Rhys Chatham is famous for his often raucous works for massed guitars, which culminated in 2006 in a 12-hour conduction of 400 guitarists in A Crimson Grail (Moves Too Fast To See), in the Parisian church of Sacré-Cœur. But he’s since scaled back, touring with the more modest Guitar Trio, and now delivering this essentially solipsistic solo piece.
Pythagorean Dream (Foom) was composed, performed (on trumpet, electric guitar, and flutes), and recorded (produced, engineered and mastered) solely by Chatham. Named after the Pythagorean guitar tuning it employs, exploiting layered and overlapping loops inspired by Terry Riley’s work with Revox tape machines, Chatham refined the work over two years of touring.
Chatham’s association with the electric guitar, and his collaborations with the likes of Band of Susans and Sonic Youth, tend to obscure his links with minimalism (he was a protege of La Monte Young in the 70s); it also overshadows his parallel strand of works for brass and/or percussion – he’s been playing the trumpet for 30 years or so. But he’s even less commonly associated with the flute, an instrument he apparently mastered in his adolescence, only switching to guitar after “a Ramones-inspired change of focus”.
Pythagorean Dream brings most of these strands together, in music that’s both dreamlike and intense. it’s a fine follow-up to 2014’s superb, triple CD set of duets with Charlemagne Palestine, Youuu + Mee = Weee (SubRosa).
The title cut is presented in two parts, focusing on Chatham’s guitar and flute respectively, both subject to looping and delay techniques. A long opening section of solo trumpet, only on the CD edition, is bumped to stand alone as a bonus cut at the end of album.
“Part One” begins with the spittle-fuzzed buzz of Chatham’s trumpet. He then lays on the first enlivening touches of guitar, picking notes casually as the trumpet fades out, looping them into complex clusters that shoal together, chiming and jangling in complex semi-random relationships – a mass given body by strategically strummed chords. Chatham melds his loops into a tanpura or Bourdon-like harmonic drone, then layers on more fingerpicking in a style he acknowledges to be inspired by John Fahey. Later on this 19 minute cut he uses an eBow to synthesize the drone, and introduces a sense of steely resolve with insistent flat-picking and gently swelling volume. As the piece plateaus, the injection of a sustained vocal sound lends it a spiritual quality.
With the compacted urgency of “Part One” dispersed, “Part Two” has a more intimate aspect. It begins with a gentle reprise of the guitar-based loops, but the introduction of flutes has a placatory, softly orchestral effect. Rather than clustering like the guitar sounds, the bass, alto and C flute parts’ distinctive pitches overlap, while Chatham layers dancing higher pitches over softly pliant low tones. After ten minutes the guitar chimes back in, reprising its entry in “Part One”, and with its brightness and insistency the music swells into a cadenza – and again a vocal aaaah holds everything together when the accumulated tension ultimately burns off.
While “Part One” and “Part Two” are dissimilar twins, the “Whitechapel Brass Variations” (recorded in concert at London’s Whitechapel Gallery) is something else altogether. Chatham’s trumpet lines variously buzz around each other, or ply twitchy independent lines against muted clarion loops. With these overlapping patterns set, Chatham interjects rudely flatulent galumphing sounds and, finally, a swarm of bugling. The effect is choral – captivating and moving, too.
For all its focus on sound for sound’s sake, Chatham’s music has real warmth and, in the “Brass Variations” at least, a refreshing openness to humour. For all it’s a solo effort, Pythagorean Dream embraces multiplicity, and is essentially inclusive, just like his guitar ensembles.
Rhys Chatham trumpet, electric guitar, alto flute, bass flute, C flute.