Roger C. Miller (Mission of Burma) Talks Rhys Chatham’s Harmonie du Soir

When I was a composition major at California Institute of the Arts in 1976, La Monte Young was a guest lecturer. Mr. Young's lecture consisted of...

When I was a composition major at California Institute of the Arts in 1976, La Monte Young was a guest lecturer.  Mr. Young’s lecture consisted of playing both sides of an LP with a single sine-wave tone on it.  We listened to the slight permutations of the turntable wobbling.  By the time side II was finished, only I and one other student (out of 20) remained: damned if I was gonna leave!

I mention this to show that I have no qualms with Minimalism (please see my Terry Riley LP collection).  But Minimalism should result in some sort of hypnotic transcending of the material, going so far in that you come out somewhere else.  The 22-minute title composition “Harmonie du Soir” doesn’t do that — it’s simple chord(s) with a medium-tempo rock beat.   It has nice builds, but why do I have to work so hard to be interested?  Maybe I’m jaded, but to me there is no mystery here.  And where there is no mystery, there is no interest.

I saw the Rhys Chatham Ensemble in Boston at Great Scott a few years back.  It was definitely more fun live, but the entire time I was thinking to myself, “Where’s the big idea?”  Using one chord was a door-opener in 1977, but you have to go through that door to get to the next level.  This was just standing in the doorway.

The piece alternates between A and E chords.  The primary riff for the entire first eight minutes is a root to fifth motif, i.e., the simplest harmonic interval possible.  Halfway through this section, we’ve become painfully aware that there is nothing going on.  By contrast, the guitar solo on the Buzzcocks’ “Boredom” consists of this same interval (played 66 times in a row according to Wikipedia!).  To this day, I get a thrill from that solo.  Not so with this composition.

At eight minutes there is a welcome break, but there is no compositional reason for this new section — it just starts when the first section stops.  There is a friendliness to the proceedings, like everyone is having a fine time, but there is no threat.  And threat is what makes rock music, and all challenging art, “dangerous,” pushing one past one’s limits.  This music is pleasant.

A minute or two later a more interesting section drops in: with its free-form drumming and sheets of sound comes a real sense of release.  But it sounds like a “style” — one that has been done many times before, and by Chatham himself to better effect, as in “Guitar Ring” (1982).  Another medium-tempo rock groove follows without any compositional relation to the previous section. Eventually there is a nice rising motif, a good counterpoint to the excessively anchored root chording.

The first and second themes return with slight variation, but there is just not a solid enough idea to validate this minimalistic stance.  Given Mr. Chatham’s early work, one would hope that his ideas would expand.  This composition feels like nostalgia, yearning for a better past when innovation was accessible.

In 1977, Chatham’s use of only an E chord in his piece “Guitar Trio” was radical, and the pissed-off high-energy of punk helped drive its internal integrity.  “Guitar Trio” helped strip things back to square one, like the Ramones (just) before him, or Steve Reich’s 1968 “Pendulum Music.”  But by accepting “the grandeur of the A chord” in 2013, you accept the entire historical confines of the guitar — and at this point that is retro, rather than progressive.

Anyone interested in the formation of minimalist rock should certainly listen to the first two Neu! albums.  That wing of minimalist rock influences Chatham’s music more than its violent aspect via the Velvets.

I saw Chatham’s “marching band music” at the Boston ICA in the mid ’80s, and it was extremely naive.  So when I saw brass featured on “The Dream of Rhonabwy,” I put it on with trepidation. Mercifully, there are moments that transcend.

“The Dream of Rhonabwy” begins with a pleasant slow rock beat coupled with unison brass drones.  One of the virtues of multiple unisons is that they can’t possibly be 100% in tune.  The subtle beats and pulses caused by this create a constant source of interest.

A change kicks in after about two minutes, the drums shifting to an intriguing 5/4 pulse and low brass arriving in the nick of time.  From here on it alternates floating and heavy sections.  The harmony is fairly naive (tritones floating in space), but the sound carries the composition.  The high winds interacting with each other create jagged upper harmonics and ghost intervals — a nice effect.

A new slow rock section seems almost gratuitous, but produces some engaging music with Moroccan-esque upper winds motifs over specifically pitched tom-toms that fit into the harmonic content of the piece almost like a bass guitar.  Just when the drones begin to sound dangerously close to the introduction of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a new, truly glorious section enters: Lush chords with dense harmony manage to avoid sounding claustrophobic, instead producing a liberating, celestial sensation.  Steve Reich-like pulses add a new layer and continue the uplifting feeling, leaving the final chords shimmering in the back of your skull.  A great conclusion.

For a more complex take on celestial brass choirs, I suggest Olivier Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l’au-delà… .  Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Terry Riley’s Descending Moonshine Dervishes might also get you going.

The final piece is “Drastic Classicism Revisited.” Now we’re talkin’: I can actually sing Iggy’s “RONNIE!” (from the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye”) during certain breaks here, which must mean something’s going on!

Right off the bat, the energy level is back to the early post-punk era. (The piece was written in 1981.)  The guitars sound glorious and the composition is solid, i.e., the music gets from place to place in a sensible fashion!  The drummer is proverbially “kicking ass,” working overtime and not expecting any extra pay.  When the chromatic/density wall suddenly shifts to simple octaves, it’s truly dynamic, and the build back to dissonance makes total sense.  If I had seen this in the early ’80s I woulda been a happy lad. (I didn’t become aware of Mr. Chatham until some years later.)

This piece sounds more like Glenn Branca’s work than “Harmonie du Soir” does — that is a fact.  It’s well known that Branca was strongly influenced by Chatham’s early work, and he admits this.  But where Chatham opened the door with his “Guitar Trio” by dynamically pummeling an E chord, Branca walked through that door.  (I just played “The Spectacular Commodity” from Branca’s 1981 The Ascension album and, yep, those first notes start and I get chills.)  I don’t know if this piece was influenced by Branca or the other way around, but it certainly is a far cry from “Three Guitars.”  Since I don’t know, I will merely say that this piece does for me what “Harmonie du Soir” does not — it lifts me up and carries me away.

I am very much for influential composers being credited throughout their lives for the positive things they have contributed.  I hope Chatham’s ongoing performances are well received and fun for all!

Roger Clark Miller is the singer-guitarist of the legendary Mission of Burma and also plays in Alloy Orchestra, which specializes in live soundtracks to classic silent films.  His composition Scream, Gilgamesh, Scream premiers on September 22nd at the New England Conservatory.  Miller is also a noted soundtrack composer. His website is here.