800 Years of Minimalism: The Spiritual Transcendent isn't just a lofty title, it's an audacious concept. Imagine a three-hour program that sketches an eight-century musical timeline, unified by a theme of variations on the sanctified spirit. What nerve? Yet look again, and the August 15 collaboration between Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Wordless Music that's set to bring together Rhys Chatham's electric mass-ensemble composition; a solo electronics-and-guitar journey by Manuel G‹ttsching, illuminated by the live visual projections of the Joshua Light Show; and the vocal works of the 13th-century French composer P_rotin is bold not just conceptually but socially. Like its performers,the program finds a common ground between popular and art musics, between communities comfortable in Manhattan concert halls and Brooklyn clubs, joining them together in a singular search for the sonically ecstatic.
Such bold steps could only begin by uniting the missions of the two organizations collaborating on the evening. For nearly 40 years, Lincoln Center Out of Doors has been the Upper West Side cultural institution's populist street theater, with a responsibility "to bring the community to Lincoln Center and Lincoln Center to the community." Just a glance at its 2008 schedule of events: featuring an array of concerts by and collaborations between African, Latin, jazz and rock musicians, dance troupes and drum troupes: beautifully betrays its definition of how wide-ranging that "community" is. By contrast, the Wordless Music concert series does not have such history on its side; yet over the past two years it has blurred the sound worlds of classical and contemporary instrumental music in order to erase the various boundaries and genre distinctions segregating listeners and musical cultures. In the process, it's become a New York standard-bearer in bringing together seemingly disparate audiences and sounds.
It's no hyperbole to say that only such a future-facing partnership could conceive the ambition of the August 15 program: not just in terms of how the musical pieces may fit, but that these pieces exist in the same world at all. The works and artistic history of G‹ttsching, Chatham, Joshua White (the man behind the Joshua Light Show) and the vocal group Beata Viscera, who will perform P_rotin's pieces, are intertwined with the social and cultural missions of the curators who are putting them on the same stage.
Consider the artists and the facts:
Berlin lifer Manuel G‹ttsching will be playing the American premiere: and the third-ever live performance: of E2 _E4, an electronic composition he conceived, improvised on and recorded without overdubs on December 12th 1981. A student of Swiss composer Thomas Kessler, G‹ttsching spent the late '60s and early '70s as the guitarist in the influential improvisational rock band Ash Ra Tempel (Ashra), before embracing a more electronic approach. The recording of E2 _E4 would not be released for three years, but when it was, its champions were not new music or rock audiences but dance-music figures such as New York disco DJ Larry Levan and Detroit techno pioneer Juan Atkins, who helped make its layered repetition and ecstatic groove a cornerstone of electronic dance-music culture. That's one reason why the last performance of E2 _E4, on the 25th anniversary of its creation, took place at Berlin's Mecca of modern dance-music, the Berghain. G‹ttsching was subsequently invited to perform the work at a number of stateside venues and festivals, but only said "yes" to the Lincoln Center/Wordless Music invitation as the perfect place for a U.S. premiere.
Rhys Chatham, who will lead an army of guitarists through the world premiere of A Crimson Grail for 200 electric guitars (Outdoor Version)," has spent much of his career exploring the border of popular and art music. After studying with the New York minimalist La Monte Young and founding the music program of the downtown experimental space, the Kitchen, Chatham became engulfed in New York's punk rock moment of the mid-'70s. As a result, he began composing pieces representative of both the loud, electric energy he experienced at clubs like CBGB's and the extended, repetitive overtones of composers like Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich: his breakthrough being 1977's Guitar Trio, which used three retuned guitars (along with a bass guitar and drums) playing as a loud, harmonic wall of sound, and revolutionized the sound of New York's underground rock scene for the next decade. Chatham also started adding additional guitarists for his compositions, and by the time A Crimson Grail debuted as an indoor piece in Paris' Sacr_-Couer Basilica in 2005, he was using 400 of them. The very nature: and the needed expansive setting: of creating a piece for so many players (most of whom were chosen through an open volunteer application process), speaks to the communal longings present in Chatham's music.
Joshua White is the man behind the Joshua Light Show, which will debut its collaborative accompaniment of G‹ttsching's E2 _E4. The Joshua Light Show, which has recently performed at experimental art-spaces such as the Kitchen and Issue Project Room, and at the Whitney Museum, first came to prominence at Bill Graham's classic New York concert hall, Fillmore East, creating visuals for the psychedelic rock of the day, and working with such legendary bands as The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. White's work was also an influence for musicians in Germany, especially G‹ttsching. This performance marks the first collaboration between the two artists.
Beata Viscera is a vocal group led by soprano Martha Culver and tenor Caleb Burhans (also members of the new-music ensemble, Alarm Will Sound). They'll be performing works by P_rotin, a 13th century French composer whose choral pieces were among the earliest examples of polyphony in Western music, and influenced minimalist composers such as Reich and, yes, Chatham and G‹ttsching.
Notice the recurrent themes?
The sacred joy of repetition, the open-armed freedom of influence, the soulfully transmogrifying qualities of sound and the social significance of mass appeal have all been hallmarks of the minimalist movement. Chatham, writing from his adopted home in Paris, thinks they will be on August 15th as well:
"There is usually a festive atmosphere to free public art performances, especially if they occur in New York City in the month of August. I was born and raised in Manhattan, so I know very well what August is like there. The city becomes a different place, more relaxed, less stressed out and nervous, more like a town than a city. Each time we have done a free public performance with my orchestras of 100+ guitars, we get audiences of over 3000 people, which is always exhilarating. [At the debut of A Crimson Grail] I had grown men falling into my arms after the performance with tears in their eyes telling me how beautiful it was."
May the spirit be with us all that evening.
Piotr Orlov is the editorial director of Rhapsody and MTV Digital Music.