Ben Neill & Todd Reynolds play Minimalist classics at Manitoga

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Under deadline, I decided to listen to Terry Riley’s Minimalist landmark In C to get in the mood before writing about the Ben Neill-produced performance of In C and other pieces at Manitoga in Garrison on Saturday, September 26. Big mistake. It takes Riley no more than a few minutes to induce an incapacitating reverie from which no conventional writing could come. The best you could muster would be a little concrete poetry. You can hate or dismiss this music all you like; it is still gonna f*ck you up.

Riley avoids all conventional syntax of melody, offering instead a busy field of looping two- and three-note ladders, discrete circuits, mutating coils and palindromes that add or lose a character here and there as the chromosomes flake off; bouncing internal reflections and echoes, animal colloquy; flitting interlopers and irritants (yes, there is dissonance in In C, except that the whole construct required to judge a note dissonant has been slowly dismantled). There are a few round, held notes in stark contrast to all the self-contained action clusters, and, at about 29 minutes, something atypical and very like a sustained melody, but it gains no traction in the slough. There’s a cosmic linotype sound to it all. It begins to feel like the machine code of the universe: more discovery of science than invention of art. It is pre-music.

The academic Minimalism of Riley and Reich was a corrective in its day of dawning, a clear and strong acid applied to the accumulated manners and expressive devices of serious music – and to the hot dialect of jazz as well. Its influence in serious music as well as in dance and pop is inestimable. Any composer or player interested in the forward edge of music had to learn to dwell in this fashion, needed to complete an apprenticeship in  the pure and restorative arts of flux, resetting the scales to zero before moving on in the discovery of their own agencies and purposes. It was like a big collective colon cleanse. Still is, actually.

Electro-trumpeter and composer Ben Neill certainly did his time with it, and it shows in his own serious composition as well as in his club-leaning hybrid fusion records. The Beacon area, you have probably noticed, has become the seat of the avant-garde and experimental in the region (though Hudson’s a real scrapper as well, and war seems inevitable). So when the Garrison resident Neill went to assemble an ensemble to perform In C, in addition to sympathetic works by John Cage and others, he found no shortage of neighbors conversant in this specialized 20th-century musical language.

The band for the outdoor Manitoga performance consists of all luminaries of the style: the groundbreaking violinist/composer Todd Reynolds, co-founder of the ETHEL string quartet and frequent player with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, whose recording of In C is the one that ruined my morning; the reed-player and scholar of animal sound David Rothenberg; the local art gadfly, guitarist and serious student of all music James Keepnews; Ordinaires guitarist Joe Dizney; notable composer/trombonist Peter Zummo; the expansive jazz violinist and composer Gwen Laster; and many more (14 or 15 total, and the list or performers is still in flux).

In C is by nature spatial, environmental music – exactly the kind that the producers at Manitoga, the Russell Wright Design Center, have been emphasizing in their past few years of radical and serious programming: site-specific music designed to engage with the environment in which it is performed. Specifically, this musical performance is conceived as a response to the current exhibition at Manitoga, SANCTUARY by the artist Stephen Talasnik, a temporary installation of aquatic architecture.

The performance begins at 4 p.m. Seating on the uneven terrain begins at 3:30; choose footwear accordingly. Admission (advance only) costs $45 for the general public, $35 for Manitoga members, $20 for children aged 18 and under. A $125 benefit ticket includes admission to a private reception with Todd Reynolds. The $500 Benefit Performance Committee package includes two tickets for the concert and reception plus listing as a member of the committee.

For tickets and more information, visit Manitoga, the Russell Wright Center for Design, is located at 584 Route 9D in Garrison.


2015 Annual Concert featuring Ben Neill & Todd Reynolds, Saturday, September 26, 4 p.m., Manitoga, 584 Route 9D, Garrison;

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