Rhys Chatham - Sacred and Profane



Rhys Chatham: A Crimson Grail for 200 Electric Guitars (Outdoor Version) (World Premiere)
8th August 2009 at Damrosch Bandshell, Lincoln Center, NYC

As music impresario Jim Fouratt presciently posted on his Facebook page yesterday, "You will be sorry if you miss this." And he was right. My god, did every music freak and fan show up last night at Lincoln Center's outdoor theater? Well, if you invite 200 guitarists and 16 bassists to play in your band and each one of them invited 6-10 friends -- plus all of the other cultural curious -- you will certainly get a formidable crowd. And as former Joe's Pub booker Bill Bragin has so effectively done since manning the post as director of public programming at Lincoln Center, he aims to please and inspire the culturally ravenous in New York City.

Now all that was missing was the cooperation of Mother Nature. Last year the commissioned piece was canceled due to monsoon weather conditions. But last night the weather was spectacular, the crowd electric in a gathering storm of anticipation.

New York-born, Paris-based, 56-year old minimalist composer Rhys Chatham, along with section leaders David Daniell, John King, Seth Olinsky (Akron/Family), and Ned Sublette, led an over-sized volunteered orchestra in a truly moving and memorable ensemble performance. This piece of music -- "A Crimson Grail" -- had its world premiere in 2005 as a 400-guitar version staged at the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris. And while that concert has already achieved legendary status amongst a certain sect of music literati, the outdoor acoustics of Damrosch Bandshell presented a new set of challenges.

Those challenges were obviously met and conquered. Rhys's music literally surrounded the sardine-packed crowd. I was hoping to sit smack dab in the middle, but even with my cast and crutches affording me a certain advantage, I could not push through. One can only imagine what it must have sounded like in the epicenter of the venue, being completely surrounded by the 200 electric amplifiers. But even from my peripheral vantage the sound and music was magnificent and awe-inspiring Once I shut out the morons too busy texting and calling their friends -- why do these folks even show up for concerts if they can't tune into the programming? (Save your calls and texts for after the show). Nonetheless, I managed to shoehorn my way next to two old ladies sitting on a wall just past the 61st Street entrance near the bandshell seats. Moreover, I had to endure people climbing over us to stand in the bushes behind us for a better vantage. Not that one existed, as the entire perimeter was bathed in white canvas beach cabanas to house all of the guest musicians and their electric amplifiers, thus blocking any real view of the stage.

But what of the music? It was a movement in three parts. Slow, deliberate, percolating, droning. A lone percussionist tapping his hi-hat served as "click" track-like rhythm for all to follow. The four section leaders conducted their 50-person platoons with crisp precision. The first movement was one drawn-out, hypnotic and meditative crescendo, an Eno-like ambient-texture as enormous as a massive blue whale floating above and around us. The second movement of this colossal wall of sound was that of a gigantic swarm of bees that shifted gradually to the sound of hundreds of wailing violins. The third movement was like the ebb and flow of a mountainous sound wave lolling from side to side between the two opposing walls of musicians. The rise and fall of the music tugged and pushed against all of us, musicians included. It was truly awe-inspiring and induced a trance-like, euphoric state.

As the final cascade of music stopped and the last soundwaves from the 200 satiated musicians reverberated into space. I couldn't help but smile at the two women next to me while they smiled back, recognizing the magic that we were so privileged to witness. As I stood up, stretched, and texted my GIANTfingers bandmate Michael Cumella, who was part of the orchestra, I spied Phil Lesh (bassist in the Grateful Dead), grinning ear to ear, making a hasty exit. It was one of those moments that made even the most jaded culture snob take notice.

New York's seminal funk-punk band Liquid Liquid featuring three drummers followed, but I had already relaxed and floated upstream. It did conjure up memories of funked-up, sweaty evenings dancing to them when Fouratt curated music and live performances at Dancetaria. He was right. If you missed it, you fucked up. - Dusty Wright


Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.