Start On Guitar
Peter invited me to play flute in his orchestra, The Love of Life Orchestra, and I just loved playing that. I never played with a drummer before, for example. There was the drummer who was the cofounder of The Love of Life Orchestra, who was a composer named David Van Tieghem, and it was a real inspiration playing with them. And one time we were rehearsing at Westbeth, which was a studio where — a place where Merce Cunningham had a studio, and a lot of artists lived there. We were in the basement, and we were walking back to where we lived in the East Village. And Peter asked me, “Rhys, have you ever in your life been to a rock concert?” And I said no. I had listened to rock of course, but my background is in classical music, and that was my love and my passion. And so, I’d been to lots of concerts at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall but never to a rock concert.
And so I said no. And he said “Rhys, there’s a very interesting place near where we live, named CBGB’s, and there’s this band playing tonight, and you should come see them. So, why don’t we go together?”1 And so, we did. And the name of the band was The Ramones, it was 1976. And they had just put out their album under the same title, The Ramones. And I listened to the concert, and I thought wow. The music they were doing was more complex than what I was doing, in the sense that I was working with one chord as a minimalist, and they were working with three chords.2
But I heard something that I really related to, and could identify with. And also, I must point out that at that time, I was a pivotal point in the life of a composer. There’s a point where every musician, every composer has to decide what their voice is going to be. Prior to the point where I had heard The Ramones, I was writing nice minimalist pieces that sounded not unlike La Monte, not unlike Tony Conrad, not unlike Charlemagne or Éliane Radigue etcetera. But I felt that the work that I was doing, was student work, and I looked at what my heroes were doing, and I looked at, for example, La Monte, John Hassle, the trumpet player and composer.3 They’d studied with an Indian singer, named Pandit Pran Nath, and incorporated his techniques into their music. I had studied with Pandit Pran Nath also, so I could relate to that.
I looked at Steve Reich, and he had studied with Ghanaian drummers and incorporated that into his piece, Drumming. At the time I saw The Ramones, I was thinking well, what am I going to do? And when I saw The Ramones, I saw what I was going to do. And the next day, a friend of mine had just gotten a Stratocaster, so he lended me his Telecaster, and taught me how to play. He was Scott Johnson, a wonderful composer. He is writing complex music right now. But back then he was playing like Jimi Hendrix style guitar riffs, guitars. And so, he showed me how to play bar chords and blues scales, and that’s how I got my start on guitar.