Thursday, December 21, 2023

'Tis the Season

Back in 2014, the 50th anniversary year for Terry Riley's iconic aleatoric masterpiece In C, I was inspired by a pun (as so often) to create a holiday homage. It may have been that the pulsing C's which traditionally anchor performances of Riley's work first reminded me of jingle bells. I can't remember for sure, but once I made the "In C  → In Season" connection, there was no going back. Best of all, I think it really works.

Rather than the 53 generic riffs in C Major that Riley devised, I used melodic snippets based on well-known seasonal tunes. Thus, part of the game of listening is to hear these various melodies emerge from the texture and intermingle in unexpected ways. You may read about the origins of In Season here, and I highly recommend a visit to this dedicated page which includes an embedded virtual performance and links to the score and instructions. 

Although I forced some family members to play along back in '14, I've never assembled a real performance...until this year, when the combined high school and middle school bands at the school where I work performed it. I don't have a recording yet of that performance, and I likely wouldn't share it anyway as it was necessarily under-rehearsed. And, though I think it was a real success, I realized how challenging it is to perform for young musicians. They've spent so much of their early years of training learning to play at the right time, with a clear sense of meter and how things fit together. Although In Season demands a very strong sense of rhythm, it's not easy to play confidently when the concept of a downbeat quickly evaporates.

So, I had the idea of creating a new virtual performance for the blog this year. Just as performing this music is more challenging than a quick glance at the score might suggest, creating a decent virtual performance was/is..a big headache. Since my 2014 virtual performance mostly featured orchestral instruments, I decided to go more with a mallets/electric/plucked/synth ensemble this time. I hoped it would be easier to get satisfying sounds, but creating a good mix that feels "of the moment" is daunting no matter what instruments are used.

By the far, the most fun and instructive (for me) aspect of creating this was working from start to finish in a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) rather than a score-based setup. The advantage of the DAW is that each of the fourteen melodies can be encoded as a MIDI loop which can be dropped onto a beat grid and then looped as desired simply by dragging. No worries about messy ties over barlines. There was still a lot of decision-making about when to pause a given instrument and how to think about having it converse with the others. In our recent performance with students, I emphasized often the important of having them take many breaks simply to listen rather than play constantly. This was in part to keep them from being overwhelmed. With MIDI, the "players" can go on forever without a break, so I had to make decisions about putting spaces in - fewer still than would be likely in any live performance.

Look, the truth is, I could easily spend dozens of hours perfecting this, but at some point I had to remember I had a family and settle for something which is still spontaneous in many ways. I did have fun converting the DAW "score" into an interesting visual as well. Although the "notes" are tiny, it's color-coded so you can see which track is doing what. (You'll have to determine for yourself what the instruments are, but they should go more or less left to right across the stereo spectrum.*)

I realize a skeptic might look at this or Riley's piece and figure it's all kind of random and silly (I know because I was an In C skeptic for decades!), but there is a real order and sense of structure which I believe emerges. You can see the fourteen snippets below. Here's what I wrote back in 2014:

I think [the] 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...

Having now been through this piece many times with students and via virtual work, I can affirm that these features consistently shine through, although I hope new and interesting things happen each time as well. Give it a listen! Then go play it!

* The instruments used are basically an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, a synthy guitar, an electric piano, a harp, a synthy keyboard, marimba, bells, vibraphone, synth, and electric bass.

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