“In C” as Midi-Trigger for Bass and Percussion

Earlier this year, I said I wanted to play around with this idea of the musical text of “In C” as a midi-trigger for percussion grooves. OMG!! I did it this morning and, to my ear, it is the most interesting, organic sounding take I have had to date. This is what I am talking about with this piece of music- there is so much to be explored outside the traditional renditions of this piece. I am finding possibilities in the electronic domain that are not readily available in a traditional acoustic “live musicians” rendition of this piece.

For example, once a voice has started playing a pattern, it must be maintained for a duration, so the live acoustic rendition will be subject to the shifting entrainment of the members of the ensemble. Humans playing music together can really shift the focus and feel of any piece of music through nuances of rhythmic and melodic expression. (Reading about this right now in a great book called GROOVE a phenomenology of rhythmic nuance by Tiger C. Roholt) The live musician must play this piece with a metronomic pulse (played throughout by another musician, so not a real metronome), sync with the pulse and not get confused by the other parts coming in, AND make decisions about when to start and stop and move on to a new phrase. All of this while paying close attention to what is happening in other parts. So, there is alot of “breathing” that goes on in a live performance of “In C”. I would imagine there would be some quite chaotic moments and the making of space would be more difficult, as well.

In Ableton, the patterns are locked into the midi-clip. They never vary and always play the same. One thing I heard in the recording below that I think would be nearly impossible for live musicians- when Pattern 35 makes a brief appearance, the melodic instruments (bass and vibes) play the phrase one pulse apart. It sounds like a stagger more than an echo, it is very interesting. People can do some amazing things, and maintaining an exact one pulse stagger on this long phrase (that includes every tone and note-length in the entire piece) would be an amazing thing to witness; in Ableton, it can happen every time. I can bring parts forward and back in the mix and discover nuances that emerge from the shifting relationships amongst the voices. A good sound engineer could do a similar thing with a live performance of the work where each voice is amplified. Over the course of this year, I have played alot with tempo- I chose to slow this piece way down and let some of the languidness and playfulness shine through. The fastest tempo was around 110 pulses per minute. I found 60 ppm to be too slow – that is what we played at Motorco. The average tempo was 80 to 100 ppm. Recordings of “In C” are usually twice that tempo or more. Speed emphasizes a frenetic quality by glossing over the long tone patterns and pattern 35. Slower tempo gives more access to harmonics, space and dynamics in the piece.

I can now confess to something that I have resisted and denied for years- I am a control freak. Ableton Live allows me to control so many nuances of sound and music that I am in bliss much of the time while I work. When I collaborate with others, I do not want to be a control freak. I want my collaborations to be a more fluid give and take. If anything, I acquiesce more frequently in collaboration due to awareness of how controlling I can be. (Is that true?) It is my intention. So one of the major distinctions in my approach to “In C” is that I am the orchestrator of what you hear. And here is how I approached orchestrating this version of “In C”. I chose the voices based on two parameters- variety of timbres and frequency ranges. The percussion instruments all have very nice areas of blend and areas of complete separation in the sonic spectrum. The Special FX voice is the one that adds most of the very industrial and metallic sounds (scraping, whirring) that hang out on the outer edges of the sounding space. One of the voices is a favorite of mine, Kit-Ethno, and has been used in other soundscapes. Some of the percussion has “sour” tones like odd plate or pipe sounds, which adds a whole other melodic dynamic. I toyed with the idea of NO melodic instruments, but there was too much material lost with that approach. So the bass and vibes provide the main melody voices. None of the voices have a long sustain, so all those long tone patterns have alot of space in them. I liked this aspect very much. Also, because there are fewer melodic instruments, the entrance of the F# is not that evident. These characteristics attest to this being a percussion driven version of “In C”.

As I pointed out last week, Ableton and “In C” were made for each other. This recording reveals that in a big way. When I played out the recording I did not carefully track the beginnings and ends of phrases for each pattern as I played. Instead, I used the Akai APC 40 control surface to be able to trigger the clips quickly and in whatever order. I set up a visual pattern on the APC 40 and then triggered the clips in time to the pulse, recreating the pattern each time just moving down through all 53 patterns in each voice. I did stay within 3 – 5 patterns throughout with a few times of all playing the same pattern, but not in unison. I was trying to create an extremely short version of “In C” with these voices, but too many really cool grooves and ideas emerged for me to rush through.(You will hear what I mean if you listen.) One of the ways I orchestrated the melodic phrases was to move back and forth between them on the bass and vibes. This is not normally done in a performance of “In C”. There are a number of consecutive pairs of patterns that create a sing-song, rocking feel and I wanted to bring those out and play with them at times. I also used the back and forth between consecutive patterns to create some extra movement in the drums.

This mix of voices creates an amazing soundscape that is together and apart and has sound all over the sonic space. In spite of my quick, short version intention, it runs about 19 minutes. Please try to hang in through the first three minutes, the piece really picks up after that point. There are definitely invitations to dance!

And, here is a pretty short version played on strings and woodwinds. Thanks to Project SAMS for the gorgeous sound of these instruments. The original version was 8 minutes and, in order to come in at the length I had to cut off longer phases – not good. Pattern 35 was not even there! Just the first 9 notes which are exactly like Pattern 36 complete. So, in essence I had two Pattern 36 and no Pattern 35. It disappeared… So, I recorded a 10 minute version, which is as short as I can make it at this time (some part of me longs to hear a “Minute ‘In C'” like the “Minute Waltz.” eh- maybe) Here is a picture of the “score” of this recording in Ableton.


I think it is fun that the trigger patterns look like compression and rarefaction – you can see where the piece opens up and breathes and where it closes in on itself. Such a beautiful energetic pattern of life- it is part of what creates the fractal.

Music Like None Other In The World

Alfred Frankenstein, in spite of his unfortunate name, was a highly respected 20th century classical musicologist, art critic and teacher. From 1934 to 1965, he worked for the San Francisco Chronicle writing reviews of local music and art happenings. Mr. Frankenstein was not immune to the tremendous artistic upheavals of his time, which may be why he was so appreciative of “In C.” He was a strong supporter of the avant garde happenings at the San Francisco Tape Music Center and he gave the Center some great publicity.

Mr. Frankenstein attended the second performance of “In C.” It is noted in a number of interviews with people in attendance that he was quite excited by Terry Riley’s work and had many questions about his creative techniques. The headline of his review has become an iconic descriptor associated with “In C.” Here is the review in its entirety:

    Music Like None Other in the World

Terry Riley, who got his training as a composer in the Bay Region, is back after several years in Europe, and he reported in to the local public in a concert Friday night at The San Francisco Tape Center. During his sojourn abroad he has developed a style like that of no one else on earth, and he is bound to make a profound impression with it.
He uses a variety of structural devices., but they all seem to eventuate in much the same effect. He begins with very simple melodic material, restricted in compass to only a few notes. This is very simply harmonized at least at the start. The rhythms are as axiomatic as the other elements, the tempo is brisk and rigidly unchanging, and the volume level is consistently loud.
This primitivistic music goes on and on. It is formidably repetitious, but harmonic changes are slowly introduced into it; there are melodic variations and contrasts of rhythm within a framework of relentless continuity, and climaxes of great sonority and high complexity appear and are dissolved in the endlessness.
At times you feel you have never done anything all your life long but listen to this music and as if that is all there is or all there ever will be, but it is altogether absorbing, exciting, and moving, too. One is reminded of the efforts of Carlos Chavez to reconstitute the ceremonial music of pre-Columbian Mexico. Terry Riley may have captured more of its spirit than Chavez did. Not that the pre-Columbian analogy is Riley’s ultimate value.
The style discussed here reached its peak in a piece for instrumental ensemble called “In C,” which stayed on C for the better part of an hour but left one refreshed rather than satiated. Riley does other things, too. A piece called “I” turned out to be a dramatic sketch based entirely on inflections of the perpendicular pronoun as taped by John Graham. This was furthest from the manner of “In C.” But “In C” was the evening’s masterpiece and I hope the same group does it again.

According to Robert Carl, Mr. Frankenstein’s review of “In C” had great historical impact. For one, this group of experimental composers recieved recognition from a well-known member of the “classical establishment.” Secondly, Mr. Frankenstein articulated key elements of this “new” music that would later come to be referred to as “minimalism.” He identified simple, constricted harmonies and rhythms, repetition, a fast and steady tempo, and little deviance from the dynamic of loud. Finally, Frankenstein compares the work to that of a great 20th Century composer, Carlos Chavez, thus placing Terry Riley and “In C” into a “classical context.” Carl suggests that Frankenstein’s review likely lit the way for the inclusion of “In C” in this pretigious Oxford University Press series.

The Premiere of “In C” November 4 and 6, 1964

(Thanks for your patience while I emphasized the “My” in “My Year ‘In C'”. I am ready to refocus on the piece itself now, but will always maintain the perogative to express what is happening in my life as this year progresses.)

Two important synchronicities occurred in early 1964 that opened the door for the premiere of “In C”. First, Terry Riley returned to San Francisco from Europe where he had been living and working for several years. Second, the San Francisco Tape and Music Center decided to devote its 1964-65 season to music by local composers. (The story of the SFTMC will be the subject of a later post.) Morton Subotnik, one of the mainstays of the Center, said of this time:

…we decided that in the 64-65 season it would be time for all the local composers to do a concert of their own music. So I did a concert, Pauline (Oliveros) did a concert, Ramon (Sender) did a concert, and I knew that Terry was coming back, so I wrote to him or called him, I can’t remember, and said, “Will you be back by November?” He said, “I’ll be back in time for November” and I said, “Why don’t we do a concert of your music and you write a piece that we can all play?”

Riley returned to SF in February of 1964, recieved” “In C” in March and this became the piece that everyone would play. There were runthroughs and tryouts at various venues, including several house concerts, throughout the spring and summer of 1964. The ultimate players for the November premiere included Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnik, Ramon Sender, Jon Gibson and others, 13 musicians in all. An additional performer was Tony Martin, who designed and performed a collage of movement and color during the piece. As Robert Carl points out in Terry Riley’s In C, the inclusion of Tony Martin’s visual component made the premiere of “In C” a multimedia event.

The final instrumentation for “In C” was two trumpets, sopranino recorder, clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones, accordion, two pianos (with two players each) and Wurlitzer Chamberlin organ. Ramon Sender played the Chamberlin which was housed in the upstairs studio at the Center. As it turns out, the Chamberlin is a type of analog sampler that could play prerecorded loops. Again from Robert Carl: “Reich remembers a ‘kind of roundness’ in the overall sonority, and it seems likely that the background wash of sound from the organ may have been responsible for much of that effect. It is thus important to realize that In C from its earliest incarnation had an electroacoustic component, and so was a pioneering instance of live electronic performance integrated into an ensemble of acoustic instruments.” I was very excited to read this as this is the vision I have for this 2014 celebratory version as well. I like synchronicities like that.

The official premiere happened on November 4, 1964 with a two part program. The first half included Music for The Gift, three short electronic works and a solo piano piece. The second half of the program was devoted to a 45 to 60 minute rendition of “In C.” Reich remembers that the players worked together very well:

There’s alot of listening to other people, alot of laying out when it made sense, and alot of trying to play the same pattern as someone else but to sound interesting in a canon way, and to be aware of where people were and how far ahead you were. I think it was very good ensemble, good listening ensemble.

One signifigant feature of this performance, as recollected by Pauline Oliveros, is the tempo. The first performance of “In C” moved along at around 138 pulses per minute about half as fast as the initial 1967 recording. I have found playing this piece at slower tempos creates a spaciousness that allows more changes in dynamics. Slower tempos allow and encourage the kind of deep listening Reich describes. Faster tempos result in a frenetic feeling that never lets up, especially with that pulse pounding throughout.

The audience for the premier numbered about 100 and Subotnik remembers:

The audience response was wonderful. There was a buzz…It was a kind of warm, vibrant, happy…it was like something had happened, maybe not historical, but something had happened that night that was really special. It was different than other concerts.

But it was the second performance, two nights later, that garnered the now famous review by Alfred Frankenstein with the title “Music Like None Other On Earth.” Next post I will discuss the importance of this review not only for “In C” but for minimalist/avant garde music in general.

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