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Baker's Dozen

Music Of The Spheres: Rhys Chatham's Favourite Albums
Danny Riley , June 15th, 2016 10:37

The veteran avant-garde composer picks records by Morton Subotnick, Charlemagne Palestine and Maryanne Amacher and more to tell Danny Riley how his music, including new album Pythagorean Dream, has evolved


Terry Riley – A Rainbow In Curved Air
Prior to hearing this I was what they called a post-serialist composer. I was studying at NYU, and heavily into Stockhausen and Boulez. As a 20-year-old composer back then in the '60s, if you wanted to be hip you would be writing atonal, arrhythmic and as complex as possible. Your pieces would have some sort of noise in it, like John Cage.

I grew up in Manhattan. When I was 17, in a club in the East Village I'd seen a score by Terry Riley – it looked like it was going to be noisy, and I thought, "Cool, I'm going to go see some noise music!" I went down to the Electric Circus, where they had an electronic music series every Monday night. That Monday was Terry Riley's night. I saw this long-haired guy with multi-coloured bell-bottom pants playing what sounded to me like a circus organ with perfect triads – I was just disgusted. It wasn't noise, and it wasn't atonal. I thought, "What is this?" I went downstairs to try and get my money back and they wouldn't give it to me. It was $5, which was a lot in the '60s for a 17-year-old, so I went back and listened to it. After a while I thought, "You know, this isn't so bad." By the end I couldn't get over it – the piece was 'A Rainbow In Curved Air'.

I walked into that concert as a hardcore post-serialist composer, serialising each parameter of music, making everything mathematical. And by the time Terry was done playing, I walked out as a minimalist composer.

Was that your first encounter with drone music?

Later I went on to work in Morton Subotnick's electronic music studio and met another young composer; I was 19 he was 23, Charlemagne Palestine. We got talking and realised he knew my father, who was a musician also, and they'd hung out. Charlemagne was doing music of long duration on the Buchla 100 Series synthesiser. I just idolised my older brother Charlemagne – he became a big brother to me – I wanted to do everything Charlemagne did. Maryanne Amacher was in the same studio, and she was far out – out there in terms of crazy, wild ideas involving music of long duration. I'm laughing about it now but at the time I naturally drifted, having had the epiphany of the Terry Riley concert – pretty soon I was making music of long duration too. Those three are big influences on the work I do today.