A dapper, white-haired conductor in his seventies stands on the Carriageworks stage. Some of the time he’s waving a baton. At other times he’s holding his arms in curious poses, as if trying to guide a supersonic jet in to land. Which, in a way, he is.
Rhys Chatham’s orchestra is 100 seated electric guitarists (including a small number of bass players). All of them are local volunteers, from callow beginners to cocky wannabes to ageing wouldabeens; they have learned the piece in five rehearsal sessions and now surround the audience in a horseshoe, taking their cues from four further sub-conductors standing on podiums among the crowd.
The band may by maximalist in scale but Chatham is a veteran of the New York minimalism scene. He’s of the Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Cale school, by way of the Ramones. A Crimson Grail is a symphony in three movements, originally written for 400 guitars and premiered in Paris in 2005. This scaled down version involves 100 guitars in six sections, with the guitars in each section using special tunings (all six strings might be tuned to an E, for instance).
The combined effect of so many guitars playing at once is a glorious noise that cascades over the ears. When 100 guitarists are tremolo plucking it’s like a heavenly buzz saw in your brain, a billion bees coming over the horizon and blocking out the sun. In quieter moments when they’re playing harmonics, your mind’s eye sees icicles forming on every pine tree in Norway. Other moments recall the soundtrack to Blade Runner played on electric guitars rather than synths – this is futuristic stuff.
The joyous final movement takes the bassline of Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’ and plays it ad infinitum while the ensemble builds up the layers to the point where it sounds like a room full of grand organs vamping simultaneously. Yet melody is scarce and sparing: when, near the climax, the guitars start playing a simple major scale, the epic simplicity provokes a sense of elation.
Chatham visited Australia once before back in 1993, presenting the 100 guitar suite An Angel Moves Too Fast to See at the Brisbane Festival. The idea of using local players is perfect for festivals: guitarists are attracted to the sheer scale of it, and if each can get a couple of friends to come along the shows sell out in a heartbeat. But there is way more to Chatham than gimmickry, and A Crimson Grail is the kind of unforgettable musical experience you can only get live, and that all too rarely.