Inside the Inside of Sound: I Was a Rhys Chatham Guitarist

Inside the Inside of Sound: I Was a Rhys Chatham Guitarist

On August 15, legendary downtown composer Rhys Chatham was to have conducted 216 electric guitars and basses in a minimalist extravaganza of noise and E major. His piece, “A Crimson Grail Moves Too Fast to See,” was originally composed for the indoor space of a cathedral in Paris (where Chatham lives), but the composer substantially reworked it for the outdoor space of Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center in New York.


You may have heard about it. You may have heard about it and thought, “Wow, that will be amazing.” You may have heard about it but did not come because there was a tornado warning in — of all places in the world — Manhattan. Yes, you may have heard about it, but unless you were at practice one of the nights leading up to the rainout, you definitely did not hear it.


Luckily, I was able to attend these practices. I was one of the 216 volunteers (200 guitars and 16 basses, to be exact) who helped make the piece happen. As a member of this momentary community, I was and still am bitterly sad about not having had the chance to perform “A Crimson Grail” from start to finish for the audience’s sure-to-be-happy ears. But rather than crying about it (again), I want to attempt to communicate the experience of this music to a world that sadly has to wait for a promised (but seemingly distant) next performance.


The week leading up to the non-performance created some of the highest highs (before the lowest low) of my musical life, and I think other participants in the process would agree that it’s important to give a sense of the intensity in preparing for, playing, and listening to this work of art. 


I went into the week with the idea that I was somehow tapping into the root of recent rock history. Sonic Youth started out in a similar guitar army for Glenn Branca. And Chatham himself was an integral part of the innovative 1970s New York scene that helped transform both classical and rock music — often by merging the two into some strange new non-category. Nowadays this strange non-category has been somewhat categorized under “noise music,” but Chatham’s “Guitar Trio” drastically (and noisily) opened up the forms of classical composition to the raw power of electric guitars. And countless musicians, from members of Sonic Youth to Silver Mt. Zion, have performed the piece in homage (many of these interpretations are on the new CD from Table of the Elements, Guitar Trio Is My Life).


As “Guitar Trio” demonstrates, Chatham’s music never sought to destroy the musical world so much as expand the possibilities of composition — often to the breaking point of organization and hearing. The ultimate goal, it seems, is to completely change the listener’s sense of sound. His music has weight and definition like a sculpture.  “A Crimson Grail” is the latest (and most epic) in Chatham’s quest to expand the ear. At times, more than 200 guitars are playing notes in the E diatonic scale as hard and fast as they can: The effect is transcendent.


And I don’t mean to use this in the cheesy clichéd way of most criticism. I mean it this way: It feels as though you can swim in the sound. It can lift you up and out of the room. Sitting among my fellow guitarists, I felt like jumping around, and I’m sure if I had I would have floated away. Yeah, that kind of transcendent. 


The total saturation not only feels amazing but also allows you to hear overtones and reverberations that you just can’t access with quieter music.  This was the loudest music I’ve ever heard, louder even than a front-row spot at a Sonic Youth concert in a very small venue (an experience in which I remember feeling like my ear drums themselves were so overloaded that they were distorting the distortion I was already listening to). The difference is not, perhaps, in the actual decibel level, but in the quality of the sound itself. The army of guitars fills out the sound — with all those different timbres from different guitar/amp combinations — in a way that no distortion pedal (or ten) and a P.A. system can. Your ear takes in more information than it ever has before (perhaps more than it can bear). This is the real heavy. And yet at the same time there is softness to the sound. It envelops you in a welcoming thickness.


Naturally, people tend to bond in the midst of these moments of sonic bliss.  There is a sense of togetherness when you are transformed into primordial goo. But beyond that I think every guitarist — some of whom traveled from far away lands, like France, Spain and New Jersey — felt a sense of kinship at these moments, because we were all one small part of an immense, working whole. There was a satisfying release from self. We were medieval craftsmen building a cathedral. 


Not every moment was sublime. I think a sense of community was also developed in the many moments of boredom. As one section practiced over and over a difficult polyrhythm or as Chatham and his lieutenants figured out questions of sound balance and score interpretation (he had four separate conductors for four sections of 54 guitarists), many of us were left to chat with our neighbors and find out what kind of music they made, what they thought of the piece, and the sundry other things musicians can talk about when they gather together.


Ultimately, I believe that this sense of community — fostered from genuinely sublime music and from the very structure of organizing and playing the piece — would have carried over in performance. Often, my wonderful section leader would give the direction “make a musical sound.” And to be “musical” in this context did not mean to reproduce some conservatory sense of perfection but rather to listen to your neighbors and attempt to make a distinct contribution to the whole.


“A Crimson Grail” embodies — before anything else — a community of listening and reacting. I was lucky to be a part of it, and I can’t wait to be a part of it again. I hope that soon people will be able to hear it for themselves and not simply take the word of a lowly anonymous guitarist inside of an immense noise-making machine.


Photo Credit: Gabi Porter/

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