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Rhys Chatham & His Guitar Trio All-Stars - Guitar Trio Is My Life!

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Artist: Rhys Chatham & His Guitar Trio All-Stars

Album: Guitar Trio Is My Life!

Label: Table of the Elements

Review date: Mar. 13, 2008

It is 6:45 in the afternoon and I am sitting in Los Angeles traffic. The sun is blistering through my windows as the sea of cars gasps and recedes around me. A traffic light flashes to green, but nothing changes. The engines are stopped, the bicycles are passing us all and the office has only shriveled slightly in the rear-view mirror. Guitar Trio Is My Life! is echoing inside my car; and I am going to throw up.

How we listen to music shapes our opinion of a recording. Certain genres or styles can adapt easily to different formats while others require special care. There are also many pieces of music that should only be experienced in the live setting. Toshimaru Nakamura comes to mind – his no-input mixing board is so spare and high-pitched that only the quietest environments can provide enough insulation for critical listening. I spent weeks trying to grasp his Aluk album – a collaboration with German micro-composer Klaus Filip – with little success. It seemed that there had to be a purer way of experiencing the music, whether through physical isolation or by simply hearing the piece performed live. To my ears, a small concert hall could suit Aluk perfectly, allowing Nakamura’s glacial waves of feedback to resonate through a quiet room while creating unexpected harmonies and textures. That is the type of rich listening experience certain music can provide when given the proper setting to flourish – but we rarely get the chance to consume music in such an ideal setting.

My painful car ride with Rhys Chatham is just one example of how our society marginal-izes the listening experience. I digest Bach symphonies through tiny earbud speakers and an iPod, I listen to White Light/White Heat on my early morning run, I write emails as Julius Eastman’s “Crazy Nigger” blares from my computer, I fall asleep to Nick Drake – isn’t there something wrong here? Why isn’t the music the main event? In the case of Guitar Trio Is My Life!, the problem is twofold. The first problem comes from me and my carelessness in using my car as a listening station. The other is that this bloated, triple-disc live album should never have been released at all.

“Guitar Trio” is one of Chatham’s most beloved pieces and its influence on both post-punk and avant-garde music is tremendous, but this new release delivers far more than any Chatham diehard could ever want or need. Spread over three disks and running close to three hours in length, Guitar Trio Is My Life! finds Rhys Chatham and a shifting lineup of guitarists (including Lee Ranaldo, Alan Licht, Thurston Moore, David Daniell and Tony Conrad), bassists and drummers interpreting the piece during eight different concerts from 2007. By the time Disc 3 rolls around one can’t help but think of Lou Reed’s pithy characterization of Metal Machine Music, “Anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am.”

“Guitar Trio” consists of two movements – the first finds the guitarists strumming away at an Em7 chord while the drummer is relegated to his hi-hat, the second continues the Em7 chord, but allows the drummer to use the entire kit. The recording quality is solid, but unsympathetic to the subtle, textural nuances that a minimalist piece like this creates. The sound grows oppressive and dull as the guitars drone endlessly, losing all of the glorious sonorities that would have been present during the live concerts. As a listener you are left with the feeling that you missed out on one hell of a show, but overall, the recorded document is an insufficient, and tedious, consolation prize. Interested listeners are better off sticking with the original recording of “Guitar Trio” available on Chatham’s Die Donnergotter (The Thundergods) LP. The version is only eight minutes long, but the performance is definitive and most importantly, the analog studio sound really does the piece justice.

In the end, we can only control our own listening habits and I certainly gave Guitar Trio Is My Life! the time and the non-car sonic environment it deserved, but it’s important to recognize that certain concerts can’t be recreated. By simply sticking a microphone in the air, we can’t hope to capture the essential, visceral nature of live performance.

By Matthew Kivel

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