September 28, 2006

Playing "In C"

Last night I played ringleader for about a dozen people who got together to play In C. The instrumentation was nicely eclectic: handful of string players, oboe, trumpet, sax, metal recorder, electric guitar, and percussion (a guy hitting a chair with yarn mallets). Three other pianists took an octave each on the piano while I beat out the pulse.

You read in books how the piece represents a different paradigm for performance practice, but it doesn't really set in until you play it. We were arranged in a ring, so everyone could see each other. However, the cave-like ambience of the room precluded being able to hear everyone well. As a result, little "cliques" formed. Instead of everyone playing off the group, people tended to respond mostly to the people immediately around them. Broader interactions occured occasionally, but they weren't common.

What stuck out to me was seeing how the players could be guided through the piece by their individual interest. People dropped off in places and picked up again when something seemed to grab their attention. Our performance had a very ephemeral, episodic flow. Every so often the group "clicked" and we got some intriguing interactions, but after a few moments it diffused back to murkiness. Hardly a unified narrative, but not boring either. From my vantage point, the experience was comparable to people watching on a busy street.

Though the piece is fully accepts the individuality and personality of all involved, it doesn't react well with diva personalities. Since everyone is of equal importance, you have to be okay with being another one of the unwashed. It's a self-policing system in a way. A spot in it is reserved for anyone who wants to make whatever contribution they feel up to, so long as they're willing to be co-equals. Anyone who wants to hog the spotlight will probably leave on their own, purely out of disinterest.

The followup question to this experience is whether this kind of social environment is implicit to open instrumentation pieces. Only one way to find out...

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