200 guitars, redux

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For anyone present at Damrosch Park last August, the grim scene resembled a rained out multi-guitar funeral. The equipment was covered in plastic, amps were turned off, and the Lincoln Center representative ministered the final blow from the bandshell about the cancellation of what was going to be the world premiere of the outdoor version of Rhys Chatham’s epic composition for 200 electric guitars and 16 basses, A Crimson Grail. The electricity in the air was more than palpable. A nasty cocktail of anger mixed with disappointment had everyone, audience members and, especially, participating musicians, mumbling inarticulate curses to the skies above.

After last year’s debacle, Rhys Chatham returns to Lincoln Center this August for what promises to be the definitive presentation of A Crimson Grail for outdoor performance. A pioneer of hundred-guitar orchestras, Rhys Chatham recently talked to me about his project. “I always try to use the least number of guitars that I can, and try to keep it as sparse as possible,” he said. This, coming from the person who in 2005, for the premier performance of A Crimson Grail, installed 400 guitarists in Paris’ Sacré-Cœur, a magnificent church perched on top of Montmartre. As he explained, that number was a careful calculation to achieve best sonic results. So why dwindle the orchestra size down to 216 musicians when presenting this piece out of doors in NYC? “It’s a question of surrounding the audience,” he explained.

On Saturday, he'll line Damrosch Park with a perimeter of 200 guitarists and 16 bassists. “What we used to do with 100 guitars is, we put them through four points of sound, and then what we discovered in 2005 at Sacré-Cœur when we did Crimson Grail is that it’s ridiculous to put 200 or 400 musicians through four points of sound, why not do it like a regular orchestra and have 216 points of sound?” Presenting the piece al fresco meant that he had to rework it in its entirety, and, as he admitted, he “wasn’t sure how it was going to sound because there was no way there was going to be a 15-second delay time [like there was in Sacré-Cœur].” The reverberation inside the church had, according to Mr. Chatham, “a lot of forgiveness to it.” In an email addressed to last year’s musicians, he confessed that, because of that lack of reverb, he was worried that the sound at Lincoln Center would be “wimpy.” Wimpy was not the word used by the Park Department after last year’s sound-check, when Mr. Chatham received word that he had to turn the volume down a notch.

Divided in four sections of roughly 50 musicians each, A Crimson Grail balances chaotic elements with a classically inspired structure. Taming two hundred guitarists might be a feat in and of itself, but unlike the caricature movements of Guitar Hero r’n’r marionettes, Chatham’s musicians look more like members of the NY Philharmonic, who wield axes instead of centuries-old instruments. Mr. Chatham took elements from rock—steady eighth-note beats, structured improvisation, loose but graceful rhythmical pulsation—and animated his orchestral composition, insisting that one doesn't have to be a virtuoso to produce big, cosmic sounds. There are passages that shine with the minimalist clarity of a battalion of guitars picking away at a steady riff, and then there’s moments where guitars beam with lush, interlaced tremolos, as if performing the soundtrack to the slow passing of distant galaxies.

Mr. Chatham’s affinity for diverse guitar tunings is evident through many of his compositions, like the iconic Drastic Classicism with its gritty riffage and rolling drums. But if there’s a tone color that has captivated his imagination with its properties, then it is definitely the key of E. His famous Guitar Trio revolves around a simple propelling open E riff that spreads over a straightforward drum beat. Similarly, A Crimson Grail is an unspoken ode to the sonorities and possibilities of E major – just wait till the grand finale: a majestic affirmation of what happens when an army of guitars deconstructs a diatonic scale.

Mr. Chatham repeatedly stressed how overwhelmed and grateful he is for all the volunteering musicians, and he emphasized their importance by pointing out that “the real stars of this event are the people who are playing.” The all-star cast includes, amongst others, members and collaborators of Guided by Voices, Band of Susans, Merzbow, They Might Be Giants, Stars Like Fleas, and Pussy Galore. Mr. Chatham’s 17 year-old daughter will also be in the ensemble. “My daughter is mostly into heavy metal, but she doesn't mind playing her dad's music from time to time,” he told me.

Mr. Chatham is a native New Yorker who, about twenty years ago, left for France and never came back. He initially crossed the pond with his then wife because the latter had missed her homeland. When asked how he feels about not being in NYC anymore, he reminisced about the pre-Giuliani years, when he’d frequently come back for gigs and mingle with what he characteristically called his “tribe.”

He looked back on the days when paying cheap rent and receiving grants from the NYSCA or the NEA were all part of one’s life as an artist in NYC. “What we had in SoHo and in the East Village was this wonderful mixture of kids that came from rich families and poor families, making art and music and film.” However, he thought that after Giuliani NYC was washed up. “I started seeing sushi restaurants opening up in Avenue C, where before people used to buy heroine from.” He later realized that even though Manhattan had fallen for a luxurious lifestyle that no fledgling artist could afford, the action had moved to a borough nobody even wanted to hear about before Mr. Chatham's first departure. To his credit, Mr. Chatham actively collaborates with some of Brooklyn’s underground noisemakers, like Talibam! and Sarah Lipstate.

[A scene prior to last year's rainout.]

And now Mr. Chatham wants to recreate those conditions for artists to be able to come together. Beyond any compositional intentions, through A Crimson Grail he seeks to foster a sense of camaraderie, one that is usually associated with classical ensembles. “What happens is this whole social thing that’s going on in the rehearsals that guitarists don’t normally have, but classical musicians do. And that is a really big part of doing this.”

For this Saturday, all necessary precautions have been taken: the musicians will be placed under tents, in the hopes that last year’s rain will not show its ugly face again. This time we can rest assured that Saturday will be an historic evening of ambient minimalism that will leave Damrosch Park ringing with sweet tintinnabulation.

Rhys Chatham performs with his orchestra at Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center on August 8. 7pm doors, 7:30pm show, free.