On Saturday 7th June 2014 Ian, Matt and I performed in the UK premiere of Rhys Chatham’s composition “A Secret Rose” for 100 electric guitars, bass and drums at BirminghamTown Hall. The performance was a great success and the culmination of 3 days of pretty intensive rehearsals, initially in our separate section (3A) and then as an entire ensemble.
I could expound at great length on what a fantastic experience the whole three days was, what a charming character Rhys Chatham is and how brilliantly our section leader, Tobin Summerfield sculpted us and the rest of Section 3 into shape. I could also mention some of the fine people and fellow performers we met including Mark Huckridge, Matthew Griggs, Tony Hall, John Maxwell Hobbs, Mike Fibes and Leo Thornely. I could also enthuse about how brilliantly the whole event was organized and how smoothly it ran BUT…I want to talk about the music.
Nigel in section 3 rehearsal 5/6/14 photo by @thirdearmusic
Chatham employs the use of massed multiple ringing open strings, microtonal tuning differences and conflicting chords to create dissonant and enigmatic sound fields. If you’ve heard a Sonic Youth album, chances are you will be familiar with the type of sound (where do you think they got it from?). Extrapolate that sound to 100 guitars (or upwards) and you have the ability to use the elemental ingredients of rock to create pieces as striking in effect as those played by any symphony orchestra.
“A Secret Rose” is comprised of five movements, each being markedly different in construction and length.
Movement 1 introduces the ensemble on a single tremolo note – one guitar, then one section of the ensemble at a time before whipping up an atonal squall of tremolo chords and resolving with a simple but enigmatic riff.
Movement 2 is perhaps the most accessible (and shortest) featuring a pattern of staccato chords over an in/out bed of tremolo which becomes increasingly complex as the stabbing chord pattern levitates around the piece.
Movement 3’s opening section effectively transforms the guitar ensemble into a string section comprising several interlocked, time-conflicted and over-layered parts which eventually dissolve into an atonal hammering akin to a hall full of detuned pianos. This is immediately followed by Rhys’ contrasting “hommage to Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone” – a highly melodic pattern approaching a 12–string West Coast sound. An overtone heavy 6/8 section consisting of 2 chords resembling a mid-period Sonic Youth outtro brings this movement to its coda.
Rhys describes the “structured improvisation” of Movement 3’s coda as highly aleatoric – the sound of “evening raindrops falling lightly in the forest” whilst three whales frolic in Lake Geneva. That pretty much nails it.
Movement 4 probably presented the greatest challenge to the players with multiple chiming 11/4 and 7/4 parts over a syncopated rhythm section. The complexity of timing gives the piece an almost random quality like warring church bells interspersed with rapid tremolo fanfares that lead into a dramatic audience-bluffing finale.
However, it’s Movement 5 which is the true conceptual success of this piece, leaving the most lasting impression on both player and listener. A single E minor chord is used to distill the essence of rock and roll down to its most primal base. This chord itself doesn’t even fully evolve until several minutes of E natural on the lowest string has been shape-shifted across a number of “classic” 4/4 rock and roll rhythms by the entire ensemble. As the familiarity of these patterns for the player grows and three strings are employed, the piece becomes more abandoned and elemental. We were reminded by Rhys before heading onstage that “It ain’t nothin’ but a party” – this is where that philosophy crystallized. By the time the composition has ascended to a tremolo crescendo on all six strings the effect is one of a bludgeoning reverie of minimal rock bliss. The constant repetition of this single chord and rhythm creates an anticipation which is only resolved with a final huge chord ring after a second repeat of the entire pattern. This distillation of the essential building blocks of rock music on a massive scale represents the heart of the composition’s conceptual success.
Rhys Chatham’s work has been described as “fusing the overtone drenched minimalism of the early 60s with the relentless, elemental fury of The Ramones — the textural intricacies of the avant-garde colliding with the visceral punch of electric guitar-slinging punk rock.”
This is where a 17 minute piece consisting of one chord in 4/4 rock rhythm becomes the apotheosis of that Ramones devolution, beautifully crude and effective. Many years ago, when I first heard Jim Jarmusch describe The Ramones as true minimalists, my first thought was that he was over-intellectualizing the simple appeal of their pop music. Then I realized the genius of that statement, and Movement 5 of “A Secret Rose” is the ultimate proof. A week later I am still waking up with that proof ringing around my head.