A sorry waste it would be to review any performance in Carnegie Hall without taking a moment to describe that selfsame masterpiece of masonry. Situated just south of Central Park, the building occupies one block along 7th Avenue and boasts brownstone embellishments along its Roman-bricked façade. It took architect William Burnet Tuhill and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to bring the legendary concert space to fruition in 1891. Today, the venue posts around 250 shows per season. In its foyer, Corinthian pilasters and a handsome vaulted ceiling impart high-minded notions, and on the night of Friday, April 24th, a jumbled crowd of Terry Riley appreciators made their way towards the main hall beneath the grandiose cornice and arches. My companion Anna (a self-proclaimed Queer Hungarian Jewess) and I marveled at the sheer height of the Isaac Stern Hall, where those perched at its summit must chose between an elevator ride and a climb of 105 steps. In spite of its 1986 renovation, all of its old world grandeur in cream and gold was ours that night.

This was the 45th anniversary of the premiere of Terry Riley’s In C, which is thought to have pioneered a new musical aesthetic. Judging by the excitement in audience members’ eyes, we might have been the only pair in the establishment who weren’t Riley buffs, but we put on out best poker faces when we figured out just what we were in for: an all-star ensemble of more than 60 musicians, spearheaded by Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington and playing intermeshed, serial patterns throughout the course of 53 modules (or phrases) to endure upwards of an hour.

“Maybe they’ll noodle around,” I whispered. “It says in the program that every player sticks with their phrase until they personally decide move on. It’ll be like a jam session. See? Here, it says elaborate textures and polyrhythms. You play cello, Anna. What does that mean?”

But Anna’s response was eclipsed by the thundering applause of a roomful of bloodthirsty fans. The smart ones had chowed down on peyote-laced sandwiches 20 minutes earlier at the Carnegie Deli. Neophytes like us were staring down the barrel of an hour-long C-athon. It may be that The Soft Machine, The Who, Philip Glass (present on keyboards that evening), Steve Reich and some tripped out Marimba ensemble had championed this illustrious piece. But it is also true that, to the ear untrained and unaltered by psychedelics, In C was shaping up to be a descent into madness.

As the ritual began to build momentum, we felt sheepish. You don’t waltz into an acclaimed performance space and snicker at an ensemble of musical geniuses. Stuart Dempster droned on conch, trombone and didgeridoo. Hindustani singer Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan opened the piece with his warbling tribute to C, and diminutive Margaret Leng Tan worked away at the glockenspiel. Bryce Dessner of The Clogs and The National lent a hand, as well as SNL’s saxophonist and bandleader Lenny Pickett. There were mandolins, trombones, bagpipes, an accordion and a recorder collective! So what kind of nudniks show up at such a celebrity extravaganza and poke each other in the ribs over the absurdity of Eastern-hued orchestral improvisations, likening it to a futuristic nightmare of Band-Aid and similar star-studded musical ensembles fighting in the name of World Awareness? Those two nudniks over in the corner, there. Joan and Anna. Passing notes and shroom-doodles.

Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington has described this musical phenomenon as a schema in which “Nothing [seems] to be happening and yet everything [is] happening at the same time.” He also describes it as “thoroughly exciting,” which made at least two audience members feel like prize imbeciles on Friday, April 24 of 2009. The grace of these performers- their sheer adeptness- is such that you can’t imagine not getting enthralled in all those polymetric repetitions. People who ‘practice’ Terry Riley’s famed opus are called C-ers and it’s a sort of club. After the concert, we realized that in the same way that you’re either Krump, or you’re not, you’re either a C-er, or you ain’t. And it’s not as though Riley isn’t known for his share of wit and sparkle. But there was no discernible cheekiness in the performance. Even the dude with flowing grey locks and a tie-dye T-shirt swirling plastic tubes in the air (for a reedy effect no one but a dog could possibly have heard) looked utterly sincere. We had gleaned that the conceptual kernel of the thing was simplicity, but it all seemed to be dripping with esotericism.

The rub of that night’s vision: such a plethora of virtuosos assembled to partake in such a collectively-spirited statement. Demonically repetitive it may have been, but everyone knew the drill going in, and you can only titter over the silliness of something beyond your comprehension for so long before you realize that you’re missing out on the fun of being at the prow of that unique situation. The 53 phrases were projected baldly above the performers, and when music-literate Anna nudged me to say that there were only 14 phrases left, I didn’t know whether to feel relief or dread, for never having heard “In C” I couldn’t be sure if this droning mantra was the means to some cataclysmic end or if I should count on a petering out, much as the piece had weaseled itself into audibility at 8:00. When the trance broke, our aisle-mates went wild and a standing ovation produced itself very quickly across the hall. Terry Riley took several deferential bows and Anna and I were sure to loudly hum part of Kronos Quartet’s Requiem for a Dream score all the way to the Carnegie Deli, much to the annoyance of several seasoned Riley aficionados. At least we kept mum while it counted. As the celebrated New York joke goes, there’s an especially good route getting to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

by Joan Wolkoff

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