through certain periods where he exploits an idea until he’s ready to move on to a completely different one. His last release Harmonie du Soir (2013) came at the end of a run where he was composing for multitudes of guitar (up to 400!) or scores of bass instruments, and also acting out his love affair with no-wave music that grew out of discovering the Ramones at CBGB’s during the dawn of punk rock.

For Pythagorean Dream (June 3, 2016, Foom Records), Chatham revisits the pre-rock part of his career, building upon ideas Terry Riley introduced in the 60s. And Chatham’s experimentation in minimalism goes far, far beyond just looping and layering; tuning plays a key role as well. Tuning, in fact, is behind the title of this album; Chatham applied Pythagorean tuning (just intonation based on perfect fifths, each tuned in the ratio 3:2) to his guitar. In doing so, he adds another wrinkle in this unique combination of methods and instrumentation in order to forge unique music where the ingenuity of it can’t be read on sheet music because it’s all in how it’s put together.

All instruments here are played by Chatham; there are no “100 guitars,” it only sounds so. There are also flutes and a trumpet, other instruments in which Chatham is proficient. Using the looping/delay effect pioneered by Riley, Chatham figures ways to make them resonate in beautifully odd ways.

“Part One” begins with breathy, buzzy and other non tonal sounds from trumpet, mixed together. A fingerpicked guitar soon overcomes it, layered with echoes stuck on single chord, which morphs into the dominant note and then discreetly, some feedback. That gradually gives way to the original, arpeggiated chord. The same chord dominates “Part Two” but Chatham applies his flutes to it, resulting in atmospherics that are sharply different. The long held notes by bass, alto and C flutes as guitars fade away form a drone not too unlike a Mellotron ironically sampling flutes. Variations of the chord are gently introduced and almost imperceptibly, more flutes adding a new harmony part are layered on. One flute begins to flutter and that gets looped and layered. Strumming guitar(s) return around the 11:00 mark, overtaking those flutes and we’re back to the main motif of Part One. Gradually, it congeals until it resembles a symphonic string section and then dissipates.

Thirty-seven minutes of two connected pieces make up the Pythagorean Dream suite. But there’s a little more to this album. “Whitechapel Brass Variations,” listed as bonus track, was culled from a live recording and expands that opening trumpet sequence in “Part One” into an entire performance of its own. The ‘bonus’ label implies that’s it’s an afterthought but “Whitechapel” might just be the coolest thing happening on this album. Chatham applies the loop ‘n’ echo technique to his trumpet that’s creatively effective because of the bumble bee noise he coaxes from the horn, creating a swarm using this method. The buzzing activities become accompanied by crackling trumpet drones; overlapping raspberries add a third stream. Finally, Chatham plays trumpet notes straight and throws those notes into the blender.

So whether he’s applying special guitar tuning, three kinds of flutes or a trumpet to the effects originated from fifty-year-old minimalist tape recording experiments, Rhys Chatham leaves an orchestra-sized audio footprint without any overdubbing or any other musician involved. Pythagorean Dream is an avant-garde minimalist’s dream come true.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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