RHYS CHATHAM: A CRIMSON GRAIL FOR 100 GUITARS AND 8 BASSES
The opening of any Liverpool Biennial needs to have a sense of drama and spectacle, which was given in abundance at the Anglican Cathedral on Friday night. This writer made the wise decision to turn up early in order to secure a seat, as the audience flocked in towards prior to the performance which did not commence until 8.15; bearded guitarists (there seemed to be very few female performer, incredibly) in white shirts were wondering around looking slightly lost, presumably pondering what they were about to partake in and witness a mass of viewers flood into to the space.
This work was the invention of Rhys Chatham – who was present conducting – a New York musician who fraternised with the cream of middle 20th century composers and avant-garde, such as Philip Glass et al. Whilst everyone was awaiting it to start, the performers took their places gradually; musicians were arranged in a sort of quadrangle or wide ‘U’ shape with Chatham directing from the front, facing the audience but standing behind the front set of guitarists – four satellite conductors (David Daniell, Jon Davies, Ben Fair, Richard Harding), three of which are prominent Liverpool-based composers were sub-directing their assigned sections, taking their lead from Chatham. This was to allow for subdivisions of sound, principally to create a quadraphonic effect and emphasise the psychoacoustic qualities of the church.
Chatham was a man of few words during his introduction except to inform the audience that there would be a brief interlude to allow the guitarists to retune. Bathed in red light, the chatter faded and the low hum of a hundred and eight amplifiers became apparent; using combinations of hand gestures and conducting in 4/4 (it had to be really!) ‘A Crimson Grail’ began with understated fluctuations of open tuning chords, not really indicating any particular harmonic key or tonic – a sense of suspension. This mood much characterised two thirds of the piece, with little use of dynamic variation and it was not until later on that any type of vigorous guitar-like strumming or volume swells. Chatham’s minimalism was more textual than motivic (unlike Steve Reich) preferring to extract the most out of swirling unresolved chords and slow progressive movement to generate and induce a mantra-like state: to a certain extent it was affective and engaging, but a tad prolonged for this writer.
Perhaps Chatham was reserving the fireworks for the finale however as the last ten minutes were gripping as all involved gave whatever energy they have in reserve to bash out a distorted climax; a simple idea – a raising scale – was passed about the ensemble whilst a gritty underlying chord was extended: at several points one expected the final chord to fall, but was continually usurped by Chatham, wishing to further delay the resolution and keep the listeners in suspense. But the end did arrive and was answered with a standing ovation.
‘A Crimson Grail’ one could argue, was inadvertently a fitting end to a historically turbulent week in Liverpool’s recent times, in which citizens of the city came together to witness a massed work in an entirely appropriate setting, maybe to remind us all that large scale, accessible yet modern music can have a place in today’s ever changing society and help lessen negativity. Regardless of semantics, it is certainly etched into the minds of those who attended for some time to come.