Tag Archives: A Crimson Grail

Quest for the grail: Lincoln Center Out of Doors version of A Crimson Grail for 200 electric guitars to be released on Nonesuch

It’s been a long time coming. First it was rained out in 2008. Finally, after a great deal of additional planning and with the blessing of the weatherman, Ronen Givony of Wordless Music and Bill Bragin, director of public programming at Lincoln Center, managed to stage the NYC version of Rhys Chatham‘s A Crimson Grail for 200 Electric Guitars (Outdoor Version) at Lincoln Center Out of Doors last season. (Loyal Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? readers will remember our coverage.)

Composer Rhys Chatham conducts his A Crimson Grail at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in 2009. (Copyright 2009, Steven P. Marsh)

On Sept. 14, a recording of that monumental performance is being released by Nonesuch. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

The magnificent, drone-based piece was mind-blowing in performance. Damrosch Park seemed ready to levitate from the amazing sonic pressure from the volunteer guitarists (plus 16 bassists and the sound of one hi-hat cymbal keeping the beat). I’ve heard the recording of the indoor Paris version of the piece, and while it’s amazing, it doesn’t quite do justice to the work. But I have high hopes that Nonesuch’s effort will top that.

Here’s the press release:

Nonesuch Records releases A Crimson Grail—Rhys Chatham’s work for large electric guitar orchestra—on September 14, 2010. Written in 2005 as a commission for the city of Paris, A Crimson Grail premiered at the basilica of Sacré-Coeur. It was created to work with the specific architecture of the basilica, making use of its natural 15-second reverberation time. The musicians surrounded the audience, creating an antiphonal effect with the sound moving around the space from area to area. Scored for as many as four hundred guitarists, an orchestra of approximately 125 musicians performed the premiere, to great acclaim.

The Dallas Observer said of a recording of that concert, “Beautifully intricate and harmonically dense, A Crimson Grail is nearly ambient in tone while pursuing a beauty that never seems beyond its scope.” When Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Wordless Music invited Chatham to mount A Crimson Grail in New York at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, the composition had to be completely reworked for the acoustics of an exterior, non-reverberant setting. The Nonesuch recording captures the subsequent 2009 performance, in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, with 200 electric guitars, 16 electric basses, 5 conductors, and percussion.

Rhys Chatham is a composer, guitarist, and trumpet player from Manhattan, currently living in Paris. He was the founder of the music program at The Kitchen in downtown Manhattan in 1971 and was its music director between 1971–73 and 1977–80. While at The Kitchen he was responsible for programming more than 250 concerts of living composers including the NEW MUSIC / NEW YORK Festival, which was the prototype upon which the NEW MUSIC AMERICA Festival was later based. Chatham studied under, was influenced by, or has collaborated with Maryanne Amacher, Don Cherry, Tony Conrad, Jon Hassell, Charlemagne Palestine, Eliane Radigue, Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski, Morton Subotnick, Serge Tcherepnin, and La Monte Young, among many others.

Click through to the jump for Givoney’s personal account of the journey from an idea in 2007 to a reality n 2009.

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Aural bliss = 200 electric guitars, 16 electric basses and one hi-hat

Rhys Chatham, with Hi-Hat player Ryan Sawyer at his side, conducting A Crimson Grail in Damrosch Park. (Copyright 2009, Steven P. Marsh)

Rhys Chatham, with Hi-Hat player Ryan Sawyer at his side, conducting "A Crimson Grail" in Damrosch Park. (All photos copyright 2009, Steven P. Marsh, except where noted otherwise.)

It started as a low rumble and over the course of about an hour got increasingly loud. It  was the sound of 200 electric guitars, 16 electric basses and one hi-hat cymbal playing the world premiere of Rhys Chatham‘s  A Crimson Grail for 200 Electric Guitars (Outdoor Version). (No, I wasn’t metering it, but one of the guitarists reported it reached 116 dB’s during rehearsals at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Great Hall. It was probably a bit quieter in performance.)

Section leader Seth Olinsky, guitarist in the indie rock band Akron/Family.

Section leader Seth Olinsky, guitarist in the indie rock band Akron/Family.

The project was 18 months in the making. It was supposed to happen last August at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, but a downpour that passed before the performance could start left pooled water on the ground at Damrosch Park, making it way too dangerous to proceed, given all the electricity involved. Last night, the volunteer players — about two-thirds of whom returned from last year — were protected from any threat of rain by canopies. But Mother Nature was kind, gracing showtime with cool temperatures and clear skies, followed by a bit of rain well after the performance ended.

Chatham used a playful asterisk to mark certain changes in the piece for the players.

Chatham used a playful asterisk to mark certain changes in the piece for the players.

Last night’s premiere was a reworking of the original A Crimson Grail, which was written for 400 guitars and performed indoors in Paris’ landmark Sacré-Coeur Basilica in 2005,  before an audience of 10,000 — while some 100,000 more watched on national TV.

The three-part work created a wall of sound with guitar tremolos, laced with distinct melodies that floated over and wove into the drone. Chatham conducted from a podium raised above the front row of players, assisted by four section leaders — David Daniell (improvisational guitarist and composer), John King (guitarist and composer who’s worked with Kronos Quartet and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, among others), Seth Olinsky (Akron/Family) and Ned Sublette (The Ned Sublette Band) — who passed on his instructions to the players and kept them together. (Among the players was a neighbor of mine, digital artisan Richard Lainhart, playing a white Steinberger guitar.)

The sound mix was handled beautifully, balancing the nearly ear-splitting drone sections well with the melodic lines. Some people in the crowd put fingers in their ears or inserted ear plugs during the performance. Sure, it was LOUD, but the sound was manageable and arced from soft to loud and back again smoothly.

The changing textures of the piece, coupled with the onset of nightfall created a magical effect that kept the majority of the audience deeply engaged with the piece. The overall effect was blissful, hypnotic and spiritual.

The park was absolutely packed with curious listeners. It was the first show in this still-young Out of Doors season where I’ve seen long lines of people waiting to get in an hour before the show started. Many people were turned away from the seating area and had to listen from South Plaza or from the street.

Asphalt Orchestra marched to the front of Damrosch Park last night to entertain the crowd assembled for Rhys Chatham's "A Crimson Veil." (Copyright 2009, Christine Maurus)

Asphalt Orchestra marched to the front of Damrosch Park last night to entertain the crowd assembled for Rhys Chatham's "A Crimson Veil." (Copyright 2009, Christine Maurus)

The lucky people who got in early and got seats were doubly lucky because they also got a taste of Bang on a Can‘s Asphalt Orchestra, the avant-garde marching band that made its debut on Wednesday. Asphalt, which has been, well, marching around Lincoln Center campus for a half hour before each night’s mainstage show, last night took its show right into Damrosh Park, give the captive audience a taste of its energetic sound. (Your last chance to see Asphalt Orchestra, for now at least, is at 7 tonight, starting at Broadway Plaza in front of Alice Tully Hall at Broadway and West 65th Street.)

Crimson lineup

The guitarists were lined up two deep under canopies in front of the stage and the north and south sides of Damrosch Park.