One week, one hundred guitarists

It’s a nice reminder: two guitarists busily strumming away is a jam; a hundred playing for dear life is a fucking movement.

That quote is something I came across a couple of days ago. It’s Tristan Bath writing in The Quietus about A Secret Rose, a piece by Paris-based composer Rhys Chatham. The whole review is worth reading because it bears some resemblance to a piece I took part in, A Crimson Grail.

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As Malcolm Young would have said, hit the bugger!

The piece, performed as part of this year’s Sydney Festival, is pretty enormous. An antiphonal piece, it generates a huge sound – though not as loud as you’d assume – with elements passing around the audience, who sit in the middle of the performance space. Players can’t really get a sense of how the whole works – not the way the audience can – because they’re so close to their particular section. But for those in the middle, it’s epic, to say the least.

A Crimson Grail is something that isn’t performed that often, perhaps because of the logistics: you need anywhere between 100 and 400 volunteer guitarists, each with their own amplifier, who can commit to about 20 hours of rehearsals, plus performances. It asks a lot in terms of investment, though not of technique: it’s something anyone with some facility on the guitar can play. And notably, it’s a piece that is pretty democratic: there’s no searing solo lead, no flashy cadenza pieces. Everyone is a part of the organism, a bee in the hive, striving towards creation.

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Rhys Chatham during rehearsal.

Guitarists in the Sydney show were recruited via online form, and as soon as I checked out some of the clips of earlier versions, I knew I had to give it a go. Or, more accurately, I’d regret it if I didn’t. So I applied in November, and got the final nod just before Christmas. It was weird, the press coverage of the cal for players: it was presented as an ORCHESTRA OF RAWK, mostly, as if the idea of 100 madly solowanking djenters wasn’t enough to put everyone off.

A listen to the piece will convey how odd the comparison is: it’s something that sounds more orchestral than you’d think. There’s no distortion, no effects added to the guitars. Any reverb is what you hear in the space. It’s strangely pure, a collection of guitars tuned to one chord (A and E, mostly) with a scattering of basses, yet it sounds not a lot like you’d expect. (Well, unless you’re into alternate tunings of the type Rhys and his contemporaries have been using for yonks.) It’s really something you can’t get with anything else. (Click here for some thoughts from the Liverpool organiser on the piece and its staging: they’re helpful.)

(I get that that’s probably the effect you get when you mass any instrument not normally played in groups – I would love to write a piece for large-force alphorn, some kind of end-of-the-world doom-cry thing – but still, it was remarkable. I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years or so, and the sound of the whole group soundchecking was staggering.)

Here’s a recording of the New York performance. It’s the same arrangement – more or less – that we played.

I hadn’t performed in public since I last played taiko, so I was nervous as hell. I’d previously played in a Sydney Festival piece with other musicians, and it went pretty well. But I’d missed making music with other people, and was worried my skills wouldn’t be up to the level required. But I had the gear, I had the will, and as it turned out, I had nothing to worry about: Rhys’ team (the composer, manager Regina, concertmaster David Daniell, longtime sound wizard Pascal Bence and prime mover Lawrence English) and the local section leaders (Lisa MacKinney, Bonnie Mercer and my section’s Julia Reidy) were all supremely encouraging. This was something doable, and we would do it: of that there was never any doubt.

The first couple of nights took place at a rehearsal space in Marrickville, with guitarists broken into groups per part – I was an alto – before being assembled in sections to nail the piece before full rehearsals at Carriageworks. Lisa MacKinney, during the first night’s run-through, mentioned that she’d played in a Chatham piece when the composer was last in Australia, in the ’90s, and that playing a piece like this changes you.

At the time I’m not sure I believed it, but by the end? Well.

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The trusty Roland JC-120: like being punched in the face with screwdrivers, but in a good way. It was never turned up beyond 2 the whole time we performed.

Once we were working in sections, things came together pretty quickly. Julia Reidy kept things moving forward, and I was surprised at how quickly the piece came together. Any nerves I had would, for a time, disappear when we were playing – there’s a lot of cues to catch – and it felt good to play. I couldn’t wait to see how it would turn out in the venue, because while we had a pretty good idea of how things sounded in isolation, I suspected it’d sound much different as a massed force.

The first time we assembled in the space where we’d perform, the enormity of the undertaking hit home. A lot of time was spent on balancing the sound: here, Pascal went amplifier to amplifier, matching its volume to its neighbour, removing peaks and troughs and ensuring it sounded right. There was no sound reinforcement: no mix coming from two speakers. It was coming from everywhere. And when he’d finally finished – this was a lengthy process – we fired everything up and went for it. It was the first time we’d played together, the first time we’d taken direction from our section leaders while they were taking direction from Rhys at the front of the venue.

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A Section Leader Moves Too Fast To See.

There was a lot of expectation. And the result?

Fuck yeah.

The sound was amazing. I’ve seen people on YouTube say they can, with a couple of reverb and delay pedals, do the same thing these pieces do. And I guess I can see why they say that, because recordings don’t convey the fulsome nature of the sound properly: it’s something weirdly alive. There’s a lot of tremolo picking, and the fact there’s dozens of people doing it at the same time, all slightly out of sync with each other, means the sound you hear is some kind of huge, undulating tone. I would honestly be surprised if anyone taking part was underwhelmed by how it sounded en masse – it was so much better, so much more affecting than I had expected, for sure.

The time of performance came rocketing up. I had pretty terrible nerves on the first day, and mentioned this in passing to Rhys. He replied that he was nervous too, and shared an anecdote from a Parisian friend: in times like this you have to tie a rope around your brain and throw it in the Seine, so you can think of nothing other than the moment.

That’s pretty good advice in general, but it worked for the show as well. We were on stage – well, in our seats – when the doors opened, so there was a good 20 minutes spent eyeballing the punters en route to their seats. People looked expectantly at us, sitting there in our white shirts, waiting for the show to start. I remembered from my drumming days the practise of disappearing on stage: of making yourself mentally smaller and less noticeable, and a combination of that and brain-roping got me to the start.

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Wait, HOW many people?

The first night was pretty good. I felt unhappy with some of the things that happened towards the end of the first night for me – it becomes chaotic, to say the least, and there’s plenty of places to get lost – and so I really worked hard to play the best I could for the final performance. I guess it showed – everyone seemed to work harder, and the Saturday night performance was at once slower and more pregnant. It was darker, and there seemed to be more walk-outs than the previous night, though in my gig-fear of Friday I can’t say I noticed anyone leaving, though I’m assured some did.

The euphoria of landing the piece was huge. Rhys, afterwards, said he was levitating, so happy with how things had gone that he didn’t even know what he was saying. It felt good to be a part of something that made its architect feel so happy, particularly when he’d been such a gentleman throughout the whole procedure. There were hugs and high-fives from section heads, lots of muso bonding and a feeling that fuck, we’d actually done something pretty important. It felt really fucking good.

The reviews of the performance were great. Time Out gave us five stars, while the Sydney Morning Herald awarded three-and-a-half. Of course, there were some minor quibbles with each (Rhys isn’t quite in his seventies yet, though he is dapper) but I did take issue with a reviewer’s seeming dismissal of the guitarists as couldabeens or wannabes, when the reality was that almost everyone who turned up seemed to have checked ego and the concept of solo performance at the door.

(And besides I’m a callow couldabeen, thanks very much.)

Since the piece finished, I’ve had a real sense of saudade, that not-really-translatable sense of melancholic longing or nostalgia for something or someone that’s absent. It’s neither sad nor happy, but a strange blend of both: sadness at absence coupled with happiness for having experienced it.

I’ve been involved in collaborative music before. Going to Tokyo for a taiko competition took a lot of co-operation and willpower and working together, and I did miss drumming when I stopped. But it didn’t feel quite like this does. This felt like a collaboration in its truest sense: no real pecking order. Nobody better than anyone else. Just people who’d given of themselves to create something special and rare. Yes, every performance could be described in those terms, but not every performance feels the way A Crimson Grail felt to play. It’s slightly cheesy to say my cup runneth over but it was a little like that: tears in the eyes, swelling in the heart as things rushed toward their end.

I’m on a mailing list, now, of people who’ve played in Rhys’s pieces, and if another massed-guitar performance comes up, we’ve been assured we’ll be contacted so we can maybe play again. I hope it happens again, no matter how far off, because I would love to have this kind of experience again.

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The gang’s all here.

It’s something that reasserted for me how music can transform its creators and listeners, I suppose. It’s a kind of magic that we treat as a commodity, a lot of the time – albums and streams, events and soundtracks – without recognising that it’s something completely strange and wonderful.

Interestingly, I’ve discovered that January 30 is the day of Saudade in Brazil. It occurs in a couple of days, a little over a fortnight after the concerts. I think I’ll have a bit of quiet contemplation to celebrate. And maybe try to kindle the spark of creativity that I felt reignite during this period.

I’ll sign off with this: a video that can’t convey the weight of the piece, but still gives me a bit of a thrill every time I hear it, knowing I was there and I was part of it. Give it a listen to the end, if you can, because I am surprised by how emotional and euphoric it makes me feel, still.

I hope it does for you, too.

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