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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?

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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.
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