by ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS
Some of the 200 guitarists who took part in Rhys Chatham’s A Crimson Grail at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival in August 2009.
Not very long into our online discussion of what makes an American symphony great, we started asking for suggestions of benchmark works on social media. And critic Will Robin responded nearly instantaneously:
Will’s prompt got me thinking. Glenn Branca renders his music on a huge scale: Many of his signature works are long pieces scored for extremely loud forces of alternately tuned (and often rebuilt) guitars that straddle the boundaries of where one genre ends and another begins. The results sound bracingly fresh, but I’d argue that Branca is in certain respects honoring a longstanding American tradition.
Going on a century ago, classical composers signaled modernity — and, frequently, their own American identity (either native-born or adopted) — by interweaving the sounds of jazz into their own work. Just think of Gershwin‘s 1924Rhapsody in Blue, or Kurt Weill‘s Threepenny Opera from 1928 or Ravel‘s Piano Concerto from 1931. Those sounds were strikingly new and perhaps even impudent — just the way the electric guitar began affecting the classical environment in the middle of the last century.
I wonder if, a hundred years from now, our descendants will look back at music written in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and say that a real marker of modernity, and American ingenuity, in classical music was the use of electric guitar (which, after all, was an American invention). If that happens, here are a few candidates for inclusion in the canon.
As Glenn Branca once told New Music Box‘s Frank Oteri, “The term symphony — this is the perfect analogy for creating something that develops over the entire evening in, you might say, acts, the way a play develops in acts. So it seemed like an obvious thing to do, although I knew that I was sticking my neck way, way, way out on the line to call my funky, primitive, loud rock music a symphony.” But it’s more than structure at stake. Whether Branca’s writing for phalanxes of electric guitars or a traditional symphony orchestra, he renders extremely intricate alternate harmonic systems and complicated mathematical formulas into visceral and mind-blowing listening experiences.
Rhys Chatham’s A Crimson Grail isn’t technically a symphony, it is a sweeping, massive work for large electric guitar orchestra. And I really mean “massive”— when it was performed at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival in the summer of 2009, the performer count was 200 electric guitars, 16 electric basses, five conductors and a percussionist.
What you can’t see in this video is this: In the piece’s final moments, the entire audience — of roughly 10,000 people, including me — rose up spontaneously as a single ecstatic entity.
When was the last time you heard an electric guitar introduce an opera aria? (Well, maybe in Bernstein’s Mass, which includes both electric and amplified acoustic guitars.) In this 2012 chamber opera by Missy Mazzoli (inspired by the true-life story of intrepid early 20th-century explorer Isabelle Eberhardt), the aria “Here Where Footprints Erase The Graves” stirs to life with a surprisingly delicate electric guitar.
I can’t think of many ways to reach aural bliss faster than Steve Reich‘s Electric Counterpoint. Originally written in 1987 for Pat Metheny and live guitar with layers of previously recorded guitars and basses, its strata of pulses and sweet, airy harmonies — meticulously shifted and reshifted again and again — are sublime.
Composer Steven Mackey has written extensively for the electric guitar — and frequently performed his own music. Many of these works, like his 1999 concerto Tuck and Roll, are scored for larger forces. He also puts the instrument inside a much smaller frame, such as in this intimate duet for cello and electric guitar.
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