Who is Terry Riley and what is “In C?”

Who is Terry Riley and what is “In C”?

A friend asked me this question after my first post. Here are some personal thoughts, some provocative quotes, and some general pointers toward sources for learning more about minimalism/contemporary classical/new music/Terry Riley/In C.

“More than any other single piece, “In C”, written in San Francisco in 1964, gave voice to the minimalist movement in America. In some ways, it became its anthem.” – William Duckworth

The sound of music in the Twentieth Century was shaped, in part, by recording technologies, amplification technologies and digital technologies. First we captured -on a wax disc, a strip of tape, a vinyl platter- the basic, primary expression of a source vibrating air molecules that bump into a receiver and are interpreted as “sound.” Then we intervened between the source and receiver with microphones, effects and amplifiers, which allowed us to shape and transform the original source sound. Finally, we took the properties of sound behavior and, through binary modeling, became the source and receiver. We can create waveforms, envelopes and specific sounds and timbres which can only be heard through digital to analog conversion to an amplification device. These technologies broaden and constrain the contemporary composer. Terry Riley along with Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Lamonte Young allowed these new technologies to stretch their ears and bring new sounds to a classical music movement that was known as minimalism.

Terry Riley grew up listening to hard bop and experimental classical music. He trained as a pianist and frequently made his living playing piano in bars and restaurants. Later he played sax and studied Indian Classical Music with singer Pandit Pran Nath. Here is a link to a rare YouTube video of Terry, LaMonte Young, and Marian Zazeela with Pandit Pran Nath. That is Terry on the tabla drums.

Riley’s music was influenced by his study of Indian ragas, Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique, just intonation, and his friendship with LaMonte Young. Here Riley speaks about LaMonte Young’s contribution to minimalism in general and “In C” specifically:

“People say minimalism started with Erik Satie, and it may have started with Gesualdo; I don’t know who it started with. But in this group of people, which is Steve Reich, Philip Glass, LaMonte Young and me, obviously it was LaMonte who was the first one. The ‘Trio for Strings’ is the landmark minimalist piece.
What LaMonte introduced was this concept of not having to press ahead to create interest. He would wait for the music to take its own course. You start a long tone, that tone has its own life until it extinguishes, and the next one starts. So it was this kind of Oriental patience that he introduced into the music which created a static form. Even his piano playing and his saxophone playing, even if it was fast, always dealt with repeating the same notes over and over again. So the form is always standing like some kind of mountain… and not creating a real varied form. I think that without that there would have been no ‘In C,’ because ‘In C’ is a static piece in that same tradition.”

I am very interested in patience, static form, and deeply listening to the life of a long tone. This is the path for cultivating intimacy with sound. This is an antidote to the fast paced, quick cut and, at times, frantic world we live in. This is what draws me to spend so much time with this work. The patterns of “In C” are primarily long tones, eighth and sixteenth note patterns of one, two or three notes. There are some longer phrases, but these form the majority of the piece. They are fragments, wordless haikus of sound that reveal deeper meanings with each fully embodied repetition.

The word “influence” is coming up a lot in this post and the reason for that may lie in this wonderful Terry Riley quote from an interview by Robert Barry in FactMag an online zine:

“I like to learn from everybody. I like to work with everybody. I always feel like, if I hear something – some musicians doing something that pricks up my ears – then I want to do it too. I want to learn what that is and incorporate it into the whole stream of the work I do. I don’t mind being influenced if it’s something that really is beautiful.” and “wild” I would add!

Actually, that would make a wonderful self-inquiry statement: Fill in the blank – “I don’t mind being influenced if it’s something that really is _____________!

While Young’s music influenced Riley’s form and tone on ‘”In C”, the basic structure of the piece was inpired by Riley’s work with tape loops. With the help of an engineer at the French National Radio, Riley created a “time-lag accumulator” made up of two reel-to-reel tape recorders feeding into each other in a loop. This feedback loop created a delay or echo that accumulated into a dense and textured music. He applied this technique in composing “Music for The Gift” by recording Chet Baker’s quartet playing “So What” and then feeding the recording through the tape recorders. Riley said composing this piece by running the pre-recorded sample through the time-lag accumulator was “the forerunner of “In C.”

The time lag comes into play with “In C” due to the lack of an exact downbeat. Each pattern can be launched at any moment with that moment’s eighth note pulse as the downbeat. Each musician is keeping their own downbeat for each pattern they play. Here is an example of a time lag-like layering of pattern 26.

Riley describes the moment that “In C” came to be:
“At the time I was playing piano every night in San Francisco at the Gold Street Saloon. So one night I was riding to work on the bus, and ‘In C’ just popped into my mind. The whole idea. I heard it. It was one of those things. I didn’t want to go to work that night. As soon as I got off work I came home and wrote it all down. Yes, almost all of it. I had to revise a couple of the patterns, but it pretty much came as a package, you know. It was quite exciting; a this-is-the-answer experience.”

When I read this, I giggled with delight remembering a story that Einstein had figured out Relativity while riding on the bus… or was it waiting for the bus? Either way, something about buses may create an inspirational vortex. This needs further exploration.

Riley says he did not think of himself as a minimalist while writing “In C.”

“I felt like a transcendentalist, an illusionist, or a magician. Something that has to do with magic. I feel it is my field to try to create magic in sound. Magic in the sense of transcendence of this ordinary life into another realm. An awakening, you know. To use music to try to awaken ourselves.”

and (from a 1977 Mother Jones/Real Paper article):

“My own feeling is that if people aren’t just carried away to heaven I’m failing…I want to create a kind of concentration on a musical idea so that people can go inside themselves and comfortably follow the development until they slowly rise up and disappear into the clouds.”

“In C” has the potential to stir up some amazing vibrations. I invite you to listen (with headphones, preferably) to the excerpts I have posted and will post within this blog. Lie down or sit down and breathe into your belly.

Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.


William Duckworth, “20/20: Twenty New Sounds of the Twentieth Century”

“Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip
Glass, Laurie Anderson and Five Generations of Amer-
can Experimental Composers” 1995

Keith Potter, “Four Musical Minimalists” 2000

David Toop, “Ocean of Sound” 1995

sketches and experiments

One of my intentions with “In C” is to play around with the performance directions in order to flesh out other aspects of the sonic pallette of the piece. This week I am playing with a group of nine consecutive phrases and varying the movement scheme. Here is a link to the experimental sketch working with patterns 13 through 21.

This grouping of phrases is a combination of single tones in patterns 15,19,21 along with long tones of pattern 14 and the more rhythmic melody lines in patterns 13,16,17,18, and 20. The recording begins with several voices introducing pattern 13. Pattern 14 brings in the long tones and the F# which is the first modulation in the work as a whole. Once all the patterns are present, I started moving the voices into one of the single tone phrases to end.

The single note patterns are interesting to me because they each have a unique placement and presence. Pattern 15 is a quick sixteenth note in an 8 pulse phrase coming in on the first pulse. Pattern 19 is a dotted quarter note in 6 pulse phrase coming in on the fourth pulse. Patten 21 is a dotted half note held for the duration of a 12 pulse phrase. The sixteenth note in pattern 15 gets easily lost in the shuffle of the more melodic phrases which are also sixteenth note patterns. When that pattern is played it will benefit from a very strong attack to give it more presence. Pattern 21, on the other hand, has tremendous presence as it is held for 12 pulses.

So this recording ends with all the voices on one of those single note patterns. Once I had brought all the patterns and voices, I arbitrarily moved each one to the nearest single tone pattern. This meant that some of the voices moved backward, which is not usually done when performing this work. This is an example of a kind of “unison” moment that could be used during a performance. I think it will be interesting to play around with orchestrating unique combinations of phrases and movement when we play the piece live.

“In C” and Ableton Live

In the performance instructions for “In C,” Terry Riley lays out a fluid foundation to guide the players. The directions read like suggestions and gentle admonitions: “The tempo is left to the discretion of the performers. Extremely fast is discouraged.” “It is important not to hurry from pattern to pattern…” “The ensemble can be aided by the means of an eighth note pulse played on the high C’s of a piano or mallet instrument.” In addition, Riley’s instructions allow for improvised percussion, amplification and electronic instruments. The tone of the text invites and encourages (me,hee hee) us to dive into the mix and try some things on!

This work is usually played by an ensemble of musicians live in an acoustic space. When he talks about “In C”, Riley emphasizes ensemble playing and the integrity of the ensemble. His instructions encourage freedom and deep listening as the means for creating ensemble. But what does ensemble mean when the voices are a group of digital instruments in Ableton Live?

An ensemble is made up of strong, distinct individual voices that join together in a common creation. When I listen to an ensemble, I want to hear each voice AND I want to hear the “voice” of the common creation. Unlike an orchestra or chorus, the ensemble isn’t working toward a blended single voice. Especially in a piece like “In C,” the choice of voice and timbre that brings in each new phrase will shape the melodic and rhythmic movement of the work in performance. Attention must be paid to each phrase and how the entrance of each voice affects the whole of the work.

With this in mind, I spent several months auditioning voicings in Ableton. Ableton Live is an amazing digital audio workstation that allows me to call upon any instrument/sound/synth as a voice in my ensemble. Ableton Live was developed by Ableton AG, a Berlin-based music software company founded in 1999, as a platform for creating, recording AND performing music using instruments, audio and midi effects. It has gone through 9 upgrades since its inception. I have been working with Ableton Live 8 for three years creating music and soundscapes for performance and installation. (To hear samples of my work, go to Soundcloud and look for DeJacusse.) For “In C,” I knew I wanted the voices to cover the sonic spectrum from 60 hz to 18 khz. (I will explain the reason for this in a moment.) Using the spectrum analyzer (one of the many audio effects tools in the Ableton toolbox), I assessed each voice for its presence on the sonic spectrum, and listened for a pleasing blend of timbre when all the voices played an individual phrase together.

Over several months, thirteen voices emerged as the current ensemble for the piece. Two percussion voices-one a more traditional drum kit and the other a world percussion kit-will emphasize the rhythmically interesting patterns. A grunge electric bass and an ABS electric bass cover the 70 hz to 130 hz range. The grunge bass has a buzzy sustain that adds an interesting texture in the low range. Some pizzicato strings, staccato strings and a ceramic plate EP round out the voices in the percussive pool with strong attacks and weaker sustains. For the longer tones. I chose woodwinds, a jazz organ, brass, mallets, ascension choir and harpsichord. The harpsichord has a high end buzzy finish that complements the grunge electric bass low end buzz. The spectrum analyzer indicates that these voices give full coverage of the sonic spectrum. And they sound pleasing to me as I play with the overlapping patterns. The voices may change in the future, but I am happy with what I have right now.

I am paying close attention to the sonic spectrum of the voices for several reasons. Since I plan to play this piece with other musicians this year I want to be able to back out the voices in Ableton that would sonically interfere with and muddy the contributions of the live instruments. In addition, I am studying acoustics and psychoacoustics in order to explore the rich sonority that will emerge when a variety of voices in a variety of acoustic spaces play this piece.

Here is a short sampling of the voices in Ableton that I have chosen thus far. In this recording you will hear each voice individually and then hear them layered together as they play pattern 17.

Row, row, row your boat!

Singing this on New Year’s Eve, we marveled at the profundity of a children’s song about this dream we call life. Thinking about that song now as I launch my boat on a year long voyage through Terry Riley’s mystical marvel of a composition, “In C.” Jim Kellough introduced me to “In C” and I felt a connection to the piece immediately: fifty-three melodic phrases played in sequence over an eighth note pulse. A little direction and ALOT of space. I love it! So The Idiosyncratic Beats of DeJacusse featuring Jude Casseday will spend the year playing and exploring this incredible sonic space in a variety of contexts with many collaborators

Why now?

2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of Terry Riley’s acclaimed musical work. The piece premiered on November 4, 1964 in San Francisco and was recognized even then as a landmark, revolutionary piece. Riley’s directions for playing “In C” are basic, and encourage a serious playfulness. An eighth note pulse grounds the musicians as they play through each phrase, usually staying within 2 – 3 phrases of each other. Since there is no downbeat, a single phrase can end up with multiple iterations over the pulse. There is a feeling of moving in and out of time with amazing counterpulses and otherworldly harmonics created whenever the piece is performed. No wonder San Francisco music writer Alfred Frankenstein called it “Music Like None Other On Earth.” Upon receiving performance permission and purchasing scores in September, 2014, I began selecting voices and creating clips for the 53 phrases of “In C” in Ableton Live digital audio workstation (DAW) software. Ableton Live is my music gymnasium/playground/laboratory. (I will devote some future posts to Ableton.) Once all the phrases were plugged-in and instruments chosen, I began to play with “In C.”

What is the intention of this exploration?

I am curious about how far we can deepen into this piece of music. It invites us to enter with ears wide-open into a sonic world. There are rooms in that world I want to explore. For example, the composer recommends that as the musicians play through the phrases, they stay within 2 to 3 patterns of each other. This approach creates a particular sonic movement that is intentional. I am intrigued with combining the phrases that are further apart. I have been playing with the phrases in various combinations ( i.e. all long tone phrases, all 1-2 note phrases) and the depth and variety of sound with just the Ableton instruments are amazing. A different song everytime!
The second thing I am intrigued with is what more can be heard when the Ableton renditions are diffused into acoustic spaces with other instruments. My plan is to perform “In C” at various venues with groupings of live musicians throughout 2014. The year long celebration culminates with a 12 hour happening of “In C” in the Fall of 2014. And I am very interested in how people will receive this work, especially when we do longer forms of it.

I hope that you all will come along on this journey. If you live in the Raleigh-Durham area, I hope you will come out for some performances. If you are a musician and would like to play the piece (no one has to commit to every performance or the whole 12 hour happening) or if you have an event happening that “In C” might be a part of, please contact me at dejacusse@gmail.com.
I am so excited to begin this journey!! I will update this blog at least weekly, so stay tuned.