Composer Rhys Chatham is used to working with a lot of players. Consider just some of his most recent work. A Crimson Grail is a composition for 400 guitars. Guitar Trio Is My Life may seem small and spare in its title, but features live performances with players from several bands from Swans to Sonic Youth to even Modern Lovers and more. It’s too simple to define Chatham’s aesthetic by the number of instruments and players he employs to create sound, but for many this kind of collaboration en masse is at least a starting point into his work.
But Chatham is, on his own, an arresting and fascinating musician. His first album in three years, Pythagorean Dream, reminds us of this fact. Gone are the hordes of guitarists. In their place? Just Chatham. There’s some trumpet and flute (Chatham’s main instrument in youth), but mostly this complex and curious record is all about Chatham and his guitar. Pythagorean Dream is divided into two parts and moves along steadily, hauntingly. Chatham uses delay effects to multiple his playing, but these songs expand without ever becoming maximalist. They get big but never lose intimacy.
“Part One” is the more tense of the two pieces. Faint trumpets kick the side off, establishing an unsettled airy atmosphere that Chatham’s guitar slices through. He uses the track to explore different approaches to guitar. First, he finger-picks, letting the notes roll and ripple out into space. There’s a hint of the American Primitive, something dusty at the edges of these notes. But the overall effect is more dissonant and jarring, something closer to John Fahey’s later work with Jim O’Rourke than his Blind Joe Death days. After Chatham whips up odd, tangled phrasings that seem both barbed and warm he shifts to eBow, which inverts the notes. The buzzing edges of those notes rise and groan and gleam their way to the forefront. In this section, maybe the most fascinating on the record, Chatham tests the shape of sound, making the kind of drones that you might call feedback if you didn’t sometimes, in the subtle shift in key, see the shape Chatham was keeping. It leads perfectly into a flat-picked final section, one final whip-up tying together the bittersweet stillness of the eBow with the more aggressive echoes of the finger-picked section. The side ends not resolved, but rather at full, complex frenzy.
“Part Two” is a more ruminant turn. Distant tones return and bring us into the track, while Chatham plays C, alto, and bass flutes to contrast with the heady guitar tones of “Side One”. In his hands, the flute sounds almost percussive with each note, not light or airy at all. And yet, it still feels calm. Phrasings bloom and then coil inward, glow and then fade. The taut lines of sound recall the approach to “Part One”, but the effect is the equivalent of a deep breath to the frenetic gasping “Part One” worked itself into. Even when the guitar returns, thorny as ever, late in “Part Two”, it feels more gauzy at the edges, more in line with the spacious effect of the flutes than with the nervy tones heard earlier on the record.
The music is, on its own, fascinating. What adds a level of emotion to Pythagorean Dream, however, may be the timing of its release. The minimalist record comes just after the passing of minimalist legend Tony Conrad, and one can’t help but think of his classic Outside of the Dream Syndicate when hearing Chatham’s new record. That’s not to say Chatham sounds like Conrad here, but the structure feels complementary. One side-long exercise in tension and anxiety, one in more contemplative and sustained sounds. Even unintentionally, the album pays a great tribute to Tony Conrad while still sounding new and fresh.
The CD version of the album includes a bonus track, “Whitechapel Brass Variations”, which is an interesting live performance, but chiefly serves to show where the trumpet parts on Pythagorean Dream came from. It’s nice peek into the construction of the record, but a bonus in the truest sense of the word. It is interesting yet inessential. Pythagorean Dream, in its two-part construction, stands alone as a great composition and performance by Rhys Chatham, a reminder of his ability as a player in his own right and not only a composer or fisher of guitarists.