The Pulse: Is it Necessary?

As I listened to the recording from the April 15th “In C” playshop at Motorco, the high C pulse that plays throughout became an unpleasant interference. The tone seemed to create an aural haze through which I had to p-ear to hear the underlying song of the patterns. Granted I played the pulse too loudly in places, even so, the idea of ditching the pulse altogether is now up for consideration.

Most every recording of “In C” starts with that high shiny eighth note pulse. But this sound was not part of the original composition, nor is it included as a pattern in the score. The story of how the pulse came to be starts with the origins of “In C” itself. I mentioned in an earlier post that Terry Riley was using tape recorded loops to make collages of sound. He found the technique when a French sound engineer hooked two tape recorders together. As one tape recorder plays a recorded tune, the other tape recorder records the tune. The tape is stretched across the heads of both recorders so that the newly recorded tape is fed back into the original playing recorder. The result is an accumulation of the original tune in different phase relationships to itself. Riley called this technique the “time-lag accumulator.” He used the technique in performance for years, which made him an early pioneer of the sampling and looping used by electronic musicians today. Because his ear brain is so curious, Terry started composing a piece that would create the same type of phase relationships in real time with an instrumental ensemble. Then “In C” got on the bus with him. When the musicians gathered to rehearse the patterns of “In C” in a time lagged manner, each keeping there own pace, it didn’t quite work out.

From Robert Carl’s Terry Riley’s ‘In C’:

“Pauline Oliveros remembers that Riley assumed the work would be easy, but he quickly found out that it was more difficult than he imagined. The major stumbling block was rhythm; as soon as the divergence of modules began, it became difficult to maintain a common tempo or metric reference point, and the work fell apart. At this point, Reich made a suggestion:

Well, it was in rehearsal, and the piece moves along pretty quick. And he (Riley)…wants everybody together, and they’re playing whatever pattern their playing but they’re locked into the same eighth note. And that did not always work. There were often at least ten people playing, and the room was fairly reverberent, and so sometimes people were slipping and sliding around the eighth note unintentionally, as a mistake. So, once a drummer always a drummer, I said we kind of need a drummer here, but since drums would be inappropriate, what about use the piano, so Jeane played some high Cs just to keep us together, and Terry said “Lets give it a try” or something like that, and we tried it and ‘voila’ everyone was together.

And so the Pulse was born.”

The nature of the human hearing mechanism, the phasing of reverberent acoustics, and each individual musician’s placement in the space make playing “In C” accurately and consistently a daunting task. For live musicians the pulse IS necessary for keeping the group in “time-lag” together. Understandable! However, the ensembles in Ableton are not subject to the constraints of the human body in performance. Once the pattern has been notated in the clip slot, the midi instrument will play it exactly the same and exactly in time. I can build in a little swing or have them play more “loosely,” but there is no slippage in relation to the tempo. I feel that the steady underpinning of the Ableton ensembles could provide the necessary grounding that the acoustic musicians need. Fifty years later, with electronic voices playing along with acoustic musicians, might the pulse be redundant?

Robert Carl argues that because the pulse has been present from the very first performance and in most subsequent performances and recordings of “In C,” it has become an integral part of the text of the piece. As in other types of oral traditions, all of the “retellings” of “In C” over the past fifty years have sealed the place of the pulse. He calls the pulse “one of the most important defining features of the work.” He goes on to explain:

“…the pulse is a steady, unvarying eighth-note texture which provides a clear rhythmic anchor… It is thus a sort of neutral ‘grid’ backdrop against which…the modules may unfold.”

The Ableton instruments provide a similar rhythmic grid albeit not a neutral one, but I am still feeling the pulse could be replaced by the Ableton ensembles. Carl goes on:

“…because of its pitch, not only does it give the work its title, but it references every resultant harmonic combination, always including C. One cannot ignore the harmonic content of of the pulse, no matter how subliminal it may become.”

OK- As you can see, Robert Carl is an eloquent spokesperson for the pulse. It feels true that the pulse not only shapes the harmonic content of “In C”, but also is an important element in the oral tradition that comes from fifty years of playing and listening to it. The pulse is the beginning of most every recording and performance of “In C” we have ever heard. To the person who has heard the piece on numerous occasions, starting the performance with Pattern 1 would not sound like “In C” at all. All of this has given me pause… for the idea of eliminating the pulse completely. While I still plan to experiment with playing “In C” without the pulse, I will make the decision in each performance situation based on considerations of harmonics and on input from participating musicians as to the need for an additional rhythmic anchor.


Terry Riley’s In C, Robert Carl, Oxford University Press, 2009

Computer (mis) Adventures

I mentioned a few weeks ago that my computer locked me out. I took it to Intrex in Durham (where I bought the computer in 2009) and Tim, who is very friendly and knowledgable on many things including fixing computers, diagnosed and fixed the problem. He could not access my computer and had to make an image of the hard drive in order to save my documents and tunes. The image seems to be like a clone that is missing all the operating softwares. Then my hard drive was erased and all the standard operating software was reloaded so it was basically like new. Then the image of my hard drive was loaded as backup file on the computer.

Then came the reloading of the various softwares that are important to my sound work. Ableton, Audacity, a few VST plug-ins, Audio Converter, were immediate needs. When I went into Ableton and checked out project files, I discovered missing files and missing instruments. I took this as a redirect from the Universe to reaudition the ensemble voices for “In C.” So the Percussion Choir was reconfigured with fewer beat repeat instruments. I enjoyed the artifacts that the extra beats created, but decided to go for a cleaner sound since it is entirely percussion sounds except for the woodwind on the long tones. I will experiment with purely percussion at some point by dropping out the woodwind. Or put the beat repeat instruments in place of the woodwind to fill out the long tones. It was great to be back in the studio with the fresh perspective of a (sort of) new beginning.

When the computer is the space wherein creativity takes place, a malfunction of this nature can be daunting and a bit panicy feeling. I realize how fortunate I am to have other creative avenues that are NOT tied to a computer. Playing percussion and leading singing response during The Full Shanti kirtans keeps me grounded in basic rhythm making and helps me grow new neural pathways as I maintain the beat while singing different parts. Writing songs, playing marimba, ukelele, percussion and singing with Jody Cassell, Dancing Storyteller, keeps the creative juices flowing. Both of these sounding opportunities are wonderful collaborations in which I am honored and excited to take part.

I am aware of my dependence on the electro-magnetic field, quantum mechanics, and digital technology to express myself creatively. And I never want to lose sight of the fact that as long as I have a body I can listen and play with sounds.

Then, when the body is gone-
pure frequencies
till my wave function collapses once again.

opening the ears to thought – April 15, 2014

The April 15th show at Motorco Music Hall was vibrant, interesting and witnessed by a small and attentive audience. I am so appreciative of Xopher Thurston for his playing and the sweet fidelity he brought to the space with his sound engineering. This fledgling outing for -the idiosyncratic beats of dejacusse celebrates “In C”- was just as I had hoped it would be. Xopher Thurston, Susanne Romey and Chris Eubank did the heavy lifting of playing the piece in the moment. They were fantastic! Susanne made the decision to play the recorder on the first set of patterns and the toy piano on the second set, which was brilliant as a new voice in the second set of patterns added interest. Chris really drove the first set by staying with the two sixteenth notes in Pattern 10. Then we all settled into a rather mournful staggering of the long tones in Pattern 14. The second slice was Pattern 48 to the end (53). This got going with such driving polyrythmns that I felt the underpinning of an African dance. A djembe solo would have been really nice there! Here is a short audio clip of a moment from each section we played:

I was very happy with this first big acoustic space outing of slices of “In C”. Plus we were sandwiched in between The Empty Sound (Xopher Thurston – Bass, Percussion and TJ Goode – Drums, Percussion) and about a dozen musicians free improvising as Triangle Improvisational Music Exchange or T.I.M.E. The Empty Sound were phenomenal as they embodied groove and free form with whimsy and solid musicianship. I loved their set. Listening to the recording of T.I.M.E. results in more kudos for Xopher as he really shaped the improv through his mixing. Mixing as an improvisational art form is where he is at!!

In addition to all of this – we have a great video of the whole thing filmed by Bill Romey who was all over the place getting interesting angles. He got the vibe of the evening!

I did walk around Motorco before the show and do some spectrum analysis. I was not able to make much of it and evidently the analyzer needs web access. Who knew? So not much to report on that front. I am studying the recordings made with the Zoom H2n which was placed on a mic stand on the lowest side step of the bleachers on the right by the hall to the bathrooms. The low cut filter was enabled and auto gain on concert. A spectrum analysis of the recordings may yield interesting information.

As Xopher said, “A good time was had by all!”

And a special thanks to Terri Murphy, Eleanor Mills, Jody Cassell and Jim Kellough for listening and giving feedback. Appreciations!

The Frequency of Things

The world of frequencies and harmonics is an amazing realm. “In C” is a score that contains a phenomenal depth of frequency potential as we have seen in our short time with the piece. And what about the power of frequency in a world made up of vibration and spin? Once, when I participated in a guided meditation, the guidance was “you are ALL of sound!” and I balked because I felt the awesome power of that identity. Vibrating air molecules may be the simple gesture that is the great resonant bridge between the physical realm and the quantum realm.

It makes sense that sound can impact the vibratory molecular make up of the entire Universe, as we know it. First, we know that certain frequencies can alter our physical realities. The most common example is a singer shattering a crystal glass with her voice. What happens is that the singer sings a pure tone that matches the resonant frequency of the glass at such a powerful amplitude that the violent vibrations cause it to break. There usually needs to be a small flaw in the glass and the singer must belt the tone at around 100 dBl SPL. So we know that violent vibrations can wrend the integrity of already flawed material. This may be some kind of cosmic law regarding the vibration of resonant frequencies. But what about sounds that are softer and soothing, or bubbly and staccatto? And more varied frequencies played with the dynamic intention of love? Does material existence become diseased and decayed when it loses its resonant frequency? Can healing happen through entrainment with root resonant frequencies?

The law of entrainment is one of the most beautiful laws of physics. The law was first noted by Christiaan Huygens in 1667 when he observed two clock pendulums set in oppositional motion come into alignment with each other. The principle comes from energy seeking the most efficient means of expression. More energy is used unnecessarily when things are out of sync. So, ultimately, the whole of vibrating reality seeks the highest vibration available in the moment. If we must have laws, that is an awesome law to have in operation.

In this world of vibrant frequencies, each object and event will have a resonant frequency that is stabilizing or shifting it in this moment. Trudie said today she found it “scary” to think that everything is in a constant state of flux and we are not aware of the movement. Things appear stable and solid, but this is merely an illusion created by vibrating molecules of trapped photon light in motion interacting with our marvelous earthsuit- the body. It is scary and sacred at the same time, or, as Grace Jones put it, “scary, but fun.”

My thinking on all this is still a hodge-podge as the Universe brings new information in everyday. Brian Greene explaining the Theory of Special Relativity, where I learn a concept called “justified.” I am justified in my conclusions based on my assessment of the data at hand. This is part of The Observer Effect. As example, Greene said we would be “justified” in concluding that the sun revolves around the earth based on what we can observe from this earth-bound vantage point. Then, Dr. Robert Lanza makes a case for a theory of the Universe that asserts that, without our earthsuits and the perceptions allowed by our senses, there would be no Universe. The Universe is an orchestrated light and sound show that cannot manifest without consciousness aware of it through perception. When I close my eyes, the room disappears. And the only way to wrap your mind around that is to be able to remove yourself from the equation. Which sounds like it would be the opposite of Dr. Lanza’s hypothesis called Biocentrism. So, I am sure I made a few quantum leaps and possible misrepresentations here, and I have presented my current sense of these ideas to the best of my understanding. The highest vibe simply says your work is to know the sounding world and share it with others.

This concept of reality, this ever moving, constantly changing framework for the world I live in is difficult to embrace in its totality. In other words, I don’t get it. Not really. And I really want to get it. At this point in my life, I am a devoted seeker of a deep understanding/knowing of the divine essence of reality that is audio vibrational frequency. Probably beyond audio frequencies, but that is a good place to start for me as I am very at home in my ears. And “In C” is my resonant template and frequency generator. I am using “In C” like a person without sight might use a cane and her hands to know a world she doesn’t fully comprehend.

Our second attunement happened yesterday with Xopher, Susanne and Chris Eubank in attendance. we focused in on two sections of “In C” that are interesting and accessible. Playing Patterns 8 through 14 allows us to begin and end with long tone phrases. The long tones are a nice beginning and ending place for all the players. Then we worked with Patterns 48 through to the end, which begins with long tones and ends with eighth note patterns swirling around the sonic space. We are taking the tempo at 60 pulses per minute, which is signifigantly slower than most recordings of “In C.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am developing ensembles of voices that I like and that showcase the harmonics of “In C.” For the fledgling outing of this year long celebration of “In C” at 50 years, I will feature the Music Box Ensemble. This group of voices tends to be high and shimmery with lots of harmonics spinning around. Here is a snapshot of the frequency curve when all the MBE voices were playing Patterns 8 through 14 in the Sun (Ra) Room.


The first thing I thought of when I saw this image was that it looked like a bowl or a pregnant belly. The acoustics tonight will be different as we are in a larger space with more people and competing frequencies. I plan to analyze the frequency spectrum at different places in Motorco during sound check in order to make comparisons and learn a bit more about the frequency of things.

First “In C” Attunement – April 2, 2014

Today has been an exciting day with many energetic boosts along the way. This morning, I started researching first person accounts of the 1964 premiere of “In C.” (I would love to get my eyes on a copy of Alfred Frankenstein’s review whose famous headline, “Music Like None Other on Earth,” is oft quoted in writings about “In C.”) I did come across one first person account from Leah Garchik’s column in SF Chronicle, May, 2009:

— One last thing about “In C”: Harpsichordist Margaret Fabrizio, who used to be on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, reports that it was raining during the premiere performance of Terry Riley’s piece, and the roof of the old building leaked. “About 10 minutes into the piece, I had the distinct feeling that I was in a tropical rain forest. Seconds later, an umbrella went up. Then more, until the hall was filled with people sitting under their umbrellas. Unforgettable.”

I would think humidity would really add to the overwhelment people must have felt on that first hearing. I love this evocative recollection. And then there is the suggestion that Leah Garchik wrote more about “In C” in previous columns, so that lead needs to be followed up on.

And now, two days later, can YOU say, ‘Ask and it is given?’ I have in my possession the compete text of Alfred Frankenstein’s review of the program in which ‘In C’ premiered. I am ecstatic to this moment with this find. More on that later. Just noticing and appreciating the manifest.

Another ecstatic root of the moment is the first ‘In C’ attunement with Xopher Thurston and Susanne Romey on April 2. They were the perfect folks for this my first encounter with musicians who will play the score in real time on an instrument. This piece is a workout for musicians and instruments. Xopher and Susanne jumped right in as we played through the first seven patterns. I like to aim for Pattern 7 because it is an aural resting point and a wonderful illustration of accumulating lag in the piece. However, it is not a resting place for musicians because all the rests demand to be counted.

So we discussed how to count this pattern. In Ableton, the pattern is a loop, so I suggested that once you have counted in the first group of rests and played the 3 quick Cs, you could simply count 16 beats between interations. Xopher pointed out that counting in that way undermines the form of the phrase by placing the iterations on the one. In which case, why not just write the phrase as the three notes and 16 pulses of rest? Excellent point to ponder. Do these two different forms create two different feelings of Pattern 7, and, if so, is one more “correct” than the other?

One of the things I learned from this attunement is that we can collect questions like this and play with them. So as more players attend an attunement, we can get more voices in the conversation and use this interaction to explore them. For this reason, I have decided to schedule several attunements a month during this year. This will allow a community of musicians to engage with this experience however they want and take something from it and give something back. And all that is required is presence and openness and willingness to go where ‘In C’ takes us.

On a basic level, playing “In C” is a really fun way to practice riffs, runs, appeggios and modulations. So, if nothing else, playing this piece will sharpen all of our chops! Another thing I learned from the attunement is that I need to engage with this piece with my instrument, so I am working on vocalizing the patterns. This will help me in communicating with the instrument players and in being more sensitive to the challenges this piece presents.

Finally, do not forget April 15th @8 pm – Motorco Music Hall.

In C postcard