My first encounter with Terry Riley’s music was through a recording called A Rainbow in a Curved Air in 1969 (I was still in college in Paris studying economics and doing a rock band). It is a layered electronic keyboard piece where he plays all the tracks.  But the unique and groundbreaking composition style based on a repetition that organically develops, in a similar fashion as a raga develops from a basic pattern into a complex improvisation inspired me immediately. The striking element of Terry Riley’s minimalism is that his repetition is a stasis that evolves over time, it is dynamic, and in this quality it differs from other minimalist approaches.  In C shows how this stylistic premise is applied to a chamber orchestra, and the piece is probably his most popular piece (there is even a microtonal version). I was there too for the premiere of his string quartet at Town Hall, another groundbreaking event that launched the Kronos Quartet.

So when I heard about the electric violin concerto… I loved the idea of the electric instrument and the orchestra, and even though the piece was not anything like I would have expected, it was a lot of fun.

Electric violinist Tracy Silverman plays a six-string electric violin enhanced with effect pedals which he uses like a rock guitarist. His violin sound is gorgeous and allows for a wider range of expression and power than an acoustic violin, and he was an exciting interpreter for the new work, with moments of deep emotion – especially in the part where he plays against the woodwinds. Formerly a member of the famed Turtle Island String Quartet, Tracy Silverman is a crossover musician who is well-versed classical, rock and ethnic styles, for whom John Adams also wrote an electric violin concerto.

The concerto itself, called The Palmian Chord Ryddle, (the Palmian chord = D-E-F-F#-G#-A-B-C cluster) was to me kind of reassuring. One wouldn’t expect Riley to compose minimalist music at this point, or anything that sounded like In C – and the musical style was somewhat undefinable, which is exactly where many of us are at. First I’ll say what it isn’t: it isn’t atonal, it isn’t repetitive, it isn’t traditional, it isn’t caught up in itself, it isn’t pretentious. Themes emerge and evolve in unexpected ways. It is basically style-free,  multiple, beyond crossover, as if all the former ’styles’ have become part of the new global vocabulary of music. As Riley described in his notes: “a very spontaneous work full of the things that I find colorful, dynamic, beautiful, challenging, humorous, loving, friendly, joyous, stark, and universal”.

The Nashville Symphony commissioned this piece, and brought a very large orchestra that just about filled every inch of the Carnegie Hall stage, conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero, in a boisterous atmosphere, cheered on by what looked like about a hundred people who came from Nashville to see this performance and were waving green scarves.  

Note: Terry Riley and his son guitarist Gyan Riley will be at the Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker St) tonight from 7pm…

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