Monday, August 29, 2016

CD Review: Rhys Chatham - Pythagorean Dream

Rhys Chatham
Pythagorean Dream

Technology sometimes makes the production of some forms of music either antiquated or seemingly too much effort for so little gain. The Simeon, the instrument named for the one-named man who played it in the '60s band Silver Apples, featured a bank of oscillators, which according to reports at the time, required the musician to utilize hands, arms and elbows to play it. Damn if it didn't sound cool, but today you can do all that with the flip of a couple buttons on a keyboard.

Digital delays and loops render Frippertronics unnecessary. That was the technique Robert Fripp used where he played a guitar line that was recorded on a loop of tape that fed into another machine set to play back. For years, I thought this was the brainchild of a former bandmate's husband and I've dreamt of doing this. Chances are I still will, as soon as I get my one reel-to-reel player repaired.

While it's easier to trigger an effects pedal or a keyboard to make this sound, the effort diminishes the randomness of the effort. By using a tape recorder or making tape loops at home on a reel-to-reel, there's a certain suspense one can feel in anticipation of the playback. Will it sound the way I hope it will? Will it be better?

Rhys Chatham has been tinkering with the production of musical sounds since the 1970s, after studying with La Monte Young. He built on the early experiments of Terry Riley, who actually predated Fripp's techniques by creating multi-second delay effects by using two Revox Tape Machines. Chatham is known for compositions that have featured 100 and sometimes 200 guitars. That type of sound could probably resonate so perfectly it could cause a seismic shift that could knock our planet into a more positive balance. (If you think about the effects of magnetic fields [which can be felt with guitar pickups] and vibrations, it doesn't seem like such a remote idea. But that's another story.)

For Pythagorean Dream, Chatham wanted to revisit the Riley way of looping, though it appears he did it with effects pedals this time. In this case, it's not the means of recording that takes on the greater significance but the end. His guitar is tuned to his own Pythagorean setting, which creates a certain set of overtones that sustain and ring. In "Part One," sounds bounce from channel to channel creating arrhythmical layers on top of one another. To untrained ears it might sound like variations on one note, or like a new guitarist continually banging away on an drop tuned C# chord. But the way he plays makes all the difference. Chatham uses both finger picking and flat picking techniques and an e-bow, which makes the music move in dynamic waves. The dynamics and the resonating notes of the tuning create a rich sea of sound.

For "Part Two," he returns to the instrument he played in the conservatory: flute. It begins with a rolling drone from the guitar, but it soon morphs into a wave of bass, alto and C flutes, creating a similarly hypnotic sea of sound. What keeps the music interesting is the way the different segments are introduced, how they impact that sound and where they go in the mix. It's definitely stereo music, best experienced on speakers with some distance from one another.

Compared to the gentle flow and relatively soothing qualities of the two "Pythagorean Dream" parts, the bonus "Whitechapel Brass Variations" sounds busy. Chatham plays trumpet here, blasting away with extended technique, creating waves of low and upper register smears. Using the same recording process as the previous tracks, he goes on for a few minutes of free blowing, before the flatulent notes start to take the shape of a march rhythm. The high notes recall Mongezi Feza's layers of trumpet with on Robert Wyatt's "Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road" on Rock Bottom. Sounds bend, wail and eventually decay. At 14 minutes, it's a bit much and nowhere near as tranquil. But it makes for an interesting journey.

The early tape experimentations of Terry Riley - or Rhys Chatham, for that matter - might have some sort of appeal to fans of pre-digital music, where the process holds as much intrigue as the music itself. But even if Chatham did only take inspiration from Riley and channeled it into an effects pedal, he still managed to create something compelling with it. While it can recall the space rock heard on many albums on the kranky label imprint during the '90s, Chatham methods still reveal an individual voice. If you're waiting for a "lead" to come in top of all those layers, you're not listening the right way.

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