By STEVE SMITH
Published: July 3, 2011
Governors Island is positively awash in creativity, with unusual, engaging artistic notions greeting you at every turn.Sculptures by Mark di Suvero, with steel girders folded, twisted and painted bright colors, dot the landscape. “Rainforest V,” a David Tudor sound environment, chatters and hoots in a former ammo bunker. Figment, a grass-roots arts initiative, has assembled a bubbly, floppy playground and a playfully creepy miniature-golf course.
What better time to kick off a contemporary-classical concert series? The Rite of Summer music festival, assembled by the pianists Pam Goldberg and Blair McMillen, is relatively modest in its first year: three free concerts in three months. On Saturday afternoon the series got off to a merry start with two performances of “In C,” Terry Riley’s Minimalist milestone from 1964, by roughly 40 players from some of New York’s most industrious new-music ensembles.
In a way you could hardly ask for a piece better suited to celebrating Independence Day. “In C” consists of 53 short musical motifs that can be repeated an arbitrary number of times or sometimes skipped outright. A rendition can last 20 minutes or several hours. In effect Mr. Riley’s work boils liberty, equality and community down to a blissful hippie ideal: If it feels good, do it.
That is not to say that the work is entirely chaotic. One instrument, here a glockenspiel, is assigned to play a steady, ceaseless stream of octave C’s. And with a conductor the piece will often show a coordination and nuance that can otherwise be lost.
During the first performance there was no question that Jed Distler, a pianist, composer and concert organizer, was shaping what was heard by an audience of a few hundred hardy listeners and many more passersby. An old hand at “In C,” Mr. Distler has led previous accounts at the Cornelia Street Café and on the street outside that club. Facing the ensemble at a toy piano he plunked and patted sporadically, Mr. Distler raised a finger to summon conspiratorial hushes, and leapt, arms outspread, to urge climaxes.
No two performances of “In C” are alike, and this one stood out for its vibrant, variegated colors: the voices of Corey Dargel and Mellissa Hughes; Peter Flint’s accordion; Caleb Burhans’s melodica; subtle percussion from a clutch of players. Probably no one had more fun than the guitarist Gene Pritsker, who provided slick wah-wah licks and pinched fuzz-tone riffs, and ran an iPhone along the strings as an impromptu slide to waft Pink Floyd-style space probes into the summer air.
The Rite of Summer music festival continues with a performance by Ethel on Aug. 13, Colonels’ Row, Governors Island; (212) 440-2200, riteofsummer.com.