June 15: Day 3, soundOn, a new music festival at the Athenaeum, community workshop, morning
About eight musicians from San Diego and Los Angeles joined six members of NOISE, guest artists and composers for a workshop on a modern masterpiece.
Well, it wasn‘t exactly a workshop, rather it was a jam, because they were playing Terry Riley’s “In C,” a piece that launched the minimalist movement when he wrote it in 1964. Riley takes the key of C, which is central to the traditional western European canon — if you took piano lessons, you know that you must sit squarely in front of middle C — and turns it into a free-wheeling modern masterpiece.
The “score,” if you want to call it that, fits on just one 8 1/2 x 11 sheet; 53 little blocks of staffs with short phrases or patterns deriving from the original single third of C to E and no key or time signatures. It calls for the piano to repeatedly play a high C throughout the piece, and because this is exhausting, NOISE uses a recording of what sounds like a beeping car alarm. That frees the pianist — or in this case, two pianists — to participate fully in the performance.
“In C” is a game for the musicians. Each plays all 53 patterns in sequence, but they select the volume, and they decide how many times to repeat the pattern. This morning Lisa Cella on flute is the lead, and all the other players must stay within two or three patterns of where she is — either behind or ahead. They all end together.
Riley composed this piece with no indication of how many people should play it or what instruments should be included. Riley’s original recording used a handful of musicians with overdubbing for the effect of a larger ensemble. This morning’s workshop ensemble consists of four violins, one cello, three guitars (one acoustic, two electric), one flute, and three keyboards — a Steinway grand (with two performers), electronic, and celesta.