And the dramatis personae for this theatrical spectacle! Between the sellers and the people wandering browsing and occasionally buying a curiosity, flea markets provide an opportunity for a wide swathe of different demographics to come together and interact – from drunken down-and-outs, to working and middle class browsing the wares, to upscale antique re-sellers, from kids to elderly, you can find them all here.
This broad demographic also applies to the goods on offer: old electronics and rusty valves on the junk side of things up to rare ceramics and unique art pieces which are highly valuable. In one famous instance, a businessman bought an old painting at a flea market in Adamstown Pennsylvania for $4, only later to discover an original copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence hidden between the canvas and wooden backing. Flea markets are fertile ground for treasure hunters.
Terry Riley’s “In C” is a magical piece of music. It is a piece of music with no single definitive version – on the contrary, the rich variety of interpretations echo the smorgasbord of wares on display at the flea market.
Much of this is due to the unique structure of the piece. Riley wrote 53 “cells” (each one essentially a musical phrase of varying length), instructing the performers to play each one as many times as they like, and then move on to the next one – always moving forward, never back, and staying “within 2 or 3 cells” of the other performers. The notes never come out exactly the same way twice. Sitting underneath all of it and binding it together is a pulse- a eight note endlessly repeating the note C throughout the entire piece, which all other phrases are meant to lock on to.
And that doesn’t even account for the instrumentation. The original recording, by Riley himself, heavily featured brass, wind, and chromatic percussion, but Riley’s instructions are that “Any number of any kind of instruments can play.” And the variety of instrument arrangements out there is bewildering – synth-based electronic, classical ensemble, solo looped electric guitar, punk rock quartet, west African drums and string instruments, laptop electronic, not to mention hybrids instrumentations that draw on all the above.
But no matter the instrumentation and arrangement, it is always distinctly recognizable as “In C.” Listening to a version you haven’t heard before is like exploring a parallel universe – always familiar, yet always different.
When setting out to contribute my own parallel universe to add to this rich and wonderful collection, I turned to the flea market for inspiration.
The flea market in Krakow happens on Sundays, just outside a supermarket called “Hala Targowa” (Market Hall). Monday through Saturday there is an outdoor vegetable market here, but on Sundays before dawn the flea-market sellers begin to take over the stalls.
I’ve been visiting it for many years, usually with a view to do some musical instrument treasure hunting. Most visits aren’t fruitful, and I’ve let a few gems slip through my fingers, but I have managed to put together a collection of noisemakers ranging from broken toys to halfway decent instruments.
All of the instruments on this recording were bought at the Krakow flea market: an Italian-made Eko 12-string guitar, probably from the 70s, whose neck was warped and provided a most pleasing fret buzz, a German zither, a halfway decent Takamine acoustic guitar, on old parlour guitar whose origins I can only guess at, a Polish communist-era maker Defil electric guitar, an unlabelled glockenspiel, a fairly recent Asian-made melodica, a communist-era suitcase electric harmonium, and a North-Korean toy piano, whose sounds were produced by hammers hitting metal rods. I played all the instruments myself except the electric guitar, which my son Bud played.
The Hala Targowa flea market permeates this version not only in terms of the instruments, but also in terms of aesthetic. I’m a huge fan of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, the concept that beauty can be found in imperfection. Perfection is uniform and therefore boring- the imperfections of a thing are what make it unique, and unique is beautiful. It values asymmetry, simplicity, roughness, intimacy. Flea markets offer of plenty of wabi-sabi, and this so does this version of In C: the impure tonalities of the instruments offer unique sonic artefacts such as the mechanical clanking of the toy piano or the fret buzz of the 12-string guitar, instruments sometimes struggle to hold their tuning, and they occasionally fall out of sync with the pulse.
It is my hope that this broken-down, wabi-sabi laden take on “In C” will be seen as a worthwhile addition to the collection of versions of Terry Riley’s wonderful composition; and that someone may come across it and pick it up with the same curiosity with which they would pick up an exotic trinket at a flea market, examine it closely and, thinking they have found a treasure, say to themselves “Yes!”
Greg Nieuwsma: acoustic 6 and 12-string guitars, glockenspiel, melodica, suitcase harmonium, toy piano, zither
Electric guitar by Bud Nieuwsma.
Mastered by Alan Morse Davies