Rhys’s Pieces

Andrew Hultkrans at Rhys Chatham’s A Crimson Grail

New York

A view of Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail (Outdoor Version) on August 8, 2009, at Damrosch Park Bandshell, New York. (All photos: Stephanie Berger)

NEVER HAVE I RUN INTO as many friends and acquaintances at a New York event as I did last Saturday at the band shell abutting Lincoln Center, where Rhys Chatham’s orchestra of two hundred electric guitars, fifteen basses, and one hi-hat graced a perfect summer evening with oscillating ambient bliss. Maybe I knew so many people there because my friends are cheap and the concert was free, part of the institution’s long-running “Out of Doors” series. Perhaps it was because I know my share of rock critics, and many—including Michael Azerrad, Will Hermes, and former Blender editor Rob Tannenbaum—were surrounding me in the press section. Most likely it was due to the broad reach of Chatham’s work, which corrals indie rockers, avant-garde composers, rave kids, art trash, and aesthetically curious civilians into one big tent.

Chatham is a guitarist-composer with an impeccable pedigree: He studied with electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick and hipster minimalist La Monte Young, played in Tony Conrad’s Dream Syndicate (other notable alumnus: John Cale), founded the music program at the Kitchen, underwent a stylistic Damascus at an early Ramones show, and influenced Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and hordes of younger experimental rockers. His 1977 composition Guitar Trio remains a landmark for minimalism, guitar music, and genre-bending alike.

A 1989 work for one hundred guitars, An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, eventually led to 2005’s four-hundred-guitar epic, A Crimson Grail, which premiered at the Basilique du Sacré Coeur in Paris. The latter was the work, revised and trimmed to a sensible two hundred guitars, that was to make its New York debut in August 2008 until a heavy rainstorm forced its last-minute cancellation. With long, shallow tents protecting the guitarists and their amps, Saturday’s performance was the rain check, so to speak, though the weather was remarkably beautiful.

Left: Rhys Chatham. Right: Musician Ryan Sawyer and Rhys Chatham.

After taking my seat and fending off nonpress punters from the empty chairs beside me, I was relieved when the Asphalt Orchestra—a marching band created by Bang on a Can—made its way from the back of the crowd to underneath the stage, where they played several commissioned pieces. Chatham was then introduced and emerged onstage, an avuncular middle-aged man with a full head of white hair, wearing a white shirt, black vest, and black pants. (The two hundred guitarists, arrayed in a squared-off U underneath the stage and to the left and right of the audience, also sported waiterlike white shirt/black pants ensembles.) Accompanied by a younger man with a very long beard (the hi-hat player), Chatham gave the crowd a Buddhist prayer bow and signaled his four “directors” (subconductors under tents near each corner of the audience) to begin.

Using unconventional gestures, some of which resembled semaphore signals, Chatham transmitted arcane instructions to the directors, who in turn conducted their quadrants of musicians. The three-part piece began quietly, with pleasant ambient washes of open-tuned guitars panning left to right and back again. The guitarists appeared to be conjuring this major-chord drone by quickly strumming the lower strings of their instruments like mandolinists.

It was hard to discern the relationship between Chatham’s movements and the music. Even after the bearded man started playing a steady 4/4 beat on the hi-hat, Chatham’s conducting seemed unconnected to any rhythm or harmonic motion. With the basses kicking in, the midtempo music took on a processional feel, slowly and inexorably building. A dragonfly flew over my head. An old Eastern European couple to my left looked nonplussed but not unhappy. Various elements reminded me, alternately, of John McLaughlin’s Eastern-scale plinking on Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way and Cale’s viola drone on the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” The first section ended; on cue, a warm, strong breeze blew over the crowd.

Beginning the second section, Chatham made more strange gestures. A friend whispered into my ear, “He looks like an air-traffic controller trying to get UFOs to land.” During the entire piece, the massed guitars often sounded like other instruments (wind chimes, synthesizers, mellotrons) as well as calls of the wild (elephants trumpeting, a swarm of tenor bees). Several times, Chatham bafflingly held up a piece of printer paper with a large asterisk on it. This had no discernible effect on the music.

A view of one of the quadrants of Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail (Outdoor Version).

The third section opened with the guitarists playing repeated fifths, with the basses dropping one sustained bomb at the end of each measure, reminding me of the intro to the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” stuck on auto-repeat. Then, each quadrant of guitarists started playing a climbing major scale in chords in a round structure (each quadrant would start the scale two beats after their neighbors), sounding like the coda of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control.” This built into a huge crescendo, then, finally, it was over. A few more McLaughlin plinks, and Chatham took another Buddhist bow. He asked the musicians to stand and hold up their guitars, graciously calling them the “real stars of the show.”

After a hyper set by guitarless, percussion-heavy No Wave band Liquid Liquid (best known for the song “Cavern,” which Grandmaster Flash nicked for “White Lines”), the audience slowly dispersed. I swear I saw Box Tops/Big Star legend Alex Chilton near the back, cheering loudly for Liquid Liquid as they left the stage. At that point, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see my dead relatives. Chatham’s grail seemed to be nearly everyone’s.