IN: Reviews

Master Minimalist at MIT


“It was a long time coming” stated Evan Ziporyn, in welcoming guest composer/soloist Terry Riley to MIT, where he and Ziporyn’s Gamelan Galak Tiak collaborated in a concert of both traditional pieces and new works on Thursday, December 15th, in Kresge Auditorium.

How the world has changed. Evan Ziporyn, Kenan Sahin Professor of Music at MIT, has been directing Galak Tika since he founded it 18 years ago. There is also Rambax MIT, an ensemble dedicated to learning the art of sabar, a drum of Senegal, West Africa. Both these world music ensembles join MIT’s traditional Western offerings, its Symphony Orchestra, Wind Ensemble, and others totaling at least eight performance opportunities in all at the Institute.

Visually, the instruments of the MIT Gamelan Galak Tika and its members in traditional attire onstage at Kresge Auditorium astonished. You can take a look by going to here.  A drummer seated on the floor tapped his drum, the 20-plus ensemble members lifted their hammers, and the large percussion orchestra consisting of metallophones, hand drums with cymbals, and gongs began its performance of  Penyembrama, a Balinese way of welcoming.

Metallic flair and perambulatory percussive rhythms exploded. Gamelan Galak Tika’s clangorous pealing surprised me. I had become accustomed to rounder, full-throated sounds of the gamelan that David Lewiston recorded in Bali in 1966 and released on Nonesuch Record’s Explorer Series. Yet it was a sheer joy to see and hear MIT students deftly following the music’s ever-shifting rhythmic structure. It was fascinating to watch them striking out a melody on the metallic bars, a hammer in one hand, the other hand shadowing every strike to prevent the bar ringing through to the next sound.

Taruna Jaya, modified and embellished by master drummer Gdé Manik (1912-1984), is well known especially for its having become a “test” piece for gamelan clubs. It featured the dancer Shoko Yamamuro who was a complete knock-out in her depiction of an old story about youth’s ways. Fan in hand, regally costumed, eyes in a relentless maniacal gaze, she would abruptly strike one pose after another, each time with a restrained movement such as extending a palm upward, or turning the head sideways. Near the end of the dance, her intensely erotic beckoning to the mostly indifferent drummer bemused, leaving some of us to wonder if this was part of the original traditional dance.

Maintaining its mission “to develop new works in collaboration with Balinese and American artists,” Ziporyn finally was able to hook up with the master minimalist and composer of the seminal In C (1964). Dressed up in a colorful and patchy pajama-looking outfit, his long flowing white beard looking a little like Santa’s, Riley first took to MIT’s pipe organ. Some 20 minutes of drone and a cultural exchange of parallel harmonies ascending à la French mystical organ to riffs from American vernacular to an array of scales we used to call “exotic.” His work, The Bull (2008), still has some of the flavor of his early works, but instead of that smooth and slow trance-state evolution, this music was sectional, resulting in my attention going on and off again. Three other improvisations with Riley on piano, his son Gyan on guitar, and Ziporyn on clarinets were combined together into a half hour, three-movement improvisation. First came that drone again and this time with a Dorian type scale dubbed a “white-note scale” in referring to the piano’s keys. Doodling about came next. To end with, Riley laid down an ostinato over which they all created a somewhat multilingual barn dance.

The world premiere of the commissioned work, White Space Conflict, performed by Gyan Riley on guitar, Terry Riley on M-Audio keyboard, and the Gamelan Galak Tika, went another half hour with that minimalist and new-age predilection for hearing the waves going out and hearing the waves coming in. The strong turnout that pretty near filled Kresge largely seemed impressed. A bit more interesting to me was how the title came about. It seems that they were corresponding via Drop Box, which alerted them to some kind computer glitch which the program labeled as a “white space conflict.”

Overall, brilliant moments alternated with dulling ones. The event was definitely worth catching, Terry Riley being the guru of multicultural amalgamations through a genre he inaugurated and that later would become known as “minimalism.”

Beyond belief was that MIT would choose to play pre-recorded music before the concert and during intermission. It had seemingly nothing to do with the show and, instead, droned and boomed on under the din of rising voices.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


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