You could see what he meant. Rhys Chatham, the loose cannon of New York's avant garde music scene, had just arrived in London to perform his latest work: Symphony for 101 Guitars. As the title implies, this involves a lot of guitars. And unlike a performance by Mike Oldfield, say, who favours playing every multiple of instruments himself, Chatham likes to employ 101 guitarists to assist him in his endeavour. Unable to finance bringing a jumbo-load of musicians with him from America, he advertised earlier this year for British talent to help him out in his two performances at the Queen Elizabeth Hall next week. Money was not on offer.
Nevertheless guitarists responded to the ad in their hundreds. Tim Sheridan, Chatham's English co- conspirator, whittled the volunteers down after a series of auditions. On Tuesday night, the fortunate 101 gathered together in a University of London lecture hall for their first rehearsal. All shades and shape of guitarist were there, bringing with them all shades and shape of guitar. There were teenage indie poppers alongside bald jazzmen older even than Keith Richards; there were spikey glam rockers looking edgy next to slicked-back sophisticates looking cool; there were froth-haired axe heroes striking poses beside effete Suede-alikes who carried their own amp around with them because they were worried someone might nick it if they put it down.
The first thing Chatham did when the guitarists arrived was to mother-hen 42 of them up on to the lecture hall stage, where they lined up in shambolic ranks. They were to provide a snatch of his work for a camera crew from local television news. The other 59 guitarists sat in the auditorium, cradling their instruments, watching and waiting for the telly folk to get their live link together. Because they are guitarists and thus incapable of holding a guitar in their hand without addressing its strings, as they watched, they strummed. All of them.
It may have been a Spinal Tap-esque sight, 101 guitarists plucking 101 different tunes from 101 unplugged electric guitars, but it was a fantastic sound. Not unlike a colony of bees working on their hive with muted chainsaws. 'Yeah,' said Rhys Chatham. 'But you should hear it when they are all plugged in.'
When the telly team was ready, the 42 strummers set their amps and, with Chatham conducting, began a snippet of the huge drone that constitutes the work. It only lasted a minute, but you could have heard it in Rotherham. 'So,' the man from the telly asked Chatham once the music was done, 'why 101 guitars?'
'It was a compositional decision,' replied Chatham, who you suspected might have been asked the question before. '102 was just too many.'
Rhys Chatham has an entire collection of Black Sabbath records back home, relaxes to Metallica, was clincally deaf for several years due to the volume of his output, and favours the kind of haircut generally thought to be restricted to German football supporters. He is, however, a seriously regarded musician. His vast set-pieces at music festivals in France, Canada and the USA have earned him most favoured status among guitarists-in-the-know.
'I was very excited when I saw the advert and pretty pleased to get through the audition,' said Will Prentice, from Edinburgh, who plays with a band called Gila Monster. 'Our band plays a sort of droney rock like his. But there's only two guitarists. I'm really excited by the possibilities of so
many guitars playing together.'
Chatham himself was equally keen to be playing in London. 'I think our best concert so far was in Quebec,' he said. 'With this number of people, it's only possible to rehearse for maybe four days. You know, people are busy. I kinda like it that way because it means there's a certain overtone of panic. In Montreal we had a lot of pro musicians and they really got the hang of it quickly, which enabled us to work on things for a couple of days. But, hey, this is London, it's the centre of rock music. I'm really looking forward to what these guys can play.'
Indeed, lurking in the lecture hall was some considerable talent. Like Simon Baisley, presently in the studio playing with Tony Hadley; like Vice Versa, once of the Poison Girls; and up at the back, fiddling with the tuning of his fancy new guitar, Paul Reeson, once of Psychic TV.
'Since the band split up, I've been doing a very tedious job in the Post Office,' Reeson said. 'I work every minute to finance my music, but that means I very rarely have time to do any playing. So when I saw this I jumped at it. I'm fascinated by the sound, I want to hear it, the texture as well as the melody.'
It is Chatham's unusual approach to tuning that particularly enthuses the player. Once the telly cameras had departed, Tim Sheridan divided the players into four tonal platoons ('Eddie Grant to the tenors. Not the Eddie Grant surely?') and sent them off to different rooms where they were to be coached by Chatham and a hardcore of collaborators.
Paul Reeson was to be a soprano and was to be under the wing of Claude Alvarez-Pereyre, a Parisian who has worked with Chatham for four years. What was he going to tell his new team?
'Normally I am with a band playing Caribbean acoustic folk jazz,' said Alvarez-Pereyre. 'So this is different. Very different. Basically, I'll tell them to forget anything they have ever learned. With Rhys's work, you have to start afresh.'
Meanwhile, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall an extra generator has been installed to cope with the power required to twang 606 strings. It will be a noisy night.
'Symphony for 101 Guitars' will be performed at QEH, the South Bank, London SE1, 8, 9 August. Booking: 071-928 8800
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