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

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