The Freeform Ensemble perform Terry Riley's In C
This episode is work safe.
California composer Terry Riley launched what is now known as the Minimalist movement with his revolutionary classic In C in 1964. This seminal work provided the conception for a form comprised of interlocking repetitive patterns that was to change the course of 20th century music and strongly influence the works of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams as well as rock groups such as The Who, The Soft Machine, Curved Air, Tangerine Dream and many others.
When I first started having bands on my show at WMFO I was heavily into hardcore, punk, industrial, hip hop, anything that was aggro and in your face. But after a few years I got bored with that format and embraced my freeform roots. The live performances I had on my show reflected that change. I started inviting blues or jazz or pop bands to play over the air.
At one point I wanted to have a small orchestra perform a piece over the air. But the challenge was what piece could I choose that a bunch of musicians could easily learn that didn't require that they be a virtuoso on their instruments?
Let me explain how In C works so you can appreciate this month's installment of the Small World Studio Sessions.
In C is an aleatoric musical piece composed by Terry Riley in 1964. By aleatory we mean music in which some element of the composition is left to chance or some primary element of a composed work's realization is left to the determination of its performers. In the case of In C, the piece can be performed by a group of 35 musicians or smaller. As the title suggests, the piece is in the key of C.
"In C consists of 53 short, numbered musical phrases; each phrase may be repeated an arbitrary number of times. Each musician has control over which phrase he or she plays: and players are encouraged to play the phrases starting at different times, even if they are playing the same phrase. The performance directions state that the musical ensemble should try to stay within two to three phrases of each other. The phrases must be played in order, although some may be skipped. As detailed in some editions of the score, it is customary for one musician ('traditionally played by a beautiful girl,' Riley notes) to play the note C (in octaves) in repeated eighth notes. This drone functions as a metronome and is referred to as 'The Pulse.'
"In C has no set duration; performances can last as little as fifteen minutes or as long as several hours, although Riley indicates 'performances normally average between 45 minutes and an hour and a half.'"
The concept of In C was exciting to me and after hearing a recording of In C I decided to form an ensemble to perform the piece.
I roamed the streets of Boston and Cambridge for a month, inviting musicians to play In C. Some were friends. Some were friends of friends. Other were street performers. In the end I had gathered 15 musicans to perform In C.
The next stage was to rehearse In C. Getting that many people together at once is a challenge, particularly with musicians. I decided to break up the ensemble into two groups and had them rehearse at my friend Matt's place, since he had enough room for that many musicians.
Finally we were ready.
One Saturday night I had everyone meet at WMFO to perform In C in our small recording studio. Getting a band of five musicians in there was a challenge but to have an ensemble of 15 people, plus all their instruments and the microphones, was almost more of a feat then putting the ensemble together.
I wanted to be a purist about this performance but I compromised by inviting musicians who played the electric guitar and the keyboard. As long as they staid true to the score I would be happy. Unfortunately, at one point the guitar player decided to improve during the performance. In the end it wasn't a terrible thing and I'm just glad we managed to pull of In C.
As I mentioned earlier, a beautiful girl is supposed to function as the metronome for the score. Despite our best efforts, we had forgotten that essential part of In C.
Instead of a beautiful girl we had a bearded man act as the metronome. The pulses were played by Michael Bloom, who volunteered to act as the metronome by playing the pulses on his marimba.
Michael had rented a station wagon so he could transport his marimba to the station. Then he had to lug it up three flights of stairs into the studio. His marimba was like a large xylophone so having Michael just play the pulse was a waste but someone had to do it. Thank you again, Michael.
I was a deejay at WMFO for 17 years and performance of Terry Riley's In C is the moment I am proudest of. I'd like to thank Vera Beren for rescuing the performance and transferring it from a DAT cassette to a CD. I'd also like to thank all 15 of the musicians who made the performance of In C possible.