Terry Riley’s In C at BBC Music Day

The British Paraorchestra performs a minimalist classic in Bristol

Terry Riley’s In C at BBC Music Day
Members of the British Paraorchestra and Extraordinary Bodies/shotaway.com

Last Friday Bristol became one of the main locations of the second annual BBC Music Day, with a wide range of celebratory events, including choral singing on the Severn Bridge, Aardman Animations's Shaun the Sheep conducting at the Colston Hall, and a live edition of Radio 3's In Tune. One of the highlights was a spectacular evening concert, featuring Charles Hazlewood’s British Paraorchestra.

The British Paraorchestra appeared on the Colston Hall's main stage to give a mesmerising performance of Terry Riley’s In C, a minimalist work from 1964 that is made up of 53 short repeated melody cells. These gradually evolve as each musician decides how many times they wish to perform each segment.

Set up in 2012 by conductor Hazlewood, the British Paraorchestra is a professional ensemble for musicians with disabilities. Based in Bristol it rehearses at the nearby At-Bristol offices. ‘Bristol is leading the charge in creating a new level playing-field where a musician with a disability has the same opportunity as an able-bodied musician to play at the very highest level,’ explains Hazlewood.

He also describes how each performance of In C can vary drastically in length. ‘There are no rules about who performs it. You can have a clarinet quartet or 100 brass players,’ he says. Hazlewood recalls how the Ulster Orchestra took only ten minutes to perform the work because they wanted to get to the pub.

In contrast, this Bristol performance takes well over an hour, as the piece edges slowly forward, propelled by a transfixing gamelan-sounding metronomic pulse. The sounds of the different instruments, including violin (Abi Baker), French horn (Guy Llewellyn), guitar (Paul Holzherr), clarinet (Lloyd Coleman), or the specially buit Hi-Note (Clarence Adoo) slowly emerge, with the players producing snippets of melody. It’s fascinating to watch, as the mood can be calming, or highly charged, depending on the ebb and flow of the musical textures. Soprano Victoria Oruwari also joins the orchestra, adding soaring vocals to the performance.

The visual element works really well, with circus and dance skills showcased by Bristol’s Extraordinary Bodies, along with an atmospheric light show. The trapeze hoops and swings that are suspended above the stage are integrated into the performance as the piece develops.

Each mood of the work is reflected by the dancers, both able-bodied and disabled, who are spurred on by each musical phrase. ‘It’s a historic moment for the Paraorchestra’ says Hazlewood. ‘We wanted to see what the relationship might be between visual artist and musician’. The performers are dressed in white and red and the fleeting changes of lighting mean their outfits change colour in time to the hypnotic pulse of the music.

Before and after the concert the musicians who are in wheelchairs are able to get up and down from the stage via a ramp that’s been constructed in front of the stage. This is another Bristol innovation that Hazelwood is keen to point out. ‘Let’s hope, that every performing space in the country will be genuinely accessible to performers as much as to audiences in years to come,’ he says.

For more information on the British Paraorchestra click here.

Neil McKim

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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