“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.