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