[17 February 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If Rhys Chatham’s Harmonie du soir comes with a whiff of a throwback, it’s to be expected. The title track is the guitarist/trumpeter’s first composition for a small electric guitar combo since the mid-‘80s and the album’s closing number is a new recording of a piece he originally wrote and recorded from the same period. A little over 60% of Harmonie du soir is a bite out of the No Wave, minimalist, guitar-drenched Regean-era Big Apple in all its noisy glory. The remaining 20 minutes belong to “Harmonie de Pontarlier: The Dream of Rhonabwy”, a minimalist piece commissioned for a large wind ensemble. While it’s not exactly an example of the deconstructionist downtown scene, it’s nothing completely new to Chatham either.
When I say that “Harmonie du soir” is for a small combo of electric guitars, six is a small number compared to the 400 electric guitars needed for “A Crimson Grail”. Backed up by bass and drums, “Harmonie du soir” spends more the 22 minutes exploring the ovtertones tucked in the drones of uniformly tuned guitars. These guitars strum over the root and the fifth above it for approximately eight minutes. The piece then pauses for chordal identification, taking at least three minutes to build up steam for the next section (thanks largely to drummer Fabien Tharaud, aka Fab Smith). A little faster than walking tempo, the middle stretch of “Harmonie du soir” gives the guitarists a chance to ping the various melodic notes back and forth to one another while taking a break every few bars to syncopate some wonderfully dissonant chords. The last five minutes of the piece play out like the first eight with the guitars sweeping back and forth between the root and the fifth. Stubborn fans of “Die Donnergötter” may find “Harmonie du soir” to be a little on the restrained side. If you are one of said people, skip ahead to the third track.
“Harmonie de Pontarlier: The Dream of Rhonabwy” was commissioned for the Harmonie de Pontarlier ensemble by filmmaker Blaise Harrison, a documentarian keen on capturing the 70-piece aggregate in action while learning a new piece under the leadership of conductor Patrick Erard. “The Dream of Rhonabwy” plays with the drone concept even more, having flutes, piccolos, oboes, bassoons, clarinets, saxophones, french horns, trumpets, trombones and tubas stagger their pedal tones through a majority of the piece. The ones who get to experience a little deviation are the tubas and upper woodwinds. While the tubas get to break their notes into small parcels while things are getting going, the flutes and piccolos have to wait until almost the twelve-minute mark to throw in their flourishes. Up and down they go, in a sea of ominous dissonance. It’s all building up to something, but what? Not exactly a barnstorming climax, but the ensemble is able to resolve the screwy harmony into something that Aaron Copland might have actually enjoyed—a musical pastoral fitting with the landscape cover art and the clouds pictured on the digipak’s back.
“Drastic Classicism Revisited” is available on the CD edition of Harmonie du soir. If you sprung for the vinyl copy, it’s available as a download. Clocking in at just 9:36, it’s the baby of the album. This baby, however, is also a monster. Lifted from the Die Donnergötter album itself, this is detuned guitar skronk at its most visceral helped out all the more by Chatham’s wailing trumpet (his only instrumental contribution to the album—he merely conducted “Harmonie du soir”). It is here where fans of the Die Donnergötter-era of Rhys Chatham’s career are well served. Time and age has not mellowed the music’s raw dissonance, a fact you can take to the bank and deposit.
Even in his more controlled moments, Rhys Chatham has the ability to surprise listeners and confound writers who attempt to describe his music, myself included. Harmonie du soir is not an album that lights haystacks on fire while laughing with delirium, but who says that all No Wave minimalism has to do that? Sometimes all you have to do is just plunk something down to see if anyone else can lift it.