Damon Wood

A Secret Rose

December 6th, 2013

A few weekends ago I had what I’d have to call a peak experience. I wanted to share it and try to do it some justice although, as the recorded version of this event will probably pale in comparison to the actual performance, my notes will only paint a part of the picture. But I’ll do my best.

Earlier this year a friend gave me a tip that a local organization, Other Minds, was soliciting applicants for an ambitious musical project to be performed at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond this fall. The event would be the West Coast premiere of a composition by Rhys Chatham, the third time the piece has been performed world-wide. Chatham is a well-known minimalist composer who has mixed it up with members of the musical intelligentsia ranging from Glenn Gould to Terry Riley to the Ramones. The piece – called A Secret Rose – was written to be played by 100 electric guitar players.

So I signed up. The idea of playing in an orchestra of guitarists was exciting, both because it has been 30-something years since I last played in a proper orchestra as a kid, and because I was pretty certain that playing with 99 other guitarists would be a fairly unique experience.

The requirements were to bring a guitar that could stay in tune, preferably a Fender-type, and a combo amp with a good loud clean tone. Also, it was advised that we brush up a bit on our tremolo-strumming technique (this was good advice).

First rehearsal.

We rehearsed over the course of two days before the performance. The orchestra was split into 3 main sections, each with a section leader that worked closely with Mr. Chatham. I was placed in Section 2A, which was led by Seth Olinsky of Akron/Family fame. The first rehearsal (at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond) was a sectional-only day wherein we got familiar with the “system” that Rhys and the section leaders would be using, including conducting gestures and different types of cues.

The next day we had a full-group rehearsal at the Craneway, along with the bass/drum rhythm section and Rhys at the helm. The whole enchilada was quite different from day 1.

Let me stop for a second to talk about the Craneway. It’s a recently refurbished Ford Motor plant in the Richmond marina, a HUGE industrial building that has been reclaimed for office, restaurant and gallery space, with the crown jewel being the Pavilion on the water-side edge. I am not sure how big it is exactly – I’m guessing 40’ ceilings, and just to be safe I’ll say the space is roughly the size of a football field. The floor is polished concrete, with skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows along the East, South and West walls, with sweeping views of the East Bay hills, the bay, Brooks Island, the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, and the Marin Headlands. A spectacular space. One would think the acoustics in the room would be a bit shiny, but it’s SO huge that it doesn’t seem to matter – though the space designers likely added some acoustical treatment because the sound is actually pretty nice. Bjork played there recently, so that says something. In any case the Pavilion lent some serious grandeur to this.

So the stage was rigged with a full-on Meyer Sound system and a two-tiered riser. All 100 of us got ourselves in place and we started in with the first movement. It started with some swells of tremolo on low-E, fading through the sections and finally rising in unison. The effect was how I imagine a fleet of B-52 bombers would sound and feel: an ominous, thrumming engine drone filling the air. Kicking off the next paragraph of the movement, the drums and section 1 started in with a solid mid-tempo backbeat and a tremolo-strummed open E5 (i.e., E and B fretted on strings D and G, with strings B and E open), joined by the bass and sections 2 and 3 after a couple of measures.

What I felt, the first time all 100 of us hit that second part together in the first movement… I can only describe as exaltation. It was electrifying. I looked around me to see if anyone else was getting off on this like I was. One other guy looked back at me in amazement; I believe the thought we shared at that moment was basically, “Holy shit!”

Things developed after a bit, as the section leaders held up cues printed on paper — “5”, “9”, “11” — indicating which fret to move that shape to (keeping E and B ringing open). This bit was somewhat improvised, as the leaders could choose which fret to take their sections to. It added a sense of randomness to the performance, as the combinations of chords were never the same twice.

The next cue introduced more rhythmic strumming, badabadabadabadaBAAANG-changa-changa-changa-changa-changa-chang — like a heavy jangle-rock dirge. Then more coordinated chord movement. Things got nuttier as the chord cue came up “*”, which meant: go wherever you want… i.e. the orchestra went chromatic. Wall of chaos.

That was just the first movement. The rest of the piece varied in beat, dynamics, chordal “theme” I guess you’d say. Some of it was fugue-like, or featured repeating patterns played by the sections in different time signatures, so 5’s over 9’s over 4’s and such. The finale was basically all played on open low E or E minor. The overall vibe I got from A Secret Rose was urgent, shimmering, heavy. It was EPIC.

The torque behind the guitar muscle was anchored by a rock-solid rhythm section, namely Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums. I had the good fortune of being right in front of one of the monitor wedges, and it sounded fantastic. At times I thought we were playing with a drum machine, the time was so precise.

Photo by Alan Krakauer.

Anyway, the performance was a success. The piece lasted about 75-80 minutes. There were maybe 1000 attendees, who were offered ear plugs at the door and withstood the sonic assault with enthusiasm. My stand partner (Rob Christiansen, a very friendly Chatham-guitar-army 2nd-timer from NYC who was here with his wife, Kim Howie, an ethno-musicologist and a 3rd-timer herself) helped as the sub-section leader during a particularly count-heavy part. Afterwards a bunch of us went to the Mallard Club and drank off a bit of the excitement. It was nice for me that it was all so close to my house, I could have done all of it on foot if I’d had to.

It all went by so fast that I honestly almost missed it. I had to remind myself to be present for the experience. I met a lot of very cool musicians and I tried to meet as many people as I could (though not enough), but truthfully I was pretty focused on the work; I wanted to do it right, and contribute by hitting everything as expected. But I also wanted to enjoy myself (so mission accomplished). There were players from all over the world there, some who had been in previous Chatham performances. I’m considering what it would take to get myself to the next one.

One really cool thing: A Secret Rose is guitar-oriented to the core. It isn’t Beethoven Played By One Hundred Guitars. The composer is a guitarist — a punk rock guitarist at that, at least as far as the vocabulary of the music goes. The syncopation and rhythmic attack is rooted in power-chords with ringing harmonics, jangly strumming, and picking/scraping high up on the fretboard — totally familiar territory for guitarists who have done time in their parents’ garage. Guitar as noise-maker as well as instrument.

However the effect is definitely orchestral, in that the overtones and harmonics created by 100 guitars make for a rich sonic blend. At times it sounded like violins, organs, horns, church bells, voices, trucks, etc. The depth and force of the sound was really intense and the swirling harmonics all around me felt like an auditory mandala. It was like spiritual floss the way it tickled the nerve endings. I wisely used ear plugs for the rehearsals, but I went without for the performance so I could get the whole effect.

Practically speaking, I felt rather at home in the environment. Even though my music-reading skills are rusty (to put it generously), the years I spent in various orchestral and vocal ensembles from grade school on came back to me quickly. Rhys has said he wanted to provide that experience for guitarists, who generally have not had much of that sort of thing. I agree that this is a worthwhile experience.

I want to also say that Rhys Chatham was the sweetest guy. He must have been very excited, and maybe a little stressed hearing this come together from nothing in a couple of rehearsals. But he clearly enjoys his work, and he was upbeat and cheerful throughout. Just a dear fellow.

I went with the SG through the Lone Star Special.

Some pictures follow. I was in the first row on stage, so I’m a bit over-represented (but this is my blog so, hey). The slideshow doesn’t show the metadata that I uploaded with the pictures that I didn’t take, so I’ll credit them below.

Here’s a decent phone vid of the 4th movement. It’s missing quite a bit of bass and kick, but it gives an idea of what’s going on.

YouTube Preview Image

Here’s the whole performance posted on Rhys’ Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/rhys-chatham-2/a-secret-rose-for-100-electric

Photo credits:

5 Comments Comments»

  1. Allan Cronin says

    Hey, thanks for the photo credit acknowledgement.
    Great story from an insider view. It was a spectacular performance. BTW, I didn’t bother with the ear plugs.

    Thanks,
    Allan

    December 6th, 2013 | #

  2. Damon says

    Thank you Allan! Your writeup was excellent too, and great pictures as well.

    December 6th, 2013 | #

  3. Eric Pease says

    A Beast in a Jungle brought me here.

    thanks for your write up of an amazing performance. my girlfriend and I were in the first row of the Section B seats and I could really feel the sound of the guitars on my face. quite spectacular.

    thank you for all your hard work. we too thought the performance kicked ass and was a peak experience.

    my photos here:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ericpease/sets/72157637840115626/

    December 9th, 2013 | #

  4. Eric Pease says

    and thanks for the photo credit!

    December 9th, 2013 | #

  5. Damon says

    Hey Eric, you’re welcome and thank you for the comments and for sharing your excellent photos. It really was a lot of fun — once in a lifetime sort of thing, and I wasn’t really expecting it to be so profound. Good stuff!

    December 9th, 2013 | #

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