“I like to describe it as a communal jam session,” says composer Dylan Mattingly of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking work In C (1964). Various musicians and critics have labeled the work a “masterpiece,” but is that really the term you want to use for a jam session? Riley’s revolutionary idea was of a piece with 1960s happenings and, in music, exploration of non-Western musical styles and cultures. Its title may sell its impact short: yes, the piece is completely bounded by the C major scale, but it’s not a C major that had ever been experienced in a European concert hall.
It's the community-oriented, happening style of performance that Mattingly and his new music group Contemporaneous have tried to revive, and they’re doing it again on March 20, the spring equinox, at the Albany Bulb — an ebullient, unfettered, self-service art gallery on the site of a former landfill that bulges out into the San Francisco Bay. The event is presented in collaboration with Alternating Currents, a group led by Jon Winet and Deborah Pughe that programs events at the Bulb, and New Music Bay Area, which is the group that puts on the Garden of Memory (summer solstice) event at the Chapel of the Chimes. The event begins at 6 p.m. with a short introduction by Mattingly.
The real subversion of In C begins with its instrumentation — none specified — and continues with its 53 motives, none of which are beyond the abilities of amateur or even beginning musicians. “Riley’s wonderful piece allows any instruments to come and join and play through these cells, move in and out of the tapestry across something like 45 minutes to an hour and a half. There’s something so generous in the experience of this piece that is really augmented by playing it in this way, where anyone can come and join in. It’s not a proscenium performance, where you come and watch us onstage, it’s all-inclusive. Anybody of any skill level, on any instrument — be it kazoo or Stradivarius — can come on out and join in. There’s no rehearsal required. The purpose is really just to provide that communal joy of making music together, watching the sun go down, and sharing in the experience of begin alive and participating.”
And sure, some part of this performance is a response to the pandemic. Mattingly says, “It feels like exactly the feeling that I’ve been missing over the past two years, and I imagine for a lot of other people as well, a chance to let out that barbaric yawp and play music together.”
But, Mattingly tells me, this is not the first time he’s performed In C this way.
The kernels of this idea, it’s something that contemporaneous did many years ago when we were still at Bard College. Contemporaneous would put on these In C jam sessions once a semester, and we’d go to different locations. Bard has lots of strange locations: we played one in the Parliament of Reality, which is a sculpture by Olafur Eliasson. We played one at Smog, which is the (student run) punk rock venue, and we did one in the woods in an abandoned barn. And every time you do this, it’s always different — that’s always true of In C. But it’s amazing to see how, in all those different places, it absorbs the community and the space. So I’ve had that in mind for a while, just as a fun thing to do.”
It may not be the event of the season, but it also might be just the thing to banish the doldrums.