A Crimson Grail is a three-part composition for a large electric guitar orchestra. Large may just be an understatement, as it was actually scored for up to 400 guitar players, though the performance on this release consists of a mere 200 guitarists, 16 bass players and percussion. It's a remarkable, engrossing work that plays against rather than panders to expectations.
If you picture the sound of such a large ensemble of guitarists, it's likely that you'll imagine an overpowering wall of sound, but Chatham's approach is more subtle than that. The initial section of the 35-minute first part is an extended process of initially subdued, but gradually swelling sound. That sound is something like a metallic jangling as if mile upon mile of barbed wired were amplified. At the eight-minute mark, a simple, steady pulse begins to be marked out by percussion and bass, around which the massed guitars cluster and reverberate. Fifteen minutes later the rhythm ceases and the music enters a becalmed passage, the guitarists picking and strumming to create a sense of cloud-like porousness. A final, extended section of intense, massed thrumming overlays this. Played loud, it threatens to lift the listener off their feet and shake the ornaments from the shelves. It's half an hour in arriving, but this is sound that achieves an immersive, exultant sense of the sublime.
The second section is comprised of meditative, slow-motion key changes ebbing and flowing over the course of 10 minutes. The final section begins with a simple two-note motif which ultimately amounts to another slowly building example of minimalism meeting the dynamics of rock. Commissioned by the City of Paris, A Crimson Grail was written to be performed in the basilica of Sacre-Coeur to take advantage of the building's 15-second reverberation. This recording was made at the Lincoln Centre four years later, in 2009.
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