On August 15, the first-ever outdoor performance of Rhys Chatham's work for 200 guitars, “A Crimson Grail,” was canceled due to weather in New York City, which was deemed by the concert's organizers as incompatible with the large amount of electrical power that would be required to make the show happen. The plan was for “A Crimson Grail” to be presented as the second of three pieces in a concert entitled “800 Years of Minimalism,” presented by Lincoln Center and Wordless Music. As it happened, though, the other numbers on the program, Manuel Göttsching's “E2:E4” and two pieces by the French early polyphonic composer Pérotin, were performed first, while rain fell on Damrosch Park and a very patient and sizable audience waited and hoped for a break in the weather.
When Lincoln Center's Director of Public Programming, Bill Bragin, took the microphone following the conclusion of “E2:E4” -- a mindlessly self-indulgent and wonky artifact of electronic music's earlier days, when playing a pointless 20 minute long guitar solo over a house beat was not only tolerated, but hailed as groundbreaking -- and earnestly explained the decision to end the concert without performing “A Crimson Grail,” most of those present were forced to head towards home unsatisfied, without having heard the piece. The 200 or so guitarists present, however, had been lucky enough to have experienced the piece performed more or less in full earlier that day during sound check. As one of those 200 guitarists, I'd like to try and provide some idea of what “A Crimson Grail” is like and what the audience may have seen on August 15, if it were not decided that the risk of mass electrocution posed by the standing water surrounding our amplifiers was reason enough to call off the show.
The first thing to understand about “A Crimson Grail,” which should be easy in light of the history of its aborted New York debut, is that it's a hard piece to actually experience, as it has only been performed publicly once. Unless you were present at its premier October 2005 at the Sacré Coeur Basilica in Paris, the only way to have heard the piece is through a recording. After reading about the album (released by Table of the Elements in 2007) in Keith Kawaii's review, I made use of the wonders of the internet to procure it and familiarize myself with it. I was, I thought, comfortable enough with “A Crimson Grail” when I applied to be a performer in the New York performance.
The second thing to understand is that familiarity, in the case of “A Crimson Grail,” comes in stages. On the record of the Sacré Coeur performance, and on the trusty but not always sonically honest computer speakers through which I heard it, the piece comes off as large, warm, and, like many large warm things, relatively boring. It came off as Sigur Rós without lyrics, The Jesus and Mary Chain without songs, or one of those cool minute-long filler songs on a Caribou record stretched on for 60 minutes. It was pleasant, droney, and meditative, which are not in any way bad things to be, but these words aren't often used to describe an exciting, groundbreaking piece of music. Still, the record invites listeners to crank up the volume, and it was apparent that to hear “A Crimson Grail” performed live, or even to listen to an extremely high quality recording of it played at a very high volume, would be something worth experiencing.
"In an orchestra of 200, emotion comes not from an individual effort, but from a collective cooperation."
Before I really thought about the practicalities of playing “A Crimson Grail” live, my application to be one of the 200 guitarists had been accepted. To listen to a recording of “A Crimson Grail” is to hear a huge mass of sound that, if you didn't already know it was created by a chorus of electric guitars, sounds like it could've been created by anything. It's impossible to pick out individual performances or individual groups of performers. The piece is obviously structured, but it's very difficult to associate the sounds on the record with the sounds most people are used to hearing from an electric guitar and amplifier. Ignorant of what sort of techniques were producing the massive and otherworldly sounds on the recording, I worried that something secretly virtuosic was going on beneath the cover of the Sacré Coeur Basilica's wall of natural reverb; something that I couldn't play.
One look at the score for the piece, though, and it became clear that there was no reason to worry. The score of “A Crimson Grail” calls largely for simple rhythmic figures, played in an open-tuning and usually at will. Much of the interplay in the piece revolves around the fact that the orchestra is divided not only into a number parts and subparts based largely on tuning and labeled as soprano, alto, tenor and bass (much like a standard choral arrangement), but also into four sections, which function as separate but mutually dependent orchestras. Had the performance gone off as planned, each section would have been directed by its own conductor, who in turn would have been conducted by the composer himself.
“A Crimson Grail” is a hard piece to get a hold of not only because of physical unavailability or sonic obscurity, but also because it changes so dramatically depending on your relationship to it. Listening to a recording of the piece is one thing; looking at a score for the piece is altogether another. The difference is usually obvious, but in the case of “A Crimson Grail,” where recordings sound more like whale calls than guitars and the score reads more like an instruction manual than sheet music, the translation of Chatham's composition, backwards, from sound to writing, renders it much more complex. What appears to be, in one capacity, a monolithic drone of a composition turns out to be much more nuanced: designed to create an enormous musical expression from the interplay of hundreds of discrete, largely unrelated and, in themselves, insignificant points of sound.
"The unnerving thought was that perhaps this is the sort of music that's more fun to think about than it is to listen to or play."
If looking at the score suggested this blend of structural complexity and musical simplicity, the first rehearsal of the piece, which took place on August 12, three days before the scheduled performance, hammered it home. The orchestra was separated by part and led, unamplified, through the individual figures they would play over the course of the piece. Without the benefit of volume or the context that practicing with the other parts would give, this was a musically unsatisfying experience, though one that reinforced the conceptual and intellectual framework of the piece. For the first time, the minimalism proposed by the title of the concert became tangible. Playing “A Crimson Grail,” it seemed, would consist of long periods of sitting quietly, followed by long periods of playing the same thing over and over. The unnerving thought was that perhaps this is the sort of music that's more fun to think about than it is to listen to or play.
Going into the second day of rehearsal, many players may have wondered what they had gotten themselves into by committing to spending a week of their life learning to playing something which, after one rehearsal, seemed cold, emotionless and simplistic. Some intrepid souls had managed to transport large, expensive, and in some cases extremely rare amplification systems to the Church of St. John the Apostle for rehearsal, and I could only imagine their displeasure during the first day of being forbidden to plug in. I would be surprised if I was the only player present wondering whether the sound of the guitarists tuning, warming up, and generally jerking around before rehearsal would sound much different than the rehearsal itself.
However, as soon as players were arranged in their proper sections and amps were plugged in, it was clear that there was no cause for worry. Even though the orchestra was divided in half -- due, I believe, to electrical issues -- parts of the piece were capable of eliciting the sort of sonic bliss that isn't usually associated with the Catholic setting of the rehearsal or modern classical music. On paper, the thought of five conductors conducting sections of 50 players each simultaneously and in a synchronized manner made the piece seem complex and intricately composed. In practice, though, this very system seemed impossible and essentially responsible for the sense of ecstatic chaos present in parts of the piece. “A Crimson Grail” emerged from the rehearsal as a more human creation, willfully and elegantly flawed.
Understandably, though, a full understanding of the piece could not be reached without hearing it performed by the full 200-piece orchestra, and this speaks to the very heart of the matter. If scoring music for 200 guitars sounds like a gimmick, it is; but in “A Crimson Grail,” the gimmick and the meaning are one and the same. Without the weight of sound, the mass input, the hierarchical structure of leadership and the inevitability of mistakes inherent in the idea of a piece performed by 200 guitarists, “A Crimson Grail” would easily become either what I feared it was after one rehearsal (an emotionless exercise) or an excuse to call rock music by a name more acceptable to the world of high art.
"Listening to a recording of the piece is one thing; looking at a score for the piece is altogether another."
While the piece is just as musically simplistic as it looks on a page, it becomes painfully clear when playing the piece that this simplicity is utterly necessary. “A Crimson Grail,” unlike most of John Cage's or, say, Michael Mayer's music, is minimal not by design but by necessity. If you want to get 200 guitarists to play together in the same place, you need to have something pretty simple for them to play. With this amount of people involved, a piece any more complex would fail miserably. As compositional complexity is sacrificed to the scale of the work, though, so is personal expression. In an orchestra of 200, emotion comes not from an individual effort, but from a collective cooperation. Creating such cooperation is the main task and source of beauty in “A Crimson Grail.”
The fact that the piece is impressive largely in the amount of thought and man power that goes into organizing its performance (rather than in its actual performance) ought to explain why I haven't talked much about the music itself. To give it a shot, though, what the audience would have heard on August 15 is a huge sound, slapping back against the walls of Lincoln Center, ricocheting around Damrosch Park – chaotic, beautiful, and otherworldly – the sound of 200 guitars coming together to resemble something much too powerful to reduce to the typical semiotics of the guitar.
Which is why it ended up being so funny that some participants seemed to be the sort of gear-crazed guitar players you might recognize from your local used guitar shop or Fender message board. The joke is that the guys and girls who went out of their way to bring their best equipment watched as their sound ended up in the same boat as everyone else's, mashed into one ineffable mass. What we had all failed to realize was that “A Crimson Grail” is a breakthrough not by means of experimental daringness or emotional release, but through organization and logistics. And, in the end, its New York premier failed the only way it really could have: logistically.