Photos by Rebecca Smeyne
Rhys Chatham “A Crimson Grail”
Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park
On Saturday evening, at least over our section of Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, a single raindrop fell as Rhys Chatham and his 200 guitarists began the first, quiet movement of “A Crimson Grail.” It was something of a cosmic wink, and a decided improvement over last summer, when the plugs were pulled (or, technically, never plugged back in) after torrential rain threatened Chatham’s players with imminent electrocution. Surrounding the audience in a horseshoe, their amps had spent the afternoon sitting in pooled rainwater.
Covered this year in protective awnings, the guitarists began Chatham’s masterwork gently, a slow shimmering strum working its way around the horseshoe. From Damrosch’s scalloped bandshell, the 56-year old NYC expatriate Chatham conducted four section leaders–including composer/musicologist Ned Sublette and Akron/Family’s Seth Olinsky–positioned in the crowd on platforms. Beginning with simple call-and-responses from one section to another, Chatham used the guitarists like a high-definition amplifier, each chord articulated through a half-dozen players.
Instead of getting louder, each additional musician made Chatham’s moves subtler. Even by the stunning climax of the third movement, Chatham–inspired to guitar minimalism by a 1976 Ramones gig at CBGB–seemed reluctant to tap the full majesty of his palette. Ribbon-like melodies, created and obscured by overtones, moved through the haze like ink through water. Jetliners passed overhead occasionally, adding even lower frequencies to the drone. Turbo Fruits’ Ryan Sawyer’s hi-hat, a new addition from last year’s arrangement, locked the musicians in place.
With only the composer to watch from most vantage points, the overflow Lincoln Center audience, sitting politely, listened perhaps too reverently for a work with origins on the Bowery. But it was their loss. Standing up, one was treated to a much richer (read: louder) sonic picture, the guitars suddenly coming into glorious resolution. During the piece’s second half, pulsating psychedelic pastels finally fanned into something like a silver choir, the melody climbing a seemingly infinite staircase. The crowd finally stood. Afterwards, it drizzled a little.