Saturday, April 9, 2011

Somewhere beyond the C...

First of all, I can't believe that's the best I could come up with for a blog post title, but I'm trying to do a micro-post thing here - get this up before I attend a recital that starts in about 30 minutes.

I've talked about Terry Riley's In C in various music classes many times, but I hadn't really performed it since I was at a high school summer program. I don't remember a lot about that, other than sharing the piano bench with a cute girl (she and I swapped out on sustaining the constant 8th notes), and I'd never since heard a live performance, though I've sampled many recordings. So, for yesterday's iteration of my big Spring arts lecture class, I assembled a group of about 16 student performers to play it for about 75 students. One thing I hadn't really understood about the piece until a few years ago is that the composer really does expect the performers to practice their parts, and even to rehearse some, especially by playing through the patterns together. As it turned out, we weren't able to have a real rehearsal (although we did practice a little bit before class and a little bit for the class), but I did decide it would be fun to create a practice video to help students practice.

As simple as the patterns appear, a little experience trying to play them against the constant 8th notes reveals that some of the counting can be tricky - and that's without a bunch of other performers playing different patterns all around you. Also, since we were performing for an audience of mostly non-musicians, I thought this video would make a lot more sense to them than just the one-page score. Although I can read music and hear it in my head well enough, I still found the process of entering all the patterns into the computer and watching them come to life gave me much more insight into the work's structure and inner life. So, because I hadn't been able to find anything quite like this online, here is my In C practice video:

Maybe it was because I spent many hours the day before hearing and thinking through these patterns, but I found yesterday's performance (last ed about 45 minutes) to be an intensely rewarding experience. In part, this may have been because I assigned myself the role of "8th-note pulse keeper," while letting my left hand play the patterns along with everyone else. This meant I got to experience the metric changes more directly. One of my strongest memories is of getting started on a given pattern and finding it get more and more satisfying and "in groove" on repetitions - to the point that I often found myself not wanting to move on to the next pattern. I think I felt this most strongly with #20, #22-26, #43, and #46 - and, of course, the epic #35. (By the way, I'm enjoying writing in these quasi-reverential nerdy tones about the various patterns - I've encountered other musicians talking about the piece in that way before, but never really got it until yesterday.)

Having the opportunity to live in these little moments with this kind of freedom is, of course, one of the very special things about the piece. There's also a sense, as the music goes on, of being in the middle of a big machine and having the music just pass right through you - I often felt less like I was performing than like the music was happening to me. I'm sure none of these experiences are earth-shattering, many musicians have them all the time, but many of us more straight-laced classical players surely don't experience this kind of thing enough. I had expected to pass the constant 8th notes off to the other pianist present several times, but in the end, I only gave them up briefly, and my left hand almost never stopped playing (although Riley gives the performers freedom to take as many breaks as necessary). From a technical standpoint, it was a very satisfying challenge to stay relaxed and find that I could keep playing so repetitively and not experience significant strain.

OK, now I've got 8 minutes until the recital starts. If you've never heard of In C, you can view the score and performing instructions here. And, of course, if you don't read music, you can view the little video above to get some sense of what the 53 patterns sound like - at least, before they're combined. It's a trip!

P.S. There are at least a few recordings on YouTube, none of which are quite the way I'd like it, but they're easy enough to find.

P.P.S. No blog post about In C should fail to mention the fabulous website: -and, I suppose, it's worth mentioning NEC's blatant ripoff of inblat: Both site are lots of fun.

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