Friday night brought about the first ever staging of composer Terry Riley’s epochal “In C” on the Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of its release on long-playing LP in the late 60s. From “In C”‘s debut on, Riley’s humble, infinitely variable piece sparked a new lineage of classical composition drawing heavily on rhythm and repetition (deemed the first major work of minimalism), rock’n’roll (see The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”), and trance-inducing electronic dance music. For this special celebratory performance, it was fitting that the lobby of Carnegie Hall was still a crush of humanity: even as the house lights flitted, patrons jockeyed for entrance into the venerated hall. Classical Indian vocalist Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan opened with a sung intonation–his voice soon consumed by a glowering drone and the sputter of the Quartet New Generation’s specially-built recorders, which looked like some downtown condominium tower made from Ikean wood slats. As the 60+ players eased in, the phrases of “In C” were projected overhead, as if we in the audience were auditing a music comp class. The piece then lifted off.
Dreamed up by (in Riley’s words) a “consistently and always eternally stoned” honky-tonk piano player in San Francisco riding a bus to a gig in May of ’64 and jotted out on a single sheet of paper, even the biggest stoner would have a hard time fathoming the participants gathered on-stage tonight, mirroring the overflowing crowd itself with its own mass: the afore-mentioned Ali Khan, Zara Atal, Eric Beach, Will Cabaniss, Katharine Chapman, Sidney Chen, Dennis Russell Davies, Loren Kiyoshi Dempster, Stuart Dempster, Bryce Dessner, Elizabeth Dorovitsine, Dave Douglas, Trevor Dunn, Hank Dutt, Lindsey Feldman, Sydney Fishman, Nicole Frazee, Susanne Fröhlich, Jacob Garchik, Jon Gibson, Philip Glass, Solveig Gold, Osvaldo Golijov, Andrea Guttmann, David Harrington, Michael Harrison, Michael Hearst, Alphea John, Scott Johnson, Marissa Katz, Emily Keating, Alexander Kollias, Katrina Krimsky, Joan La Barbara, Saskia Lane, Miki Maruta, Hadley Maya, Sophia Miller, Nichole Musumeci, Tiffany Myers, Yoko Nishi, Alfred Shabda Owens, Hannah Pape, Elena Moon Park, Lenny Pickett, Josh Quillen, Gyan Riley, Kate Scharf, Heide Schwarz, Aaron Shaw, John Sherba, Judith Sherman, Adam Sliwinski, Mark Stewart, Morton Subotnick, Kathleen Supove, Etsuko Takezawa, Margaret Leng Tan, Jason Treuting, Brette Trost, Jeanne Velonis, Emily Viola, Wu Man, Anthony Wyche, Yang Yi, Dan Zanes, Jeffrey Zeigler, and Evan Ziporyn. (Discern the world-famous composers, alt-rock musicians, kiddie-pop stars, Kronos Quartet members, and preteen choir members as you will, but all were equals on the stage this night.)
In a crowd of such musicians, Terry Riley sat before his Korg Triton keyboard, the eye in this seemingly inchoate storm. Resplendent in white sports jacket and black tee, with a mandala on his chest, Riley was hushed, chanting inaudibly amid the cacophony of rapped metalophones and keyboards, three homemade didgeridoos arcing over his head, his right hand still most of the night. Dennis Russell Davies, credited as “Flight Pattern Coordinator,” instead looked like a limo driver out at JFK, a white placard in his hands, going up to the 11-odd cells of performers with changes of direction. In the program notes, Kronos’s lead violinist David Harrington speaks of “In C” as “a ritual. It creates a community and solidarity around it.” Utopist and celebratory, there was a volatility teeming beneath the piece as well on this night, veering to the point of white-knuckled fret and urgency with its hammered eighth notes and heart-quickening pace, only to pull back from the brink under Davies’ direction.
At almost any moment in the exhausting two-hour rendition, an individual quality might glimmer: the wordless yips of the children’s choir, melodica, a trumpet cry from Dave Douglas, a blown conch, the thunderous roll of tympanum; a moment when the pipa, toy xylophone, and Zanes’ banjo were all at play. But all was soon subsumed back into the ever-changing moment and momentum of the work. At its most stirring peak, three-quarters of the way through, Davies strolled through the ensemble, stripping it suddenly to the skeletal thwack of So Percussion and the myriad voices, which by this point betrayed a bit of breathlessness. “In C,” like other early Riley pieces, deals also with the exhaustive qualities of ecstatic experiences, the temporal trying yet failing to mimic the eternal.
With at least four raucous climaxes, and three crescendos and diminuendos at piece’s end, one might grumble that –nearing the two-hour point– this version of “In C” was overlong. But how rare is the occasion to see indie-rock bands, steel-string guitarists, classical Indian vocalists, children’s’ choirs, Japanese koto trios, percussion ensembles, European string quartets, and classical Chinese players, convene in one place, all of them in synch? As all of the performers receded into silence–so that the air of Carnegie Hall itself seemed to thrum with the continuing pulsations of “C”–a nearly ten-minute standing ovation roared from the masses.