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Rhys Chatham - A Crimson Grail

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Artist: Rhys Chatham

Album: A Crimson Grail

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Jan. 11, 2011

Rhys Chatham first performed Guitar Trio in 1977, and it remains the composer’s signature work more than three decades later. When some timely 2002 reissues from Table of the Elements sparked a resurgence of interest in his work, Guitar Trio played a large part in Chatham’s revival. In fact, a 2007 tour consisted of nothing but versions of the piece, re-imagined nightly by new performers on instruments sometimes far more various than those for which it was originally written. Chatham’s trio of guitars was multiplied exponentially for A Crimson Grail, a 2005 piece commissioned for a festival performance by the city of Paris. Composed for up to 400 guitars, the piece was performed by less than half of that number, but the heavenly din made that day in the venerable Basilica of Sacré-Cœur wasn’t lacking in mass, as evidenced on a 2007 release on Table of the Elements.

As with Guitar Trio, Chatham returned to and reworked A Crimson Grail, this time for the Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors festival in 2008. Chatham ‘s task was to transfer the magic of that night in Paris to New York City’s Damrosch Park, and this disc is evidence, albeit not wholly conclusive evidence, of that attempt.

The Outdoor Version, as the 2008 incarnation of A Crimson Grail is subtitled, takes a minimalist tack similar to that of the original, surrounding the audience with musicians (this time on three sides) and immersing them in music that’s more about the sheer quantity of the sound than anything else, a series of furiously strummed drones, strident rhythmic counterpoint and massive crescendos. Sections have been rearranged, or swapped out altogether, but the piece hews closely to the character and intent of Chatham’s original. This New York performance ups the ante in terms of numbers, with 200 guitarists, 16 bassists, and a lone soul on hi-hat, amplifying each musician separately in what Chatham calls “the ultimate surround-sound system.” The generous reverberation and beautiful ambiance of Sacré-Cœur are lost to a New York night’s sky, but this cleanly-recorded disc offers higher fidelity and far more identifiable detail, to the point that one can almost be tricked into supposing that he or she hears individual axes amongst the forest of sound.

As impressive as Chatham’s guitar orchestra is in size, the accretion of instruments reaches a point of diminishing returns, at least on disc. Most notably in the more precise, rhythmic portions, each section of 50 or so guitars coalesce into a largely singular sound, rendering what was likely a massive sound far more tame and tempered. Even at the music’s most chaotic, the group sounds as much like 50 guitars as it does 200, impressive in its heft, but hardly more overwhelming that the noise made by groups a fraction of the size. Those in attendance that August night experienced the magic of the multiplicitous sound, but unfortunately, the phenomenon of 216 singular voices, coming at the ears from three sides, doesn’t translate well in the conversion to stereo compact disc. The Table of the Elements release combats this problem by capitalizing on its limitations, with the quality of the recording softening borders and melding individual sounds into a cloudy, ethereal whole. On this new recording, the sound of plectrum on string is more evident, which heightens the guitar-ness of the piece, certainly an important aspect of Chatham’s work, while grounding the music’s celestial qualities, so evident on the preceding version. At moments of heightened intensity, there’s some spectacular sturm und drang, but so much of this recording could use some of the rawness of its predecessor.

Those of us hearing A Crimson Grail after the fact, through speakers or headphones, can only approximate what the piece sounded like in person. A large part of the draw of A Crimson Grail, is in its quantity, a quality that doesn’t survive the journey from Damrosch Park to these ears. There’s something lacking, like documentation of performance art by photograph, or a trip on Highway 1 taken via Google Maps. You get the idea, sure, but sometimes the cliché holds true, and you really had to be there.

By Adam Strohm

Other Reviews of Rhys Chatham

A Crimson Grail (For 400 Guitars)

Outdoor Spell

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View all articles by Adam Strohm

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