Sunday, August 09, 2009
So, I went over to Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center last evening. A free, outdoor show scheduled to begin at 7PM, the main draw (for me) being a performance of Rhys Chatham's "A Crimson Grail" for 200 electric guitars, 16 basses and sock cymbal. I wasn't expecting anything fantastic; as much as I loved the Guitar Trio box last year--still do--my general take is that when guys like Chatham or Branca expand their palette to a gargantuan degree, muddiness sets in, in concept as much as sound.
The organizers of the event were clueless in several regards. I arrived quite early, around 5PM, armed with a book (Junot Diaz, Oscar Wao, which I had been resisting for a while but succumbed), food and water, scheduled to meet Carol around 6:30 at a designated spot (me, cell-less, having to revert to prehistoric methods of encounter). Of course, they weren't allowing people into the seats, which would have been simple and non-disruptive, so a couple hundred of us clustered around the entrance. At about 6, we were told, "Oh, the line is going to be around the other side of the park." Like they'd never done one of these events before. Not that it ended up mattering, but it's a little annoying being ushered from right at the entrance to about 600th on line. Still, fine, it was amusing though to listen to the bitching and moaning around me, much of it from a prominent local film critic who shall remain nameless....
But we got in and actually secured a couple of seats pretty much in the center of the audience area. The guitar seating was on three sides of the venue, ground level, front, left and right. There were four canopied podia, from which the conductors (David Daniell, Ned Sublette--fun to see him--, Jon King and one other I forget)would control their sections, they themselves taking cues from Chatham who, with the sock cymbal player (essentially a metronome) was on stage.
First up, though, was the Asphalt Orchestra. I was wondering what the deal was as no mics were on-stage, but the 15 or so piece band marched in along one of the side aisles, playing a rousing little number a la Dirty Dozen Brass Band and formed a line in the front. Ground level, with no mics, in front of 1000+ people. So maybe the first two rows could hear them clearly. Again, great planning. They did two pieces, departed and I bet half they crowd barely knew they were there.
OK, the Chatham. As a composition, it was severely clunky, lurching from one section to the next with little sense of any organic whole. It began very nicely with a controlled hum that expanded into a rich drone, the sounds gently flowing back and forth over the space, lovely effect. The next section also began intriguingly, a 16-note pattern that was also meted out to the four sections, I think four notes each but slightly irregularly, so the sequence softly ricocheted from one quarter to another, the initial bare bones "melody" being added to little by little with flourishes and fanfares. That was fine, but it went on way too long, the sock cymbal's relentless beat becoming very wearying and the essential elements of the section not all that fascinating to hold up for that long (20 minutes?)
The cymbal and the parts for the basses were two of the aspects that tended to drag down much of the music that night, lending a concrete-bound quality to music that should have soared. I understand there's a practical reason to have a timekeeping function for an ensemble that large but I don't think that was the answer (maybe, reduce the ensemble? Obviously....but no, can't do that...)
It was in two parts (Chatham said three but I couldn't distinguish the latter) and each ended with a kind of rave-up, the volume and pace increasing. They were the highlights of the set, but: 1) It wasn't anywhere near as loud as it needed to be. I don't know if they were under neighborhood restrictions (though I was told that only amps below a certain power level could be used--the guitarists brought their own) but these portions just begged for increased volume. and 2) This was odd--the first such section bore a striking resemblance to parts of the title track from Branca's "The Ascension". I mean, if I walked in at that point, otherwise unaware, that's what I would've thought was being played. And the finale, otherwise the work's highpoint, sounded as though explicitly derived from the same album's, "The Spectacular Commodity". How strange to have such overt (if subconscious?) references to music done in more or less the same vein almost 30 years ago. I gave Chatham perverse credit, though, for writing a central "melody" that was simply a C-Major scale. [edit: Maybe he's been listening to Taku :-)]
So, all in all, it was an underwhelming experience. As with Branca, in my experience Chatham's music works better the more pared down it is (including his two gong piece). Given overly abundant resources, things tend to billow out into conceptual murkiness and flaccitude (!).
Great conversation and Haitian food with Carol and Rick afterward, though! Made the evening more than worthwhile.