I’ve known Terry Riley‘s seminal Minimalist piece In C for a while, and last fall I even produced a performance of it as part of the M50 concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Minimalism, but I left Carnegie Hall on Friday Night feeling that I hadn’t really understood the piece until then. That’s how remarkable the concert was.
David Harrington, of the Kronos Quartet, was asked to curate this performance in celebration of the 45th anniversary of In C, and he assembled an enormous, star-studded cast, playing just about every instrument you can think of and several that you probably can’t. Riley was there, playing a giant Korg Triton keyboard, So Percussion was positioned on a dais at the back of the stage where they beat out The Pulse on a wide variety of instruments and added considerable rhythmic flair, members of the GVSU New Music Ensemble (which made a name for themselves a couple of years ago with their performance of Music for 18 Musicians) were there, members of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, the recorder-playing Quartet New Generation, Philip Glass was tucked away in a corner, Osvaldo Golijov and Morton Subotnick and Wu Man were up there somewhere, conductor Dennis Russell Davies served as “flight pattern coordinator,” periodically emerging and suggesting to the ensemble that it was time to move in some direction or other. In total there were at least 60 people on stage, and I assume that the people whose names I didn’t recognize were as big in their areas as the ones I did recognize.
The music started out with an intro sung by Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan over a deep drone, and then the Pulse began, followed by the first cell, and from there the piece sprawled out across a lush and ecstatic hour and a half. Before this performance I would have been able to tell you that the piece leverages the individual decisions of its performers to create rhythmic variance and overlap between adjoining cells so that a simple set of 53 melodic cells become a rich and complex texture, and I wouldn’t have been wrong. But in this luxurious performance it became clear that each individual cell is an entire world unto itself, gradually evolving and changing, beautiful and fascinating even without the aid of the surrounding cells; and these worlds crash and blur together multiplying their effects one against the other. I also would have told you that In C is a political piece–that it’s about democracy and egalitarianism, with each performer working from the same score and making his or her own choices. And again, I wouldn’t have been wrong, but I realize now that In C is not so much about politics as about friendship. It’s about getting a group of friends and colleagues together and having fun and making something beautiful. The lack of a traditional top-down organizational structure is not the point, but is instead incidental to the communal structure. In fact, if breaking down traditional hierachies were a central political objective of the piece, Dennis Russell Davies wouldn’t have been able to guide the performance without undermining the piece, but his occasional flashcards and gestures were no problem at all. The main political message is love.
One of the most special moments of the performance was a point when the boundary between audience and performer broke down. Somewhere in the middle of the performance, So Percussion’s Adam Sliwinski began clapping the Pulse, and several members of the audience began quietly clapping along to themselves, growing steadily louder and more enthusiastic and then fading out when Adam moved on to a different instrument. The clapping probably lasted for less than a minute, but it was a delightfully organic manifestation of the overall feeling of the evening.
I don’t mean to suggest that the performance was perfect. There were a couple of moments when different groups of musicians began diverging from the tempo and So Percussion had to step in with an emphasized Pulse to bring things back together, and unfortunately many of the wide variety of instruments blurred together and couldn’t be distinguished. I don’t think, for instance, I was ever able to pick out the childrens’s choir, although I have no doubt that they added greatly to the texture. Perhaps if a recording was made it will be mixed in a way that gives everybody a chance to be clearly heard. But overall, this was a magnificent concert, and Terry Riley and the musicians deserved well the epic standing ovation they received at the end.