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INTERVIEW: Rhys Chatham On Tony Conrad
Christian Eede , July 3rd, 2017 13:32

The composer and multi-instrumentalist discusses working with the late Tony Conrad, as well as Laurie Spiegel, more than four decades ago

Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain, a film and live music installation conceived by the late Tony Conrad, premiered in 1972 at a New York City experimental art space called the Kitchen.

The installation saw Conrad take up violin duties, alongside Rhys Chatham and Laurie Spiegel, who had been enlisted to play stringed instruments built by Conrad himself. Chatham played the Long String Drone, a 6-foot long strip of wood with bass strings, electric pickup, tuning keys, tape, rubber band and metal hardware, with the three of them coming together to play Conrad's minimalist score for two hours, set against black-and-white projections.

Conrad's recording of the performance has now been released more than 40 years later by the Superior Viaduct label, capturing the performances in full and taking in liner notes from Rhys Chatham and Andrew Lampert, edited by Jim O'Rourke.

With the recording just released, we spoke to Rhys Chatham about that first performance of Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain, and hearing the recording over 40 years later.

Can you describe exactly what you recall from that premier performance in New York in 1972? How was the atmosphere in the room and what preparations did you all take?

Rhys Chatham: In the autumn of 1971, I had been asked by the electronic image artists Woody and Steina Vasulka to organise a series of music concerts at their newly opened alternative art space, called the Kitchen. One of the first people I asked to play there was Tony Conrad. I had seen a film of Tony’s called The Flicker at the Anthology Film Archives when it was in Cooper Union in New York City. Both the film and the soundtrack, which he had composed, impressed me. When I called Tony, he agreed to perform on my series, but on one condition: that I play with him. He had a long one-string instrument that he had built which was based on a Pythagorean monochord that he wanted me to play. With my background of hearing overtones in the context of being a professional harpsichord and piano tuner, I felt this was something I could do. In fact, I was thrilled to do it and readily accepted.

Tony needed another musician to play an electric bass guitar-like instrument and asked if I knew of anyone who would be both capable and willing to perform on it. I had met Laurie Spiegel at the NYU electronic music studio. In addition to being a composer working with electronic music, she was a student at Julliard at the time, studying classical guitar and lute, so I thought she might be interested. I called her and she readily accepted.

The first performance with this trio was at the Kitchen on Saturday, March 11, 1972. We set up our instruments at the Kitchen, with Tony on violin. Everything was amplified through the PA system. My job was to listen very carefully to what Tony was doing and to play in very slow counterpoint with him, making a glissando up to the fundamental or dominant frequency determined by which tonal area he was focusing on at any given point in time. Playing in this manner required that I stay concentrated throughout the duration of the concert on where Tony was in terms of the tonal center. This was not always easy to do, because during the performance I was so much within the music that I often felt as though I was completely outside of my body! I had similar experiences each time I played this music, where it felt as though I had been playing for perhaps 15 minutes, only to find out that an hour and a half had gone by.

You played the Long String Drone in the performance. Could you tell us more about that and the process of getting to grips with instruments of Tony Conrad’s making?

RC: Essentially, the Long String Drone is a Pythagorean monochord. The classic monochord consists of a string fixed at both ends, stretched over a soundboard. Tony’s version consists of three metallic strings fixed at both ends over a 2x4, with a tuning peg and nut on one end and a bridge and end pins at the other.

The classical monochord can be used to illustrate the mathematical properties of musical pitch and is essentially a tool for measuring musical intervals. For example, when a monochord's string is open it vibrates at a particular frequency and produces a pitch. When the length of the string is halved, and plucked, it produces a pitch an octave higher and the string vibrates at twice the frequency of the original (2:1). Half of this length will produce a pitch two octaves higher than the original – four times the initial frequency (4:1) – and so on. Tony’s Long String Drone works on the same principle, except instead of using a resonating box to hear the sounds, Tony attached contact microphones to the soundboard, which was a 2x4 length of wood, and the sound was amplified.

The Long String Drone is played in the manner of a slide guitar, only instead of using a standard guitar slide, Tony gave me a selection of solid metallic cylinders to choose from. Tony wanted a kind of glissando effect of starting from perhaps a minor third down and moving up and ending on the fundamental pitch, which was, of course, a Bb. So essentially, he taught me how to play the piece by rote. I drew heavily on my experience as a harpsichord and piano tuner to make sure that I was playing in tune with Tony. There are no frets on a monochord, so all tuning issues had to be resolved by ear.

How much, if at all, of the performance involved improvisation?

RC: For me there was no element of improvisation at all in that I had to follow Tony’s phrasing and changes of tonal centers precisely. The music is not notated, so none of us are reading from a score. From what I understand, Tony was playing completely in the present tense; he was playing vertically. As he was playing, it was evident that he was not five seconds in the past thinking about what just happened, nor was he five seconds in the future, thinking about what to play next. He was totally 100% in the present tense, literally following his nose! This is why he often had an alarm clock on stage during his concerts. For example, if he was asked to play for an hour, the alarm would go off after an hour and he would stop. Were it not for the alarm, we would risk him going on for three hours without him realising that so much time had passed.

What feelings are stirred up by listening back to these recordings more than four decades on?

RC: This recording is a document of the first performance ever of Outside the Dream Syndicate, it was pre-Faust. Tony and I worked on editing the recordings soon after the performance, which was in 1972. I hadn’t heard it since, until last year, so that makes 44 years. I had no idea what it would sound like, and to be frank I was a bit concerned. The Kitchen performance marked my debut of being in a minimalist band. Would my playing sound naïve or hesitant? Would the recording be an amateur one?

Happily, when I listened to the recording, it sounded exactly as I remembered it. I was relieved, and also somewhat surprised that it sounded so good. But then I remember that it was Tony who recorded the concert, and we did it on his beautiful Revox analog tape recorder, which was the industry standard for mobile recording at the time. I don’t remember which mics we used, but the main thing that came to my mind was that the recording sounded wonderful. It really took me back in time to when I was 19 years old, my first year as music programmer at the Kitchen.

Did you take any influence from this project, and working with Tony, to use on further works? If so, how did it affect your further work processes and output?

RC: In the late 60s I had been studying with Morton Subotnick, who graciously let me use his electronic music studio at NYU. There I met composers Maryanne Amacher and Charlemagne Palestine, both of whose influence I soon came under. It was my becoming friends with Charlemagne in particular that led me to working with music of long duration, making pieces with slowly evolving changes using the Buchla 100 series synthesizer as the sound medium. After this, I started programming music at the Kitchen, and I met Tony, who was working with just intonation. Tony shared his interest with me and explained what just intonation was and its tuning. So it was through Tony that I was first introduced to this exquisite tuning system, a tuning system that I have been using throughout my career, up to the present.

Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain is out now via Superior Viaduct and can be purchased here