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“For 400 Electric Guitars”–Rhys Chatham’s A Crimson Grail–Records Under the Radar

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It begins with a shimmery whisper, like an orchestra warming up before a performance.  Then, as that shimmer swells and builds in volume, the realization comes: this is the performance.  Upon first listen, perhaps the most fascinating thing is how, exactly, 400 electric guitars can make such a beautiful sound.  But one can hear the size of the group behind the tidal steadiness, the inevitability, of the music.  It ebbs and flows as an organic wall of sound.

Rhys Chatham’s A Crimson Grail came about as a natural progression of his longtime musical experiments.  Chatham cut his teeth in the early ’70s in downtown Manhattan, working first as a piano tuner for avant garde legend La Monte Young, then as a collaborator with like-minded composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  By the late 1970s he had formed a guitar trio with Glenn Brancha, which was heavily influenced by punk and the denizens of the downtown No Wave scene.  This trio was the seed of an idea that eventually saw Chatham compose for dozens, and then hundreds, of guitars, all played at once.

A Crimson Grail was first commissioned by the city of Paris as part of the 2005 Nuit Blanche festival, and its live debut was viewed by over 10,000 people.  Appropriately so, as there is something in the work’s sound that evinces the white noise hum of a large crowd.  As the work’s first movement unfolds, the ear begins to pick up dozens of different levels of sound, and then it becomes clear that the guitars aren’t being played in unison.  Rather there are little pockets of players that have been assigned separate tasks, as though the orchestra is made up of a hundred or so individual bands, all with slightly different agendas.

The second movement is darker, heavier, more uncertain in its build (there is some of the droning, muscular tone of Brancha here).  It lopes along, slowly working its way to greater and greater volume, the guitars sounding almost like brass instruments–they are warm and strong in tone, but dissonant at the same time.  Then, after 10 minutes of build, sparkling individual guitars twinge and twang, and then suddenly the great choral wave of the first movement has returned, settling over the heavier sounds like a fog.  Together, these two disparate elements expand and expand, swelling to fill the channels of the ear, and end the movement.

The third and final movement of A Crimson Grail begins, again, low and heavy.  This time the hum and buzz of the guitars recall cellos bowing; but as in all of this work, there is a sense of building momentum.  The hum continues on and on, and then another element emerges, akin to tubular bells.  Very slowly this dense wall is permeated by an insistent patter of strumming.  And then over this, a string of high pitched tones is strung, until finally the sound is that of an ethereal wail.  When it suddenly ceases, the silence is deafening.  And when the orchestra strikes back up for the coda, it is as though all three movements have been compressed, and are now being played atop each other.  The result is disorienting, fascinating, and beautiful.

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