Monday, August 10, 2009

Wall of Sound

Last Wednesday, 200 guitarists, 15 bass players, four section leaders and a visionary composer gathered over at FIT to prepare for the rain date of Rhys Chatham's Crimson Grail. Last year's scheduled performance was reluctantly called when a day-long downpour left the power cords leading to the 50 watt amps submerged in puddles and the guitarists vulnerable beneath the saturated tree branches of Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park.

2/3 of last year's participants returned to try again, wandering in to the great conference center to mingle with the new recruits. The guitarists were directed to four large, separated rooms, to learn again their tunings as well as the symphonic vocabulary and conducting cues they would need to perform the piece. All were given new Ernie Ball guitar strings and a place to set up and everyone collectively began practicing and hoping for a clear sky.

The guitarists were divided into four groups--alto, tenor, bass, soprano--and then subdivided again and given specific tunings. For two days a vocabulary was established, a communication system was worked out and a leap of faith was taken that the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts, which, given the number of participants and the complexity of the conception, was both a great leap and a large sum. The four section leaders, primarily guitarists themselves joked good-naturedly as they worked at being conductors.

On Friday night, the entire group assembled in the main hall and gave The Crimson Grail its first full run through since the final practice a year earlier. Designed for an outdoor performance, the walls of the room struggled to enclose a sound that possessed a life of its own and a palpable desire to be let free in the world.

Saturday ended up being one of those glorious New York summer days, with low humidity and perfect weather. As the afternoon wore on, clouds appeared but did not threaten, and the players assembled again in Damrosch Park.

The performance itself was unlike anything I've experienced and I won't much try to describe it. I put my head down and drew until the finale of the piece lifted me from my seat along with all the rest of the crowd. I will say that catharsis in theatre and music is rare and highly valued and I understand that a little better now than I ever have before.

It's a poor substitute for being there, but if you want a sense of the musical power that drove the drawing below, you can check out the finale of the piece over here.


Blogger Christopher Tassava said...

These are just astounding drawings. I have been savoring them - especially the second and third ones - since you posted them. As someone who does a tiny bit of drawing, I'd like to hear a little bit about how you manage to fix on paper a scene that it is transitory. (I ask in part because I love to try to draw my kids, but they're always in motion, of course, and I can never succeed in capturing The Moment in the way you do with the performers you draw.) Any insights you can offer would be appreciated - almost as much as I appreciate your phenomenal work.


9:37 AM  
Anonymous countertext said...

I was one of the guitarists, and I must say it's delightful to recognize some of my friends in your drawings. The energy of the rehearsals and the performance are represented well here.

Just so the lay person doesn't think you've drawn invented characters - the faces in these drawings are the real faces of the musicians. Makes us feel good.

8:56 PM  
Blogger chubbo said...

Amazing work - Thank you for your character and emotion representations... spot on! What a nice way to remember this most profound experience. I cannot thank you enough.

9:24 PM  
Blogger Michael Arthur said...

Thanks much for the kind comments.

Christopher--A lot of folks have been asking me how I draw moving subjects and I'm not really sure I have an answer. It's just something that happens.

That said, I try to (a) not have any expectations about what the drawing will look like when it's done and (b) I start with something simple and work my way out. I might, for example, start with an eye and then build the face around that and then add the body and then work out to the environment, which gets easier because it isn't moving.

I also try to be pretty patient and not draw until something strikes my interest.

I dunno. It sounds silly when I talk about it, but--considering I try to avoid analyzing it--that's the best I can come up with.

But, really, the most important thing is to just draw and see what happens. You'll figure out your way by doing it.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Michael Arthur said...

Also, a youth wasted reading comic books and obsessing about classic cartoon strips helps.

10:00 AM  
Blogger markmaloof said...

I'm in one of your illustrations (third one down, the shaven headed guitarist with glasses, you did justice to my Bedrock FRED amp head and cabinet.) Very cool illustrations, I especially like the one of Rhys and his disciples of sonic guitar bliss, also Ned Sublette's wild conducting arms. Thank you!

Mark Maloof, tenor 2, section 1

4:31 PM  
Blogger Michael Arthur said...

Prints of the Run through drawing, with Rhys and the guitarists are available for sale here:

5:29 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

Way cool! Great stuff.

8:40 PM  

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