Classical CD Reviews
RHYS CHATHAM: A Crimson Grail– Rhys Chatham, guitar/ ensemble of 216 guitars – Nonesuch
Published on September 11, 2010
RHYS CHATHAM: A Crimson Grail – Rhys Chatham, guitar/ ensemble of 216 guitars – Nonesuch CD 524138, 67:39 [9/14/10] ****:
Paris-based musician and composer Rhys Chatham is really an almost cult figure in the experimental music scene, best-known for large scale productions of his “rugged noise symphonies” written for hundreds of guitars. A much less recent version of this concept can be found in New Yorker Glenn Branca, perhaps the “founder” of the genre. Reviews suggest that much of Chatham’s output bears some of the same “in your face” (or ear…) wall of sound that Branca was famous for. However, this disc, for me provided both a surprise as well as a pleasurable listening experience.
Written in 2005 as a commission for the city of Paris, “A Crimson Grail” premiered at the basilica of Sacré-Coeur. It was created to work with the specific architecture of the basilica, making use of its natural 15-second reverberation time. The musicians surrounded the audience, creating an antiphonal effect with the sound moving around the space from area to area. Scored for as many as 400 guitarists, an orchestra of approximately 125 musicians performed the premiere, to great acclaim. When the Lincoln Center invited Chatham to produce A Crimson Grail in New York at their Out of Doors Festival, the composition had to be completely reworked for the acoustics of an exterior, non-reverberant setting. This Nonesuch recording captures the subsequent 2009 performance, in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, with 200 electric guitars, 16 electric basses, five conductors, and one percussionist. (There is a digital download still available of the original version.)
It is not surprising to learn that Chatham has learned from or studied some of the pioneers of the crossover minimalist world, such as Jon Hassell and La Monte Young. “Crimson Grail”, especially as heard on this recording rather creeps up on the listener, starting quietly, mysteriously. It does build to some definite presence and is best experienced at a slightly higher volume than you may ordinarily use on your system; yet it is never strident or disconcerting. Instead, the piece and the performance really borders on the ambient. This is the sort of thing that might appeal to guitarists (well, there are over 200 in the performance!) but it really does not feature any flash and slash playing. It will appeal mostly to fans of the ambient, new age milieu looking for something different as well as to contemporary classical buffs who are open to trying something that does not sound “composed” and yet is carefully structured, well played and easy to listen to. Kudos are due to the constantly amazing sound engineers at Nonesuch for another acoustically rich recording! I enjoyed this and recommend it – go immerse yourself! [But no kudos to Nonesuch for neglecting to release the masters - which surely were recorded multichannel in some sort of surround format - be it SACD, Dolby or DTS DVD, or lossless audio-only Blu-ray...Ed.]
— Daniel Coombs