“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.

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