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LIVE REPORT: Rhys Chatham
Tristan Bath , June 17th, 2014 16:01

"A million internalised narratives" Tristan Bath reports from Birmingham on Rhys Chatham's 'A Secret Rose', a performance featuring 100 guitarists.

Why even bother expressing yourself en masse anymore? Its modern futility has been repeatedly proven to the contemporary "young person" as time and time again mass gatherings in favour of any cause (other than the spending of more money) have been shot down, or ignored, and failed fruitlessly. Occupying does nothing. voting for free university tuition sees fees triple, and some eleven and a half years ago the single biggest anti-war gathering in history amounted to absolutely nothing (more apparently this week than ever). A generation have grown up to learn that "we" can do nothing. United we fall, divided we fall. The one currency of which we all have the same amount - the human body - is becoming less and less meaningful, signifying little more than the cumbersome necessary physical protrusion of our increasingly virtual selves. Live music can often seem as farcical too, particularly during festival season – mere furniture for drink, chips and those all-important selfies in a field. I skip London on a wet Saturday afternoon for sunny Birmingham, and of all things it's Rhys Chatham's latest piece that provides momentary respite. It espouses a democratic and symphonic social holism we increasingly lack. It's a nice reminder: two guitarists busily strumming away is a jam; a hundred playing for dear life is a fucking movement.

I'm spending the day with an old friend on an extended visit back to Blighty from his adopted antipodean home. We walk beside Brum's meandering canals all afternoon, updating each other on life's frivolities and periodically stopping to whistle and yell nonsense beneath echoing brown brick bridges, testing the sonics of the city, and flirting with our ears before the evening's promised sonic blitzkrieg. "So what is this thing tonight then?" he asks.

Since graduating from avant-garde minimal experimentalist to widescreen noise rock symphonist upon encountering the burgeoning punk and no wave scenes in late-70s NYC, Chatham's created some of the most singular music of his generation. Although often quite rightly placed alongside contemporaries such as Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth, Chatham's also equally as unlike either. Branca's formative compositions for guitar almost seem to try and outright replicate the textures of the darkest pre-war orchestras, reviving the unfolding dramatic sprawl of Mahler's 5th or Ravel's eternal Bolero. Early Sonic Youth on the other hand resembled some sick, atonal, Harry Partch-like attempt at rocking out Stooges style. Chatham's compositions for guitar adopt neither approach, choosing rather to use the electric guitar's unique adaptability as both a percussive and polyphonic tool. Guitarmies of dozens play compositions that unfold almost like mind games, or dance routines.

Earlier guitar pieces like Die Donnergötter ('The Thundergods' – 1982) saw handfuls of players each armed with only a handful of chords, or small chunks of a larger melody playfully working together to create a longer, grander whole. More recent work, such as 2005's A Crimson Grail for 400 (yes 400) guitars have seen Chatham gradually divert perhaps understandably, from fastidious ensemble playing to lightly orchestrated chaos. Co-operation, and intense ensemble playing lay at the heart of Chatham's methodology throughout his 70s and 80s work, and the UK premiere of A Secret Rose promises to revive as much.

The piece is in fact a revision (or perhaps more appropriately a "perfection") of Chatham's first ever piece for a 100-strong guitar ensemble, An Angel Moves too Fast to See, first completed and performed in 1989. The five movement skeleton of that piece remains largely intact here, with most of the original melodies still present too - however it's considerably grown as it's aged, from 45 minutes to a more feature length 75.

Entering below the monolithic neoclassical stone columns of Birmingham Town Hall, we enter the cavernous interior and take our seats with over one hundred amps already waiting, all surrounding a rather lonely looking drum kit in the centre back, and with (quite confusingly at first) four conductors' podiums to the left, right and front of the stage. The gear alone seems daunting. Row after row of speakers, all waiting to be manned, ready to be brought to life; to scream crunch and squeal all together. It's looking not so much like a rock and roll orchestra, as much as a cybernetic choir.

After a brief introduction, the players arrive on stage to get set up - and that alone takes about five minutes. Bassist Sebastiano Dessaney, and Pram's mighty percussionist, Laurence Hunt stroll on first followed by dozens more white-shirted, black-trousered guitarists streaming on from either side of the stage, ultimately to almost comically over the top effect. Once three of the conductors (also each armed with their very own trusty axe) take their places on three of the podiums it becomes clear how the ensemble is split into three sections. A very dapper looking Rhys Chatham strolls out in a contrastingly full black suit, picks up his baton and signals to the three conductors to follow suite. The rustling of strings, intake of breath and last minute reassurances from the ensemble come to a quick halt, and the sort of quiet that comes only before the most turbulent storm fills the room.

The first movement opens with each of the sections tentatively stirring to life. A single sustained E chord gets plonked out with all of the players picking tremolo, gradually erupting from a hushed stir to this gigantic cataclysmic sustained drone. It's almost impossible to imagine, and certainly any recordings I've previously heard of Chatham's large ensembles do it no justice. We're all well acquainted with delay, echo and other synthesized effects that simulate the sound of dozens of similar notes colliding all at once, but the live thing, taken to the nth degree as a hundred amps collide across the innards of the Town Hall, is all-encompassing, awe-inspiring and utterly terrifying. The drums are limited to smatterings of cymbals during this initial wave of sound, and over ten minutes the waves peak and ebb, descending back into silence and re-emerging all the way to peak volume some three or four times before eventually the hitting a logical end point, and dying out completely.

Chatham gives the nod to Hunt who kicks off a slow-motion version of that Klaus Dinger 4/4 beat, and all hell seemingly breaks loose on top of it. The sub-conductors (or section leaders) start holding up different numbers seemingly at random - "4", "6", "2" - and the single huge beast breaks into three, each of which begin clashing, competing and harmonising as they follow their leaders' cryptic instructions. This section seemingly hangs by a thread throughout, with the players never breaking gaze with their section leader, and the crisscrossing chords from each section travelling in all possible musical directions all at once as they collide, harmonise and disharmonise. It's harrowing, beautiful, dissonant and - at times - uplifting. I later spoke to participating guitarist from the night, David McNamee - also the founder/runner of the fantastic Blue Tapes label (they released Katie Gately's Pipes last year) - who described the process.

"The numbers related to frets. So, in some regions, the section leaders would have autonomy over what chords they could get their section to play. The best example of this is in the first movement [...] this seemed to differ every time and wasn't scored, but I'm assuming there was some communication between the section leaders as to the choices."

Eventually, at the climax of the first movement the entire ensemble break character and bizarrely let out a few bars of what truly resembles an embryonic Iommi riff, and abruptly, movement one is over.

Movement two focuses almost exclusively on a stabbing, jutting, rhythmic theme stuck on repeat by one of the guitar sections along with the bass and drums, while the other two sets of guitarists unfurl lengthy tremolos over the top. After a brief five minutes or so of sustained tension, the second movement melts into the multifaceted and confusing third. Another Neu!-esque figure from Hunt propels onward battling sonics from all sides that descend into apocalyptic atonality reminiscent of Chatham's own Drastic Classicism before taking a playful about turn that sees everybody riffing out a simplistic Byrdsy melody reminiscent of Brian Jonestown Massacre's own 60s pastiche 'Going to Hell'. It's odd, but having some fifty guitarists pick out a theme ends up sounding a hell of a lot like a string section. It's impossible to keep them all in perfect sync, and the imperfections stretch and blur the gaps between the notes like some aural magic trick, and legato ultimately morphs into staccato. The third movement shape shifts again, and snaps into near-silence, and almost inaudible murmurings from somewhere in the guitarmy begin to arise. The murmur continues, and some players towards the back start adding random sparse strums of atonal, non-existent chords. Quivering notes glide into the forefront, and within a few minutes the inaudible murmur of two or three players has become a wobbly colossus of horror movie dissonance. It grows and grows, with the rhythm section sprinkling learned free-jazz tinkling from up on high, and the dramatic sound of a hundred minds wandering engulfs the entire hall for ten solid minutes of dissonance. Even the conductors pick up their guitars to plonk out stabs of random spacey harmonics and swipes of atonal slide guitar runs. As it rises, it's sheer total entropy - and yet at its peak the chaos becomes the embodiment of tranquillity itself. There's no zen quite like what you find amidst utter unwieldy anarchy, particularly as it bounces around the innards of Birmingham Town Hall. David later told me about the section.

"The best description I heard of it was when I was leaving the venue and overheard an audience member describing it as sounding like a piano crashing down a flight of stairs. It totally did! Except it was 100 pianos, and the stairs were in the belfry of a cathedral."

There's a brief break for tuning up before movements 4 and 5, but the fourth quickly kicks straight back into things with that same pounding motorik. The three guitar sections spend most of this piece at the total behest of their individual section leaders, snatching sections of a single melody as in Chatham's own Die Donnergötter, or the more recent Harmonie Du Soir. It's by far the most visual of the movements, as different groups within groups break off as their sheet music dictates, with strums going up and down and left and right all along the stage throughout. It races onward, seemingly playing out every possible tonal iteration. The conductors cycle through all of the numbers they have to hand - "7", "3", "1" - until finally reaching for what the apparent trump card of a large alien asterisk ("*"), triggering wails of high speed tremolo from the front sections of the ensemble.

The sheer complexity of the fourth movement totally kills off any delusion that Chatham could be described as a 'minimalist'. Swathes of music simply froth out of the amps, and the cold indifference, musical science and mathematical precision of Reich, Riley and the usual suspects play absolutely no part in this music. The paradox of that minimal label comes to a head with the final movement, for which Chatham picks up his own guitar, and leads the ensemble through a lengthy rewriting of his own iconic Guitar Trio. Listening to the endless escalation and upsurge of the amorphous piece feels akin to dropping straight through a black hole. Concepts of time and space go out the window as six hundred strings bash out variations of the same, eruptive one-chord riff.

Before an encore, Chatham informs us that the ensemble need to switch to "a very special tuning" based on Pythagorean just intonation, while the group adjust every string on stage at total random. It's a solid middle finger to the generation of academic composers - the Charlemagne Palestines and La Monte Youngs - from which he came, and they suddenly blast through a brief tribute to the city via Black Sabbath's invulnerable 'Iron Man' riff before a final five minutes of unrehearsed atonal riffage and insane wailing solos from the section conductors.

Chatham's message is clear: together, we can do great things, much greater things than we can apart. His career has been littered with smaller chamber pieces, and compositions for brass and the like, but the sheer power of the guitar is in its universality. More so than any other instrument (save the much less mobile piano or drum) it's a common relic the world over by this stage, and as such represents a common language. Shostakovich and his Leningrad Symphony (written in tribute to the bloody siege of the city by the Nazis) is a clear ancestor to Chatham's Secret Rose, inasmuch as it's a multifaceted, and often symbolically complex tribute to "the concerns of the many", and a musical microcosm for a troubled and chaotic society. Chatham's grandiose statement is however not as blatantly metaphorical or linearly narrative as such traditional western classical compositions. It's the music of the city, and the physicalisation of a million internalised narratives clashing all at once - and as such it's not only a portrait of all the things that man had made, but is also the churning, chaotic noise of a million lives squeezed together. Like the modern city though, it's not all noise. It's a tremendous, overpowering, man-made miracle - and only by coming together could we make it happen.