Wall of Sound
Last Wednesday, 200 guitarists, 15 bass players, four section leaders and a visionary composer gathered over at FIT to prepare for the rain date of Rhys Chatham's Crimson Grail. Last year's scheduled performance was reluctantly called when a day-long downpour left the power cords leading to the 50 watt amps submerged in puddles and the guitarists vulnerable beneath the saturated tree branches of Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park.
2/3 of last year's participants returned to try again, wandering in to the great conference center to mingle with the new recruits. The guitarists were directed to four large, separated rooms, to learn again their tunings as well as the symphonic vocabulary and conducting cues they would need to perform the piece. All were given new Ernie Ball guitar strings and a place to set up and everyone collectively began practicing and hoping for a clear sky.
The guitarists were divided into four groups--alto, tenor, bass, soprano--and then subdivided again and given specific tunings. For two days a vocabulary was established, a communication system was worked out and a leap of faith was taken that the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts, which, given the number of participants and the complexity of the conception, was both a great leap and a large sum. The four section leaders, primarily guitarists themselves joked good-naturedly as they worked at being conductors.
On Friday night, the entire group assembled in the main hall and gave The Crimson Grail its first full run through since the final practice a year earlier. Designed for an outdoor performance, the walls of the room struggled to enclose a sound that possessed a life of its own and a palpable desire to be let free in the world.
Saturday ended up being one of those glorious New York summer days, with low humidity and perfect weather. As the afternoon wore on, clouds appeared but did not threaten, and the players assembled again in Damrosch Park.
The performance itself was unlike anything I've experienced and I won't much try to describe it. I put my head down and drew until the finale of the piece lifted me from my seat along with all the rest of the crowd. I will say that catharsis in theatre and music is rare and highly valued and I understand that a little better now than I ever have before.
It's a poor substitute for being there, but if you want a sense of the musical power that drove the drawing below, you can check out the finale of the piece over here.