Rhys Chatham
A Crimson Grail (For 400 Electric Guitars)
2007
A-



on October 1, 2005 Rhys Chatham besieged the city of Paris. His army of 400 electric guitars permeated the landscape, ejecting their frequencies from the holy summit of the city, La Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.

In the ’70s Chatham became one of the first composers to fully explore punk rock in a minimalist context. His massive guitar orchestras and musical philosophy influenced bands (Sonic Youth) and composers (Glenn Branca) alike. A Crimson Grail (Moves Too Fast to See), commissioned by the city of Paris to be performed over the course of one evening, does what Chatham has done for the past three decades: reigns in a maximalist ensemble to create essentially minimalist layers of sound.

“Part 1” opens with a blissful crescendo of atmospheric guitar. The diverse textures and overtones created by the ensemble resonate endlessly throughout the basilica. There is a hymnal quality to this music, reflecting Chatham’s sensitivity to the performance space and its liturgical functions. The public nature of the event and its wide television broadcast throughout France are also a clear influence on Chatham’s writing. Universal themes like peace and harmony are abundant in the mood and atmosphere of “Part 1,” where he paints in warm strokes of sound that clearly aim to embrace the thousands of listeners.

“Part 2” rejects the loving embrace of “Part 1,” exploring a more introspective and dissonant palate of tones. Its damaged mood shares an unmistakable bond with the claustrophobic and brooding sensibilities of both post-punk and Bowie and Eno’s work from the late ’70s. The incessant tic of a hi-hat lies beneath the swell of sound as isolated guitars emerge for the first time. These “soloists” chime alienated refrains and offset the balance of the unified orchestra. Chatham is depicting an aural revolution of sorts in which the tones of a few individuals usurp the established modes of sound. With all of the political unrest in Paris at the time (suburban riots would ensue a few weeks after the performance), it is impossible to ignore the ramifications of Chatham’s celebration of the individual as facilitator of change. The movement closes with a roar of guitars, percussion, and dissonance—the revolution seems to be complete.

The third and final portion of the record is devoted to an extended drone. Chatham reestablishes the austere ideal of “Part 1” but chooses a menacing cluster of tones instead of a beatific glissando. “Part 3” is a hybrid of its predecessors, logically blending the first two segments into a unified crescendo of discord.

Chatham has been living in Paris for years now and his perspective as an expatriate, as well as his intimate knowledge of the French people, is reflected in A Crimson Grail. The musical concepts he built his career on are transformed and adapted to the unique circumstances of this recording and the political tenor of modern France. Themes of love, unity, and revolution are all disseminated through the unlikely transmitter—400 electric guitars.



Reviewed by: Matt Kivel
Reviewed on: 2007-05-17
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