RHYS CHATHAM’S A CRIMSON GRAIL
Carriageworks, January 12
For some parents, neighbours and other musicians, sharing a room with 100 electric guitarists might seem like a singularly cruel form of torture. But then Rhys Chatham’s three-part, 75-minute A Crimson Grail hardly realises most preconceptions of how the instrument tends to be used. Bent-string anguish, howling high notes and shredding are entirely absent. Chatham, an American composer with an impressive history and a penchant for large-scale works for multiple guitars, is interested in the collective sound of massed chords and intersecting rhythms; in the conflict and confluence of harmonies and overtones.
Listening, like looking at a painting, is a matter of perspective. One could, for instance, hear this work – as rooted in rock as it is in minimalism – as being rather monochromatic, given its endless repetitions and predominant rhythmic simplicity. Even its surround-sound (the 100 locally-obtained guitarists and bass guitarists sitting in a U-shape around the audience), incremental evolutions and occasional subversion of expectations might not allay that perspective.
Although that would be to miss the power and something close to glory of the phases when Chatham has some or all of the guitarists strumming various chords at his or her own maximum velocity (perfect synchronisation being redundant), to create ascending and descending waves of sound of a depth and density to rival Blue Poles, or to create a shimmering effect like a sonic heat-haze.
In conducting the work Chatham has control not only of tempo and dynamics, but of duration of specific events, and this is relayed to the massed players via four intermediary conductors. So the orchestra is divided into four blocks of 25 guitarists, and Chatham can use this division to bounce motifs around the room, rather like singing in rounds.
Given the endless possibilities at his disposal, however, his proclivity for robotic rhythms was curious, and even then some of the requisite precision fell away during the performance – saved by fierce conducting before a complete train-wreck ensued. Ultimately the piece was seldom less than enthralling, if more rarely truly magical.