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Orchestra of 100 guitarists prepares for Craneway concert

on November 17, 2013

Rhys Chatham admitted that he was feeling a little bit of stress as he packed his gear at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. It was just over 48 hours before his orchestra of 100 electric guitarists will take the stage at Craneway Pavilion, and they had just completed their first rehearsal.

Sunday’s show will be the West Coast premiere of “A Secret Rose,” a piece that Chatham composed in 2006. And it will be the first time the piece has been performed in two years.

Because he’s dealing with such a large orchestra, Chatham divides the guitarists into three groups, and section leaders lead rehearsals. On Friday, each of the three groups rehearsed in different rooms of the performing arts center. And on Saturday, the entire orchestra will rehearse together in Craneway Pavilion.

“A Secret Rose” is divided into five movements. Chatham compares it to a typical symphony orchestra: At various points, some of the guitarists will be playing the cello part, while others will be playing the role of a violin or flute. Some movements have as many as six different parts that are being played at different meters, with different melodies, at the same time.

Although the musicians – save for a drummer and a bassist – are all playing the same instrument, they aren’t all strumming the exact same chords. “We don’t have 100 musicians playing in unison the entire time,” Chatham said.

Chatham visited Craneway Pavilion in June, and although he hates the word “awesome,” he can’t avoid using it to describe the former Ford Assembly Plant. “It really is appropriate for the space.”

Over the summer, Bay Area music nonprofit Other Minds put out a call for electric guitarists, who had to fill out an online application form. About one-third of the guitarists who will perform “A Secret Rose” on Sunday have played Chatham’s music before. And many of the players reside in the East Bay.

Chatham initially had some concerns about the acoustics in Craneway Pavilion. Part of the difficulty comes from the number of windows, which include 40,000 glass panes. “When you have a lot of glass in your space, it does funny things to the sound,” he said. To cope with those issues, the orchestra will perform in the middle of the space, instead of facing the long side of the room.

Despite the challenges involved in putting together a complex performance with so many moving parts, Chatham is excited. “Now I don’t feel stressed, I feel confident,” he said after going through the music with his section leaders.

Chatham is a classically trained musician, and he fell in love with the electric guitar when he first heard The Ramones in the 1980s. On a lark, he came up with the idea of having 100 guitarists play together. “Remember, this was the punk era,” he said. “We’d put them in a room, not too large, with an audience; lock the door, and call it ‘torture box.'”

He never executed that version of the idea. But in 1989, Chatham composed his first piece for 100 electric guitars, called “An Angel Moves Too Fast to See.” The result exceeded his expectations, and it didn’t sound like a torture chamber at all. For almost 25 years, he has continued to experiment with large electric guitar ensembles.

“I have to say that there’s no sound like 100 electric guitars playing quietly,” Chatham said.


  1. Candice Kollar on November 17, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    San Francisco musician Michael Schillaci is participating as a front row player and reports the calibre of musicianship of the other musicians is very impressive. He reports the rehearsals have been very well orchestrated and anticipates this will be a terrific concert. Bring earplugs.

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