Saturday, November 22, 2014

Season's Greetings in C

I can't believe I somehow made it through most of 2014 without realizing that this is the 50th anniversary year of Terry Riley's In C, an iconic work that I've come to love while leading annual performances of some kind or another over the past 4-5 years...until 2014, that is. Although the music is hardly old-sounding, it's become so influential that it's hard for me to believe it was only 20 years old when I first encountered it at a high school summer music program. (This is a roundabout way of saying it's not much older than I am.) Riley's original instructions specify that "the pulse is traditionally played by a beautiful girl on the top two octaves of a grand piano." The main thing I remember about that first performance is sitting on the piano bench next to a fellow student who fit that description, though she and I switched off between playing the pulsing octaves and playing other patterns below (on the keyboard), so we were bending at least one rule when I was on top.

The music and concept themselves seemed fairly silly to me at that time, although performing al fresco in a courtyard made for a lovely happening. I'd since listened to parts of recordings over the years, but this is music of the moment that can only truly make sense in the moment, which is one of its most bittersweet qualities. Thus, it was only through leading performances for various classes that the work really made a strong impression as music. I can remember a couple of performances in which my hands/wrists should've been about to fall off from playing those octaves (alone and un-beautiful) for 45 minutes or so, yet feeling so sad to find we'd come to the end. (Curiously enough, I just heard Beethoven's Op. 132 string quartet live for the second time last week; both times I've heard it, I felt a deep kind of regret when the eternity-on-earth third movement ended. I just wanted it to keep going and going. There is a quasi-minimalist vibe to the last six minutes or so in which the parts move in and out of synch with each other, at times seeming to ruminate in their own separate spaces...à la Riley.)

The high school me couldn't make heads or tails of music which didn't make it clear where every note belonged, to say nothing of the absurdly simple looking musical materials. Of course, the key is that the performers get to discover in the moment how it is that those simple materials can interact with each other in all sorts of unexpected and delightful ways. Riley writes, "some quite fantastic shapes will arise and disintegrate as the group moves through the piece when it is properly played." This turns out to be true (!), and the disintegrations are sad indeed, but life is like that.

As luck would have it, I've also been thinking lately about needing a new Christmas project for the blog, and when I recently saw a notice about an upcoming In C performance, a string of light bulbs went off in my head. It started with the first three notes of Jingle Bells, and pretty soon I'd put together a series of distinctively seasonal melodic snippets that could be "In C-ed." I understand, of course, that I'm both blatantly copying Riley's concept and violating some essential aspects of that concept, but I'm nevertheless quite pleased with the result (so far as it's gone so far).

[If you don't know In C, the basic idea is that an unspecified number of musicians play through the numbered patterns in sequence, with each performer repeating each pattern as often as desired; parts do not need to synchronize, but all are held together by a constant pulse, and the performers should listen to the group and stay within a few numbers of each other.]

Riley's work builds (quite literally) on the elemental nature of most of its 53 patterns - many feature just two or three pitches, and only one (the epic #35) has a sufficiently distinctive contour to be described as a "melody" (and a pretty quirky one at that).

Riley's first five "elements"
Riley's epic #35

On the other hand, I've chosen short melodic patterns that are intended to be immediately recognizable as triggers for calling up various holiday tunes. I'm hopeful that these patterns can do double duty - serve as reminder triggers and also detach themselves from their original contexts and take on their own identities, so there's a kind of deconstructing/reconstructing going on here. Maybe.

MMmusing's first five fragments
There's a possible advantage in that the listener can experience the satisfaction of recognition as these tunes emerge from the texture. The fact that the patterns are more "formed" than Riley's means it's also more likely for there to be awkward clashes as various pitches and rhythmic shapes collide, but Ives taught me long ago not to fear clashes. (In fact, one of my first holiday specials was this Ivesian mashup of seven Christmas tunes.) I'm guessing one fallout from this is that, whereas Riley specifies an ideal performing group of about 35, I think something closer to 10 might work best here to avoid total congestion - which is just as well, because assembling 35 musicians is no easy feat, and it's such a busy time of year!

Perhaps the biggest and most interesting challenge in putting this together was trying to create a "performance" - a kind of reverse-engineering problem where the process to be reversed doesn't even exist. It was fun simply to work through the process with about ten "instruments"* and try to find a balance between letting things happen and looking for especially satisfying intersections. I suspect on the whole that this demo version is a bit heavy on the purposeful, but that also allows it to be shorter - a live performance would almost certainly benefit from more repetitions to give ideas time to gel.

As I've been writing this post, I've been listening to a much more ambitious project: Jeff Hall has created a complete, 50-minute symphonic-style performance of In C by layering together 21 synthesized tracks. By dispensing with the regular pulse and mixing instruments in and out regularly, he does an excellent job revealing how much variety and shape can be found in Riley's overall vision, although the synthesized orchestral sounds get on my nerves sometimes. I think this large-scale structural aspect of In C is under-appreciated (at least it was under-appreciated by me for decades), and in a small way, I've tried to create some structural flow within my holiday jumble.

Most obvious is that the more rhythmically busy patterns occur in #6-11, bookended by the two longest and slowest fragments, #5 and #12. (Note also that #5 ascends and #12 descends.) #3 leads very naturally into #4, both by shared dotted rhythm and the G-F-E connection. #4 ends with the same rising G-C that begins #5. Only C-D-E-F-G are used through the first five fragments. A appears only in #6 and #8-12, with the leading tone B appearing only in the climactic #10-12. (There's a sense in which 9-11 transitions into A Minor, the relative minor of C, and then the expansive #12 brings us back to C.) The final fragment, #14, is the only one not to include C, so it serves as a kind of implied dominant that might lead back...

In referring to the numbered patterns as fragments, I'm alluding both to the incompleteness of each as a musical entity and to the shared knowledge that each fragment points back to a complete musical entity of its own. I've been thinking about this idea recently after reading this review of an event in which pianist Andy Costello "performed" all of Chopin's Etudes (normally a wildly daunting task):
“...he only performed enough of each to make it recognizable, three or four seconds. This was just long enough to engage one’s own memory of each work, and Chopin’s genius became clear: only two seconds was enough to bring the entire etude into focus in one’s memory, so strongly characterized were each."
It's a wild idea, but true of course that hearing just a few seconds of music can set off much longer loops in our inner ear. In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks describes a man who once "heard" an entire side of a Mozart LP only to discover, on going to turn the record over, that he'd never started it playing in the first place - but he still heard the whole thing. Technically, he imagined hearing the whole thing, but if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, maybe it can still make a sound in your imagination. (Did you hear that?) That's a little off-point, but it's part of the experience of this new little piece that your musical memory is sent in multiple possible directions. By the way, note that for those familiar with In C, the soundworld first evoked by Riley should also emerge as one of the recognizable building blocks of this new "tune." Nonetheless, this isn't pretending to be In C Lite. In Season is its own thing.

I'm presenting this now, pre-December, in hopes that maybe some theory/history classes out there will want to give it a try when Early Minimalism is on the agenda at the end of the semester. Although I believe Riley's masterpiece stands on its own just fine, it would be wonderful if this smaller, more easily accessible homage served as a kind of gateway drug for someone to delve more deeply In to the C. I'm certainly going to try to commandeer some musicians to see what happens when it happens in real time.

The score for In Season, complete with Riley-like instructions, can be downloaded here. Let me know if it happens to you!

UPDATE: The new In Season webpage is here. Read more about that here.

P.S. I wrote about In C several years ago when I created a little practice video to help performers learn their part. Strangely, I only just noticed last night, while listening to Jeff Hall's symphonic version, how much Riley's #27 sounds like Saint-Saëns Danse macabre, especially since Hall starts this motif out in the flute!

* If you're curious, my little band consists of flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, glockenspiel, marimba, harp, violin, cello, and the piano ostinato.

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