Chinese Orchestras, Chamber Ensembles and Rock Bands, Oh My!

Over the course of the last 50 years, “In C” has been given voice by a group of what might be termed “strange bedfellows,” from the Shanghai Film Orchestra to a chamber ensemble of voices and marimbas to The Styrenes, a 1980s punk/prog rock band. So this week, I am listening, and having fun.


Here is The Styrene’s version of “In C” that was (according to the liner notes) decades in the making. “In C” was always on Styrene’s founder Paul Marotta’s radar, “From the first time I heard it, I imagined “In C” as played by a rock band.” Marotta pays wonderful tribute to the piece in stating: “On any musician who came of age in the mid-sixties, Terry Riley’s “In C” exerts an immense influence.” The Styrenes version begins with a low C bass thump playing along with the familiar high C eighth note pulse, suggesting some funkiness ahead. And it doesn’t take 30 seconds for the drums to come in. This is a rock band after all. However, these drums are not about backbeat, the rhythms are all from the score and the drummer plays through each and every pattern from the first to the last.

In the liner notes Paul Marotta states that he “knew right away” that he wanted to use a mallet instrument, and he wanted to keep the sound as “rock as possible.” To this end, he loaded up on guitar players – four to be precise. I was impressed with the guitar playing on the recording, as they all maintained an ensemble feel for the most part. Recorded in 2000, multi-track overdubbing allowed for an incredible wave of sound from ALL the instruments, and the guitars drive it beautifully.

The modulation around the introduction of F# into the piece is really breathtakingly orchestrated. The Pattern 14 long tone phrase, which initially asserts the F# into the mix, swells and rolls in a time lag loop. Then that F# tone is overcome by the driving rhythmic movement of Patterns 15 through 19, which are dominated by 32nd notes in short runs or solitary notes. Even as this drowning out of Pattern 14 is occuring, a lone voice continues to toss Pattern 14 out in the background. Then the lovely Patterns 22 – 26, with their dotted quarter notes driving the pulse, rescue the F# by swirling it upward in a supportive tonal framework- WOW! It is a like redemptive journey for the F# tone. Another example of the stories that unfold in each moment when deeply listening to this piece of music.


Paul Hiller orchestrated “In C” for mallets and voices in this 2005 Ars Nova recording. This is Ars Nova Copenhagen, a vocal ensemble and the Percurama Percussion Ensemble as directed by Hiller. Hearing “In C” through human voice is like a whirling dervish of sound. The CD cover visually replicates the wave of energy that is stirred up in the listening. This is what “In C” makes happen! I am using this CD to help me vocalize with the piece, which I intend to do next time we play! I am very excited to feel these tones rushing through me. Another thing adding to the feeling of “evoking other realms” that this recording elicits is that Terry Riley provided the singers with some sacred syllables to sing. So this recording really represents a whole other vibrational level beyond any other recordings to date. Remember that Terry is opening up a vortex for us. At the very least, this a chakra stirrer for sure! And it is stirring up more, I feel. I have not been this high in years!!!!!

(Focus, Jude! End blog post soon.) But first, I must say that I appreciate Robert Carl’s presence on this path. His book, Terry Riley’s In C, has been a wonderful companion to dialogue with about this incredible sound generating forever morphing work of sonic art. His writings are insightful and always give me much to think about.

And I hope to bring more recordings to your attention in the future. Like that Shanghai Film Orchestra – I really want to hear them!

But, till then, check out the second half of The Acid Mothers Temple version of “In C.”



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