Terry Riley’s In C at Carnegie Hall – 24 April 2009

How do you get to Carnegie Hall???

Shut it. Shut your damn mouth.

I’m somewhat ashamed to say that before Friday night I hadn’t been to Carnegie Hall in the better part of a decade, when a class trip brought me to the Dress Circle of the Stern Auditorium for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As I recall, the evening was a special student event, in which all were invited to sing the glorious chorus of the fifth movement (musicophiles (I’m looking at you, Oliver Sacks) may correct me here, if needed).

Probably because I was so small the last time I was there, I was under the impression that the auditorium would be much larger. The seating chart on Carnegie Hall’s Web site also gives the impression of vastness. The Stern Auditorium is much more St. James theatre than Radio City Music Hall, though, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that my ($10 student ticket) seat put me in Row V of the not-dauntingly-large orchestra (or, in fancy Carnegie Hall parlance, “Prime Parquet“).

By 20h00, the scheduled start time, the stage was practically full, with the 60-plus performers (I counted 67 here) scattered throughout the stage. Terry Riley held down the center at a Korg keyboard, magnetic in a white, double-breasted jacket, red pants (I really think they were cargo pants, too) and his favored red skullacap. In front of him downstage were the Kronos Quartet, the curators of the event, occupying the most prominent position on stage. Philip Glass was stage left playing keyboards, nearly hidden behind a choir of young persons and, I think, the Koto Vortex. I imagine he kept out of the spotlight in order to keep the evening’s focus on Terry Riley. A consummate gentleman, Philip.

If you don’t know anything about In C, you can read the Wikipedia or the performing directions. Briefly, the piece consists of 53 musical phrases, each of which is repeated by each performer however many times he or she likes, though the patterns must be played in sequence.

At around 20h10, a screen dropped from the ceiling mid-stage projected the (deceptively short and innocuous-looking) sheet music for In C, and the piece began with Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan singing and playing an instrument that I didn’t recognize. I have to be honest, for someone who’s supposed to be some sort of legend his singing didn’t exactly blow me away. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, or it that wasn’t pleasant, just that it wasn’t as affecting and evocative as I expected it to be. Slowly, the rest of the ensemble joined in, with the “pulse” being provided by a woman constantly pounding out steady eighth notes on the piano (I’ll let you guess what the notes were … here’s a hint … the piece is called In C … she was playing C notes … by the layers …). So Percussion joined her for much of the piece, but occasionally strayed from that rigid rhythmic structure for more complex playing, including a brief but excellent period in which they were almost the only ones playing.

Watching this piece evolve was exciting, but a little confusing. At times, I tried to figure out who was playing which pattern, but that was awfully difficult, so I stopped. The best moments for me were the crescendos, signalled by Dennis Russell Davies (I think — he’s listed in the program as “Flight Pattern Coordinator,” and I can’t imagine what else that position would have been), who walked casually through the ensemble with a small sign on which I assume was written the pertinent musical instruction (incidentally, he did the same for diminuendos, with what I assume (I know, a lot of assumptions going on here. Danger zone) was a different sign). When everyone started driving toward that peak, the sound genuinely filled the room, each instrument seeming to occupy a specific space in the auditorium, a specific pocket of air that was designated for its vibrations. I could look at the woman playing the toy piano and pick out her pattern from the sixtysomething other musical voices in the hall. I suppose that acoustic excellence is what makes Carnegie Hall so legendary.

The piece ended with (as you’ll know if you read the program notes) everyone reaching the 53rd and final phrase. Mr Davies, the Flight Pattern Coordinator, stepped slowly to the front and casually began lifting his arms up, bringing the volume of the ensemble with him. He lowered them, deliberately, bringing the sound back down. After as many cycles as he damn well pleased, he walked back to his chair, leaving most of the ensemble still playing the final phrase. Many dropped out, but several voices remained, until almost everyone was silent. I think it was a woman singer who was the last to stop, and when she did a most wonderful silence prevailed. The excellent thing about a concert at a place like Carnegie Hall is that the audience usually has a good sense of etiquette and won’t make inappropriate noises — shouting, whooping, &c — during a performance. At the end of In C, there was nothing but the memory of sound in Stern Auditorium, and I could live in that moment for a long time. For all the moments of beauty and ecstasy in the performance, the absolute silence at its end may have been just as thrilling.

All told, the performance lasted about a hundred minutes, from the first incantation to the last whisper of a voice. After the aforementioned, spectacular silence, Kronos Quartet artistic director David Harrington relaxed his violin and the audience launched into what would become a nearly ten minute standing ovation. Terry Riley came downstage and the cheers grew. As the applause continued, Mr Riley acknowledged it several times with bows before walking off stage and returning at least twice to continued cheers. The ovation reflected everything about the performance — the grand, beautiful auditorium, the extraordinary number of musicians on stage, and the beauty and sheer length of the evening’s performance. The audience (the Bowery Ballroom has crowds, Carnegie Hall has audiences) was applauding not only for the past two hours of In C, but for the past 45 years of it as well. With this extended ovation, the night truly became, as it was billed, a celebration of In C, of Terry Riley, and of the way he has helped shape what music is today.

Check the Carnegie Hall Web site for a discussion with Terry Riley and Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington
Observe the notes on the program here.
Alex Ross has many more useful links (ha, I wrote lonks, now there’s a word for you!), which links (got it right the first time, there!) I would feel guilty simply reposting as my own discoveries.

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2 Comments on “Terry Riley’s In C at Carnegie Hall – 24 April 2009”

  1. […] Terry Riley, Kronos Quartet and Ensemble performing Terry Riley’s In C 24 April 2009, Carnegie Hall-Perelman Stage […]

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