Something very special happened both for me and for my adopted city this weekend. Rhys Chatham’s A Crimson Grail has only been performed twice before, in Paris 2005 and New York 2009. This time was different, with the UK premiere performed in the country’s largest cathedral, and I was privileged and honoured to be there in the thick of it.
Initially I’d agreed with SevenStreets to write a daily blog of the rehearsals in the lead up to the performance on Friday. However, on Thursday afternoon while taking some fellow performers from far afield for a walk amongst Gormley’s statues at Crosby beach someone broke into my car boot and my bag, replete with most of my belongings, was stolen. So instead of experiencing an evening of rehearsals in the Anglican Cathedral I was treated to the mirthless task of cancelling credit cards.
I thought this moody disposition was settling itself in for the long haul. But I was wrong. Performing ‘A Crimson Grail’ at the Anglican Cathedral was a once in a lifetime experience that brought back into sharp focus the many reasons I love Liverpool.
Rehearsals on Tuesday and Wednesday had with the group of guitarists split into their respective parts Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass and in turn their respective sections.
Throughout rehearsals Rhys Chatham, the man behind the music, stalked the rooms and corridors with a cymbal player in tow dropping into rooms to execute a slight tweak here or an amendment there. I think I wouldn’t be alone among the performers who thought that initially the parts of the piece, disparate as they are, made it very hard to picture the complete effect. But as we continued to play it became apparent that this piece is so much more than the sum of its parts.
On Friday I walked towards the Cathedral in low spirits but as soon as I heard the muted hum of 100 guitars and 8 bass amps I began to forget the previous afternoon’s events.
Following the first full volume rehearsals it was impossible to stifle the smiles. At lunch I joined a group of new friends. It was a pretty international table with two Irishmen, an American, an Italian and an Argentinian all of whom had been brought to the city either to play in or experience Friday’s performance.
In the crypt of the Anglican Cathedral excitement was building among the musicians as one by one we poked our heads upstairs for a view of the gathering audience. We eventually settled in our seats and waited for Rhys to count us in. The first note felt like a great wave rolling across the audience and as the night built to its tumultuous finale the musicians gathered together in the eye of the storm looking to each other to keep in time as slowly the wave crested and came crashing down washing over the spectators and out to the hundreds outside the cathedral not fortunate enough to get inside.
As the piece ended there was a moment of silence before the audience rose to their feet in applause for Rhys, for the performers and, so it felt, for the Cathedral and the city at large.
I think all the performers would agree that Friday night was a near-religious experience that reminded us of the importance of friendship, art, love, music and community.
Even now emails are pinging back and forth across cyberspace between the performers thanking each other for taking part, exchanging contact details, forming new bands, arranging pub lunches and sharing memories. A Crimson Grail re-focused my mind on the great things Liverpool has to offer culturally, emotionally and spiritually.
It was the Biennial’s perfect start. I hope that this is what the Biennial does for Liverpool at large, reminds us all that we have a city, which for all its flaws deserves our adoration.
As an addendum to this piece I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank Rhys Chatham, the four section leaders; David Daniell, Ben Fair, Richard Harding and Jon Davies, Regina Green, Andrew Ellis from Liverpool’s Samizdat productions, the Liverpool Biennial and my fellow performers for making this such an incredibly inspiring experience.
I also spoke to fellow performer, Yannis Philippakis from the Mercury nominated band Foals. Those of you who made it into the Anglican on Friday and who were paying very close attention to the individual guitarists might have been smart enough to spot Yannis amongst the musicians…
What made you decide to take part in A Crimson Grail?
Yannis: I love the piece of music. I’ve listened to it for the past few years. It’s touched me in an emotive way and when I heard it was being performed I knew I had to get involved. In Foals I’m used to being in control and I liked the idea of being part of something bigger. Like being part of an insect hive.
So having now performed the piece what is your opinion of the composer and his music?
Artists like Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca are operating in a new realm. Rhys and Glen are punks, they’re from the late 70s and 80s and they’re doing something subverts and converts the normal ideas of what music is. Rhys creates something here that is quite unique. He’s at that age and he’s still rocking it. I admire Rhys work because it’s not a servant of commercial power; music becomes its own reward when the commercial aspect is removed.
Do you draw from experiences like performing A Crimson Grail when writing your own music?
Without doubt. I’m a sponge, I like to think I absorb something from everyone, be they pop producers like Timbaland or composers like Rhys Chatham. The originality of Rhys’ work creates something which speaks to the soul and that shows the way forward to people who are playing the guitar. He’s occupying a space that no one else is. It’s from a rock background, you know, he’s been in the dirt of CBGBs. Rhys’ artistic ambition is something that I find admirable. From his tuning and his compositional patience comes a simple spiritual beauty.
So what’s next for you and Foals?
We’re releasing a record in 2013 that’s been produced by Alan Molder and Flood and we’ll be touring soon too. I love Liverpool and performing here is always special.
Main pic: Random Acts of Photography