Rhys Chatham’s Music is Hard to Hear October 24, 1977

Rhys Chatham’s latest music, presented by the Experimental Intermedia Foundation on September 29, is not sensuous at all. It is expressed through an extremely soft, high-register electronic tone with no harmony whatever, and it presents itself gently, content with a tiny audience in a tiny space. Its main purpose is to investigate how we perceive sound, and I suspect that the style has been influenced by the composer Maryanne Amacher, and probably many acousticians and psycho-acousticians.

The audience that night was confined to a small portion of a quiet loft space at 537 Broadway, enclosed in white drapery. Chatham sat at the center with a couple of electronic tone generators and some mixing and amplifying equipment. After a brief explanation, the music began, but it was a long time before I could hear it. Eventually I began to perceive a barely audible whistling, which rose and fell in gradual increments. The loudspeakers were nowhere to be seen, and the difficulty of locating the sound was one of the appealing mysteries of the music. Another was the way the tone would disappear and reappear.

Sometimes it would rise beyond my range of hearing, or soften to a point where it really was inaudible, but often I wasn’t sure whether I was hearing it or not. Everyone has extremely soft little ringing sounds in their ears all the time, and Chatham’s

music is close enough to those sounds that everything gets mixed up. Reality and illusion take on a new dimension. Of course, our individual ears vary quite a bit, and when I compared impressions later on, I found that some people had heard more of Chatham’s music than I had, while others had not heard as much. Someone who was 80 years old, or who had a hearing defect, probably would not have been able to hear any of it.

One could say that Chatham’s music does not have a purely musical form, since the main thing that guides its progress is the composer’s desire to demonstrate certain aural phenomena. Nor can Chatham take complete credit for those portions of the concert that were really produced by our own inner ears. But even if you prefer to consider it psycho-acoustic research rather than art, you must still admit that this is the kind of research that could only be done by a musician with a pair of very keen ears, and that it provides us with some unprecedented listening experiences.


This was about the end of Chatham’s career as a soft musician. Shortly afterward he shifted abruptly to a super-loud guitar ensemble.