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Live Reviews

Live Minimalism From New York: Shoko Nagai/Satoshi Takeishi, Signal, Rhys Chatham, Terry Riley & Glenn Branca

By Published: May 14, 2009
Extremity historically grows respectability. The punk-inspired New York composer Rhys Chatham scribed his signature work, "Guitar Trio," in 1977, feeding back influences into the city's emerging No Wave sound, and smearing up the borders between rock and mod-classical musics. Just over three decades later, Chatham is returning to his old stalking grounds, making the jaunt over from his Parisian home of the last two decades. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art is much further uptown than those downtown dens where Chatham's music germinated. This performance (not lasting much longer than an hour) manages to begin as a relatively reined-in New Music recital, steadily growing in drive and amplification until it becomes a monstrous headbanging session. Well, the headbanging of the mind, really, as there isn't much actual mane-shaking amongst the audience, and indeed, some patrons, jewelry severely rattled, take their leave well before the climax, scattering their used and bloodied earplugs en route to a fast exit through the Egyptian galleries.

Chatham strolls on, looking just like a genial country singer, with waistcoat and snowbeard, addressing the gathering with a thickly-ladled sincerity. Then he plugs in, tunes up (lots of twiddling is required for the coming drone-thrang layering) and hurls his five fellow guitarists into the primordial riff-clanging labyrinth. The drummer is Jonathan Kane, who began his career in Swans, the sludgily loudest band in the entire history of rock'n'roll. The bassman is Ernie Brooks (an old Modern Lover), and throughout, his low tones would benefit with a volume boost ("oh no, please, not another volume hike!," scream the assembled). "Guitar Trio" is an ostensibly simple piece, built around a quite basic progression. Its substance arrives as the axe ranks start to make off-beat strums and glancing blows, working around the central spine, playing with their own reverb waste-emissions, setting up stacked drones, either in opposition or sympathy. This present extended incarnation was developed in 2005, for more guitarists at greater length. Although rocking, the piece still has the straight back of a classical work, but then Chatham announces a replay, this time to the accompaniment of Robert Longo's 1979 slide presentation Pictures For Music, the band now plunged into semi-darkness. Chatham hops around like a Ramone, or maybe even a Creedence Clearwater Revivalist, working right up to the stage lip, then shuffling back around to face his players. Much of the dynamism is overseen by the leader's promptings, as he signals each shift or crank up to the next level. There's a particularly close interplay between Chatham, Brooks and Kane. The latter player recorded a version of "Guitar Trio" with his February band, and this second reading allows him much more leeway in introducing his heavier skins at an earlier stage, syncopating the beat. The guitarists, particularly Chatham and an aggressively clipped Robert Poss (Band Of Susans was his main outfit), are loosening up into a raging rock mentality. Drums and guitars push at each other, neither surrendering, and the tension is immense. Release eventually comes, but then there's time for a short encore, where precise isolated bursts of united krunggs herald an even heavier statement.

Terry Riley

Carnegie Hall

April 24, 2009

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