Tomorrow I join Terry Riley, the Kronos Quartet, and around 5 dozen other musicians on stage at Carnegie Hall for a blow-out, 45th-anniversary celebration of the revolutionary piece In C. This will be the first time In C has ever been performed in the big hall at Carnegie, believe it or not! A number of the musicians involved have been writing down their reflections on In C for Kronos's Facebook page. Here are links to all of the posts, and more are being added regularly between now and the performance. My contribution is cross-posted below.
David Harrington, Kronos | Aaron Shaw (Uilleann pipes) | Bill Ryan, GVSU New Music Ensemble | Jon Gibson (saxophones) | Kathleen Supové (celeste) | Elena Moon Park (mandolin) | So Percussion - Eric, Jason, Adam, Josh | Wu Man (pipa) | Jacob Garchik (low brass) | Yang Yi (guzheng) | Joan La Barbara (voice) | Michael Hearst (claviola, theremin, &c) | Stuart Dempster (trombone, didjerdiu, &c) | Katrina Krimsky (piano pulse) | Jeanne Velonis (accordion) | Koto Vortex | Michael Harrison (voice) | Alfred Shabda Owens (voice) | Morton Subotnick (clarinet)
When was the first time you heard Terry Riley's In C? What was that experience like?
I have to be honest: I remember hearing a lot about In C before actually hearing it! And I think that because of the simplicity of the title and what I understood to be the simplicity of the structure, I remember having developed certain preconceptions going in.
So my main memory of being introduced to In C for real was surprise. I think I expected stasis, and instead found constant movement. I expected repetition, and heard constant change. I expected an hour of monolithic C major, and heard tonal shifts moving like clouds. I expected a precision machine, and heard a group of individual personalities working together.
And there was a sense of familiarity about it. I didn't know how a piece of music could feel welcoming, but somehow In C was. Now that I've met Terry, I understand quite clearly where that sense of warmth comes from. And looking back, I know now that the sense of familiarity came from all of the music that I had heard up to that point that had taken inspiration from In C. Last night I revisited the SUNY Buffalo recording, and at one point I suddenly, unexpectedly, had a strong flashback to when I was 13, hanging out in my friend's basement, jumping around to Baba O'Riley.
Have you played In C? When did you play it for the first time?
This will be my first time performing In C, and it should be a blast! It seems a lot of instrumentalists encounter In C at one point or another in school or whatever, but it seems to cross singers' paths less often. And since we have such a large group—encompassing brass instruments, woodwind instruments, strummed & plucked instruments, bowed instruments, and singers—one of the things I'm really looking forward to is hearing what happens within each of these subgroups, and how the subgroups interact with each other. What happens when adult singers get to toss around these patters with children singers? What changes when all these voices interact with a group of wind players? In a way, it will be like the First Time for everyone on stage, since this specific group of instruments has never been and will never be gathered together.
How has In C influenced you as a musician?
Since I'm also part of the staff of the Kronos Quartet/Kronos Performing Arts Association, I've been working on this event for around a year and a half now. And probably the most unexpected discovery as I've spent more and more time with In C was realizing that, hard-wired into the piece, is a whole philosophy of life. As we individually move through the patterns, we take responsibility for our individual selves, yet we have to constantly watch out for others. We have individual voices and diverse skills, but we are always in a social context, and ultimately we are equals. Sometimes someone leads the way, and then someone else begins to take us in a different direction. Community-building is at its core: the piece falls apart completely if that group sense is missing. And yet the individual musician cannot relinquish responsibility to a leader or conductor. We all have our roles to fill at different points in the journey, yet no one can predict what they will be, or when the moments will emerge when we will either need to step up and lead, or step back and follow. And Terry achieved this by writing 53 fragments of music—that's just jaw-droppingly amazing.
How has music changed since In C first premiered in 1964?
Last year I went to a book release event for The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. In C premiered in San Francisco at the Tape Music Center, and David W. Bernstein collected a number of writings about that time and conducted several in-depth interviews with a number of influential artists who worked there, including Terry. The release event was in the basement of a library in the Haight Ashbury district that held maybe 100 or seats. By the time the event began (with Stuart Dempster standing among us, playing the didjeridu), the room was so over-capacity—with people of all ages—that the fire marshal came in and threatened to close the whole place down if most of the people didn't leave the building. The result was that many people in their 20s and 30s went outside and sat on the ground, poking their heads through the windows to hear Morton Subotnick, Bill Maginnis, Ramon Sender, and Don Buchla recount how they and their colleagues did the work they did. Those folks sticking their heads through the windows are the testament to what's changed since 1964: they have been so influenced by In C and all the work that came out of the Tape Music Center that they demonstrated in the most concrete way their need to come out and give props.
Tell me about the instrument(s) you'll be playing.
I'll be singing, using lyrics that Terry wrote specially for this performance. Mostly they're just phonemes, not actual words, but Terry's essence still comes through loud and clear!
Is there anyone performing that you've worked with before? Anyone you're looking forward to meeting for the first time?
I've worked with many of the musicians on that stage in some capacity or another, some for around 15 years, but this will be the first opportunity to share a stage with them. I look forward to the whole thing!