Legendary guitar maestro Rhys Chatham gathered an orchestra of 100 Australian guitarists in Sydney for performances of his incredible composition A Crimson Grail, as part of Sydney Festival 2018.

With the piece having only been performed a small handful of times worldwide, Allison Gallagher found out how this boundary-pushing musical experiment all began – and why.

In May of 1976, formally trained composer Rhys Chatham was walking down the street in the East Village of Manhattan when a friend asked if he’d ever been to a rock concert before. Sheepishly, Chatham admitted he hadn’t, and was invited to attend a performance later that evening.

The venue? CBGB’s. The band? The Ramones.

“What I heard changed my life”, says Chatham of the experience. The next day, Chatham was loaned a Fender Telecaster and was on his way, kickstarting a career that combined his contemporary classical background with the raw energy of punk and rock music.

“I started out with a piece called ‘Guitar Trio’ which was for three electric guitars, bass and drums. I wanted to work with rock musicians, using rock instruments, playing in a rock context – that’s what I’ve been doing since 1977.”

Chatham’s first guitar piece involved a much more restrained three guitars

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Things came full circle – the first time Chatham and his band performed the piece was at CBGB’s.

“This was the height of the punk period, and it was violent back then,” laughs Chatham. “If the fans liked you they’d throw beer cans at you, so you can imagine what they’d do if they thought it was some art bullshit, you’d get torn to pieces.

“I was scared to death, but we played, and what we found was that it wasn’t some intellectual high-brow thing – it was something anyone could appreciate.”

Chatham has operated in a continuum between high art and punk rock for the majority of his career. “If it was a high-brow audience they’d posit as a new strain of extreme minimalism. If it was the crop from CBGB’s they’d call it a cool wall of noise. The music I’ve been doing is designed specifically for rock musicians.”

Chatham has famously named the Ramones as a source of influence, as well as citing the “highly minimalist approach” of a little band by the name of AC/DC.

In 2005, Chatham was commissioned by the city of Paris to compose a piece for its night-long La Nuit Blanche Festival. That piece would eventually be titled ‘A Crimson Grail’, with the aim being to surround the audience with a wall of sound.

“I was asked to write a piece for a large number of guitarists in a church we have here called Sacre-Couer, which is this huge cathedral up on the mountain towards the north of Paris. What I wanted to do is make a piece that would work specifically with that space.”

What that translated to was creating work that literally surrounded the audience in sound, aided by the cathedral’s natural reverb. “We had 126 guitars, which was enough to surround the audience, and 10,000 people came to the show over the course of the evening.”

The immensity of the piece can really only be fully appreciated live

Chatham would re-work the piece and publicly conduct it twice more, in New York (2009) and Liverpool (2012), and will bring its fourth ever performance to Australia as part of Sydney Festival later this month.

“The criteria for the piece is however many guitars it takes to surround the audience. For the show we’re doing for Sydney Festival, the room is a lot smaller than Lincoln Centre [in New York] and should be appropriately more intense.”

The orchestra will be comprised of enthusiastic guitarists of all skill levels. “Musicians who know how to play rock, who know how to play guitar and have rock in their bodies and in their fingers aren’t going to have any problem at all playing this piece”, says Chatham.

“When we make the call, we’re looking for serious amateurs up to fully professional musicians, but no matter what their level is everybody starts at the same place, so we’re all starting from scratch.”

While trying to get 100 guitarists to grasp a piece at the same time sounds like a logistical nightmare, Chatham and his team have developed a system for the learning process.

“What we do is we divide the 100 guitarists into four groups of 25 musicians each. Each of these groups has a section leader and the section leader teaches the parts to these groups in two rehearsals. For the final rehearsal we get together as a group, and it’s the first time we put all 100 guitars together and we play the piece as an ensemble.

“It makes it a lot more manageable to do it that way,” he explains. “During the course of the concert, the way it works is I’m conducting the section leaders, and the section leaders are conducting their musicians.”

The glorious coda to the 200-guitar version of A Crimson Grail

For Chatham, one of the most rewarding aspects of the ensemble pieces is the communal aspect. “What I’ve found has happened in the past is these people get together and there is so much networking that happens over the course of the rehearsals. People that didn’t know of each other’s existence suddenly become aware. By the time the performances are done, new groups have been formed.

“One time we played in Lisbon in Portugal and the young guy who organised the guitarists came to the rehearsal and saw this nice lady who was also at the rehearsal. One thing lead to another, they started going out, then they got married and now they have a kid together. So, all kinds of wonderful things come out of this.”