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.

For the audience, listening becomes sport. Listen to how each musician brings his own desires to her choices about how to play the patterns, what embellishments to give them. Violinists are lost in their melodies and pizzicatos.

Watch how the other musicians respond. This morning, Chris Adler and Sidney Marquez Boquiren took a phrase and turned it into slashing chords on the piano. Violinist Mark Menzies and a young Cal Arts cellist answered with slashing chords on their strings. All four musicians grinned gleefully at each other.

At another point, the piano launched into a jazzy interlude, as did one of the electric guitars. NOISE flutist Lisa Cella turned some patterns into singing melodies, and at other times, she embellished patterns with trills and turns.

Sometimes, musicians just stopped, perhaps to rest, perhaps to get themselves in sync with the flute. At one point, the cellist sat back, and simply drew her bow across an open C string, the lowest sounding of the four strings, letting her fingering hand dangle to the side.

“In C” is relentless, with no pauses or silences, and the playing is intense, as the musicians listen to all the voices around them. With everyone playing, a pulsating wall of sound is the result. The high-pitched recorded C, which is still being piped into the room, simply disappears. In the small music room of the Athenaeum, the feeling is electrifying, SurroundSound.

After they finish, the ensemble wrangles briefly and good-naturedly about how fast they had played it — 45 minutes. “Too short,” says NOISE guitarist Colin McAllister. “No it’s not,” shoots back Cella. Also, although I felt enveloped in the sound, musicians said they had never played anything loud.

I learned later that some of the performers and composers had never played “In C.” “This is such fun to play” several said. I had never heard it live. Regretfully.

Yet, not only did I hear it this morning, but also I’ll hear it tonight, at the festival’s people’s concert. Every performance is different, so I can’t wait.

Cathy Robbins is a writer and the author of “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)”, to be published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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