June 15: Day 3, soundOn, a new music festival at the Athenaeum, People’s Concert and “The Chord Catalogue;” evening.
Earlier, I blogged from Saturday morning’s community workshop, when visiting musicians from San Diego sat in on the workshop to play Terry Riley’s modern masterpiece “In C,” which he wrote in 1964. Now, I’m reporting on the performance, a few hours after the workshop, and a second piece that anyone who loves the TV show “Numb3rs” might — or might not — enjoy or at least appreciate.
To refresh your memory: “In C” is a great game. The so-called “score,” on just one 8 1/2 x 11 sheet, consists of 53 separate musical phrases or patterns. Each musician plays all the patterns in sequence exactly as written, but each decides on the volume and how many times to repeat the pattern. One of the players — flutist Lisa Cella in this case — is the leader. She starts the action, and as she progresses, all the other players must stay within two or three patterns of where she is (and of course, the score doesn’t tell her where to go). She also stops the action, ending the piece.
Riley composed this piece with no indication of how many people should play it or what instruments should be included. In the workshop, 13 musicians participated; in tonight’s concert, 17: two cellos, four violins, four guitars (three electric, one acoustic), flute, recorder, piano, electronic keyboard, celesta and vibraphone.
The juggling act for musicians is considerable. They must play their own phrases and listen not only to where the leader is but also where everyone is — without the benefit of a conductor or the road signs of a traditional score, in which each bar is numbered and tempos and dynamics are indicated. “In C” never stops for pauses or silences.
Let’s not forget that the players are also aiming for non-technical results, in this roiling, action-packed — and beautiful — work. In “In C,” the rubber hits the road, the men are separated from boys (and the female equivalent), and stuff hits the fan, if it doesn’t work.
It worked brilliantly tonight. “In C” is one of the most fun works, modern or otherwise, for both musicians and audience. Musicians have plenty of room for creativity, even with the strict rules of the game. At one point, Sidney Marquez Boquiren, on the celesta, which had been placed at right angle to the Steinway grand, was playing both instruments, his left hand on the piano’s upper most register and his right on the tiny celesta. This was not written into the score; it was just how Boquiren heard and chose to play the phrase in front of him.
The audience can follow the musicians’ moves by listening and looking. With 17 players, the audience definitely is engaged. That was the case tonight. The addition of a recorder, a vibraphone and extra strings brought a vibrancy and textural depth that enveloped the audience. I found myself grinning, relishing the fun the musicians were having and basking in the music’s pulse.
The size of the Athenaeum’s music room — about as big as a large living room — intensified the effect. As one player put it to me, “This is what chamber music is about, in a chamber.”
He was right, and the soundOn series shows that we’ve lost that gift of intimate performance. Even an auditorium used frequently for chamber music — like the Neuroscience Institute with its perfect acoustics, raked floor, and rows of just 352 seats — is too big. The Athenaeum accommodates about 150, max, including a collection of sofas and easy chairs across the back of the room.
If “In C” is musician and audience friendly, Tom Johnson’s “The Chord Catalogue” seems like a piece that only a mathematician could love. Like the character of Charlie Eppes in “Numb3rs,” Johnson uses mathematics to solve a puzzle, in this case, an artistic one. Johnson believes that music is not composed but found through mathematical principles.
Very simply, Johnson applied a particular mathematical principle to a single octave to find more 8,178 possible combinations of 2-13-note chords. Trained as a mathematician at MIT, pianist Chris Adler embraced the work tonight, and he took it a step further, going after all the 1-13-note chords, 8,191 in all.
As he took his place at the piano, Adler sat still for what seemed like a very long time before he began. The work requires him to simply strike each chord, one at a time, at a moderate pace and volume.
I wondered how long it would take him to finish. I had noted the starting time: 8:30. My watch told me he was striking two chords per second. A quick calculation: 68 minutes to finish. Sure enough, at 9:38, he stopped, sat quietly at the piano, then rose and grinned to a small but appreciative audience.
Admiration for Adler’s achievement was genuine, yet, between start and finish, several audience members, including a couple of Adler’s colleagues, left. “It’s grueling,” said one.
I understood exactly. About 20 minutes into the performance, my ears began to hurt, despite the moderate volume, and I plugged them several times, still able to hear the chords but protecting my ear drums from the vibrations. I developed a mild headache. Fortunately, I had taken a seat in one of the comfy easy chairs in the back, so I was able to curl up.
Despite the discomfort, I could only cheer Adler’s performance. I also thought about another “mathematical” exercise, “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” in which J. S. Bach wrote a pair of preludes and fugues for each of the 24 major and minor keys. How many notes and chords in those? I thought.
Would I listen to the “The Chord Catalogue” again? Maybe — but I sure will download the score and try to play at least some of it.
I’ve been blogging daily from soundOn, and because of the weekend hiatus, my final blogs — from this event and from Saturday’s — will be posted Monday
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.