Biennial Review: Rhys Chatham’s ‘A Crimson Grail’, Liverpool Cathedral

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We were well excited about the prospect of this Rhys Chatham performance: 100 guitarists, eight bassists, and one beautiful cathedral. Turns out hundreds of other people were excited about it too. Like, hundreds. Even by the time doors were officially meant to open, the line for people waiting to get in snaked all the way past the cathedral and up Duke Street. The queue’s patience was quietly tested by a steady stream of VIPs waltzing their way in (we spotted our fave dreamy art critic Adrian Searle amongst them too, OMG!), while 400 of us plebs shivered in a line and sneered. But, ultimately, it’s easy to forget this is the Biennial. The pinnacle of the art world. Most of these kinds of festivals are as democratic as possible, but, this being the key launch event, it was bound to be made up of some Important Art People practising their queue jumping. Whatever. Those of us who did manage to get in experienced something very special indeed.

At about 8pm, the cathedral reached its capacity, and ‘A Crimson Grail’ began: slowly and steadily, sections of guitarists, and a smattering of bassists, creating humming, swirling drones that sounded like the Philharmonic Orchestra on a double dose of Xanax. Rising and falling, and with snatches of dissonance, the piece started to become meditative: reaching high up in the cathedral’s massive ceilings and bouncing back down again.

Split into three movements, Chatham’s score morphed the guitars from smooth, string-like whirrs to scratchier Godspeed You Black Emperor!-esque walls of sound: rippling and swirling around the vast hall, the sheer scale of it felt immersive, swaying with tidal waves of big, droning notes and slow-release harmonies. One lone, powerful hi-hat anchored the first movement.

It was a lot more visual than we expected, too: section leaders, standing up, began using synchronised semaphore and printed-out numbers to indicate changes in tone and volume and melody. Each used their own particular hand movements and positions to articulate how the guitarists should respond. Above them all, the quite frankly badass composer Rhys Chatham looked down, overseeing everything, limbs moving slowly and sending out mysterious physical messages to the white-clad musicians (we particularly enjoyed the ‘I’m a little teapot’ one he did). Even aside from the pretty gorgeous sounds, it was a fascinating exercise in communication between composer, section leader, and musicians.

By the second movement, many of those stood around us who didn’t manage to get a seat, and bathed in the harsh electric light outside the main cathedral floor, seemed to get antsy. It was a performance where you really needed to be in the middle to get the full effect of it. Some clearly expected something a bit harsher, or more visceral: the very idea of 100 electric guitarists in a room suggests noise and extreme loudness, and those who stayed to hear the third movement got just that. Reaching its climax, it spluttered and whirred in a cacophony of rising and falling notes, batting backwards and forwards with the single hi-hat working overtime to keep it all together. It felt hugely uplifting, but completely grounded: a constant push and pull.

Part of ‘A Crimson Grail’s charm was that it took the guitar to places it can, but rarely, goes. Rather than use it ‘traditionally’, as a tool for punk or rock, Chatham harnessed it and approaches the instrument like a composer would a cello or violin. Toying with the concept of what an orchestra is and what we expect from one, he overlays swatches of tone, and tapestries of melody, to pretty glorious and engaging effect. It made a weirdly familiar, but all-consuming, experience.

One kind taper managed to get an unofficial recording of the cathedral performance, for those who didn’t manage to get through the doors. Download it here.

Images by Random Act of Photography