Distillation and Synthesis: Aesthetics and Practice in Rhys Chatham's Music for Electric Guitar

Gilgunn, Paul. 2017. Distillation and Synthesis: Aesthetics and Practice in Rhys Chatham's Music for Electric Guitar. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This is a critical study of music for electric guitars by composer-performer Rhys Chatham (b. 1952), work that distils and synthesises elements from various genres, primarily, minimalism and rock. I investigate the development, realisation, and import of these works, created between 1977 and 2006, in an analytical, biographical, and cultural account that examines unpublished performance directions, scores, and original interviews with this significant, yet under-explored artist and his collaborators. An immanent sublime aesthetic characterises Chatham’s formative experiences in downtown music, and I explain how this informs his composition, performance, and listening practices (including attendant issues of entrainment, frisson, and perceptualization). This reading is situated within major music traditions of the later twentieth century and at the forefront of a nexus of postmodern radical pluralism, operating across the borderline of the avant-garde and the popular.

I use a range of research methods: aesthetics, cultural theory, interviews, musical analysis, music theory, and my own experience of performing several of these works. Part One maps Chatham’s development as a composer and performer through his engagement with modernist, serialist, electronic, minimalist, improvised, North Indian classical, popular, and rock music between 1952 to 1978, to interpret how he distilled key components of these experiences. Part Two outlines how he synthesised these elements in several non-notated works for the electric guitar, from 1977 to 1982, using idiosyncratic and inventive approaches to composition and performance. Part Three provides in-depth analyses of Chatham’s notated music for increasingly large ensembles of electric guitars from 1984 to 2006, to outline the development of his post-Cagean musical language, and interpret the wider import of these works.

I argue that the interpenetration and reciprocity of musical elements in these works expand, and implode, pre-established forms of art and rock music. While this eludes ‘either/or’ classifications, per se, this is a particular kind of post-minimalism, with significant components of popular music, identifiable as part of a post-1945 culture that was distinguished by immanence, participation, and subjectivity.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):



Chatham, aesthetics, practice, composing, performing, listening, guitars, avant-garde, minimalism, downtown, Cage, Subotnick, Electric Circus, Radigue, Amacher, Palestine, Riley, Young, Conrad, Pran Nath, Ramones, no wave, noise rock, post-minimalism, post-Cagean, postmodern, popular music, post-rock, entrainment, radical pluralism, perceptualization, frisson, immanence, subjectivity, participation

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30 September 2017

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

30 Oct 2017 11:40

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:41



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