The Quest for the Crimson Grail

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Rehearsing at St. Paul the Apostle

Free-jazzers and blues players; math-rock guys and punk-rock girls; grizzled Downtown veterans and still-matriculating conservatory students; fathers and sons—how Rhys Chatham’s hour-long, postiminimalist piece A Crimson Grail became such a widespread crossover attraction still eludes my full understanding.

My own involvement with it started when several people forwarded me a call for guitarists in June. Having studied guitar as a student I figured I would be qualified as a player; however, I had scarcely performed since graduation, and possessed neither the solid-body electric nor the 50-watt amp required for consideration. Sufficiently intrigued but insufficiently equipped, I misled the fine organizers at Wordless Music about the nature of my musical paraphernalia, and was rewarded for my deviousness with a selection.

The reason that I volunteered for A Crimson Grail was simple: I wanted to participate in something that I had never experienced before, and could experience in no other way. It might be plain to all who consider the prospect that playing in a huge guitar orchestra would fit that bill; what only a few realize is exactly what it feels like to outright wail in tandem with a group of that size, all parts equal in scope but individual in execution, creating a wall of sound that violates any number of city ordinances.

The piece was written for 200 guitars and 16 basses. The guitars were then further divided up into sections—soprano, alto, and tenor—which were defined by different unison tunings. As a soprano, my guitar was tuned to 4 unison high-Es with two more an octave lower. This approach allowed for a high degree of simplicity in the individual parts—almost all bar chords—while creating a shimmering immensity that would be impossible with a standard tuning. A good portion of the first rehearsal was dedicated to restringing the instruments (except for those indolent basses, which were allowed to keep their strings).

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Guitars at the Altar

At the final rehearsal in the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, many of the players had surreptitiously twisted the volume knobs on their amps higher and higher all night. Naïf that I am, it hadn’t even occurred to me to bring along earplugs to a rehearsal for 216 amplified instruments, and I was subsequently rendered nearly deaf by the thunderous sound of the concluding section. The notes blared up into the vaulted cathedral and mingled violently with each other, uniting together to become a truculent singular entity of—so it seemed, given the setting—inexhaustible power. There was some question as to whether we would be able to control this behemoth.

But any fears of that were unfounded. At the dress rehearsal in Damrosch Park just hours before the concert, the outdoor space allowed the powerful sound of the ensemble more space to breathe, gave its expansiveness all the room it needed to grow. It had a certain level of magic to it; a sense of the whole being even greater than its myriad parts. Amongst the players, there was consensus: we were going to kill tonight—so long as Mother Nature cooperated. Everyone was fully aware of the looming downpour, and the chance that all our best laid plans could be obliterated by gray clouds. In a fit of optimism I invited just about everyone I knew in city, but from their more objective position most of them realized the severity of the situation. Only one of them ended up coming to the concert.

It was only a half hour after our dress rehearsal—an hour and a half before the concert—that the torrents came. The hundreds of amplifiers, arrayed not underneath the overhang of the stage but in the park surrounding the audience, had to quickly be covered with tarps. Volunteers huddled with their instruments in a long nearby hallway, waiting for word. The opening act of Beata Viscera performing the music of Perotin got underway, on stage, while the rain continued to fall. The guitarists slowly moved out into the park, dumping the still accumulating water out of their seats before sitting down. We were up next.

Despite the weather, the crowd in the park was surprisingly good. On a clear day it might have approached the 10,000 people that were expected, but even in the thunderstorms, thousands still toughed it out with umbrellas in their seats. The third act, Manuel Göttsching, was bumped up ahead of us to allow more time for the weather to clear; about halfway through his set, it did. The players were optimistic, even positive, that we would play as planned, just in time to beat the 10pm curfew. Few were willing to mentally deal with the sizeable puddles that had formed all around us.

The announcement came around 9pm that there would be no performance due to the very palpable threat of electrocution. Voices raised; many of the volunteers, who had spent 20 hours of their time putting this piece together over the week, shouted out, “Let us play!” Many volunteers had skipped work, had skipped town even, coming in from across the country. It was inconceivable that we would not play that night, or that we had been turned into patient viewers and not active participants.

But no riot would form that night; after a moment the tumult died down. The 216 players turned around, picked up their equipment, and left the park with the rest of the audience.