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Real Minimalism

What’s real minimalism? It’s not there at all. And that’s exactly what happened to Rhys Chatham‘s eagerly awaited piece for 200 electric guitars, A Crimson Grail, on Friday night: The performance (part of a Lincoln Center Out of Doors evening titled “Wordless Music: 800 Years of Minimalism—The Spiritual Transcendent”) was canceled at the last minute because of thunderstormy weather that made it dangerous to plug in all these axes. And boy the fans are angry! Not only are they upset the show was canceled, but they seem really mad that they had to endure the other two acts on the bill—Beata Viscera and Manuel Göttsching—before being told A Crimson Grail wouldn’t happen. (Typically, instead of causing a healthy ruckus on the scene of the crime, they bravely left in silence then took to the blogs.)Now, I happened to be at the show and I can’t say I was overly happy that the plug was pulled on the Chatham extravaganza. Sitting on a wet plastic chair, shivering in my totally weather-inadequate T-shirt as I held up my umbrella, I have to admit I repeatedly asked myself what I was doing there when I could have been home, snuggly watching The Wire on DVD. (Oddly, this was my second frustrating rain-out of the season, after the last-minute cancellation of the performance of Macbeth I was supposed to see at St. Ann’s Warehouse.)

That said, this kind of stuff is bound to happen when you have an outdoors event. Sure, we were all disappointed, but it’s not the end of the world and certainly not a reason to go all self-righteous. Do we live in such a spoiled, on-demand society that we have to start whining as soon as we can’t have what we want when we want it? I could understand the rage if someone had pulled a diva stunt and refused to perform, but that? And while the volunteer guitarists donated their time, should they blame the organizers for canceling the event when the weather remained ugly? Not everything can be reorganized as neatly as an iPod playlist.

Again, many of the irate fans sound particularly irked they had to endure the other two acts. But it was their constant chattering during Beata Viscera’s set of vocal pieces by medieval composer Pérotin that was rude. As for Göttsching’s hour-long 1981 piece, E2-E4 (which was supposed to be last on the bill, but was pulled up in the hope the skies would clear in the meantime), well yes: The visuals by the Joshua Light Show looked really dated, and the repetitive track sounds better when you’re either at home, preferably doing some cleaning, or dancing the night away in a club. When you’re wet and cold…not so much. Still, I was happy to hear this seminal piece in its entirety, being a fan of both minimal techno and German space rock. Besides with this kind of stuff, half of the benefit comes from just enduring it. Why do we do it? It’s like Everest: We do it because it’s there. (The other half comes from being able to say you did it.) Videos of Göttsching’s event have already found their way to YouTube, one of which you can see below.

My big question, however, is this: Can a piece involving 200 guitars really be called minimalist, especially since it actually was scaled down from 400 guitars? Isn’t 200 a kind of, you know, maximalist number of instruments?

  • John Diliberto

    Nice to get a full review of this show after only spotty reports. I believe the answer to you query about minimalism, would be that it was, (or would have been) minimalist in form and maximalist in size. BTW, Göttsching gave quite a different show the next night in Philadelphia. There’s a review here:

  • Robert Poss

    We had very high hopes for a a hospitable weather window, but it was not to be. I think the entire process (rehearsing, sound check) was a great learning experience, especially for those guitarists unfamiliar with Rhys’ work and/or unfamiliar with the concept that complex music does not need to be complicated, and ostensibly simple guitar parts can yield a rich, satisfying whole. (This has been my personal creed since the 1970s.) It was fun to see it put into practice with such a diverse group of musicians. And 200 guitar amps is a beautiful sight to behold.

  • Elisabeth Vincentelli

    Thanks for the comments. Robert, thanks for bringing a participant’s perspective. I wish I had seen those 200 amps! I guess what riled me most was the petulant reaction to the cancellation–instead of just being bummed the weather was bad (and nobody can do anything about that), people were upset that they were denied the free fun they felt they were entitled to. Some have said the event could have been moved to a nearby indoors venue. But the venue was much smaller than Damrosch Park, and if the show had been moved it’s likely an equal number of people would have complained they couldn’t get in.

  • Robert Poss

    I think a good part of the the audible reaction to the cancellation was 200 guitarists confronting their nightmare of disappointment. I myself let out an involuntary grunt/sigh at the announcement…. I agree that the audience could have been more respectful to Beata Viscera.

  • Elisabeth Vincentelli

    I was referring not so much to the audible reaction at the show (which was understandable) as to the written ones spilling out in blogs in a tone of childish petulance.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.