News Column

A Little Composition for 100 Electric Guitars

November 15, 2013


Nov. 15--The electric guitar has been a central part of the musical landscape for half a century, but only in small numbers -- it's not often you get to hear more than the two or three that make up the standard rock-band lineup. What happens when one intrepid composer assembles no fewer than 100 electric guitarists in one place?

Bay Area music lovers can find out Sunday when composer Rhys Chatham's mammoth minimalist opus "A Secret Rose" has its West Coast premiere at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond. The performance is presented by Other Minds.

"A Secret Rose," which runs about 70 minutes in five movements, is specifically designed to be both challenging and technically feasible, Chatham said during an interview in June. The performers are divided into three groups, with three parts of varying difficulty in each group.

"I tried to write in such a way that if you're a serious amateur you'd be challenged but not broken," he said. "If there are professional or semi-professional musicians -- people who have their I.T. day job but play in bands -- there's something interesting for them technically. And if there are people who don't read music, but they play rock and know music and are serious about it, there's something for them, too."

Guitarist's dream

There's also something in it for Chatham, who will conduct and pick up his own guitar late in the piece. "It's every guitarist's dream," he says, "to wail along with 100 guitars."

At 61, Chatham has the soft, silky voice of a retired rock star, along with a warm, insinuating manner. When he wants to tell you something outre, or even just crack a joke, he has a habit of dropping into a whisper so quiet it's practically mime. Born and raised in New York, he's lived in Paris since 1986 -- originally to be with his French wife and, since then, he says, because he likes red wine and cheese.

"A Secret Rose" is only the most recent in a series of projects for multiple guitars. He started small in 1977 with "Guitar Trio," which pioneered his distinctive confluence of punk rock and early minimalism. The idea of a piece for 100 guitars came to him soon afterward, but he wasn't ready to follow through until 1988, when he composed "An Angel Moves Too Fast to See."

Nothing like it

"One hundred guitars as a performing force is a very special sonority -- there's nothing like the sound of 100 electric guitars playing quietly.

"There's also a social aspect to all this. Classical musicians get to play in band and orchestra, but not the guitarists. So it was a change for them to have that experience. We played 'Angel' in several cities, and by the end of every performance there'd be three or four new groups formed. Two of the guitarists got married. All kinds of extramusical things happened."

So what do you for an encore after a piece for 100 guitars? Chatham asks the question himself, and answers it in his trademark whisper: "You write one for 200 electric guitars."

That would be "A Crimson Grail," composed in 2005 for the "Nuit Blanche" Festival in Paris, and recorded for Nonesuch in an outdoor performance at New York's Lincoln Center. But the logistical problems of both pieces convinced him to make "A Secret Rose" more manageable.

"I wanted to make a piece that was easier to produce. It's in normal guitar tunings, so guitarists don't need to buy new strings. And because of the way it's organized we can do it in two rehearsals instead of five."

Although Chatham is associated with a rock-tinged brand of new music, he grew up steeped in the classical tradition. His father, a writer, played the virginals -- an early keyboard instrument popular during the Baroque era -- and as a teenager Chatham made money tuning harpsichords.

He was soon drawn to the world of contemporary music -- first the complex tradition of serialism exemplified by Webern and his followers, and later the early minimalist works of La Monte Young.

At 19, he was appointed the first music director of the Kitchen, the influential experimental performance space in Lower Manhattan, shortly before the downtown punk scene began taking off.

"We had Patti Smith, who inspired a whole generation of people who figured if Patti could do it maybe they could pick up a guitar too. We had Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. For me, coming out of conservatory, it was fascinating."

Influential moment

But Chatham credits his birth as a composer to an influential moment when a friend took him to his first rock concert -- to hear the Ramones at CBGB.

"The pieces I was writing all sounded like someone else, and I was trying to find my own voice. I looked around, and there was Philip (Glass) working with jazz instrumentation, and Steve (Reich) with elements from Ghanaian music, and I thought, What can I do?

"Then I heard these guys and I said, that's what I could do! They were making much more complex music than me -- they were working with three chords and I was only working with one." {sbox}

A Secret Rose: 7 p.m. Sunday. $10-$75. Craneway Pavilion, Richmond. (415) 934-8134.

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle's music critic. E-mail:


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