The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble Perform Terry Riley's In C: MP3 Version
Salt Lake Electric Ensemble
Few pieces of music straddle the divide between cultural artifact, radical manifesto of musical intention, and wide popularity like Terry Riley’s In C. Riley, American performer and composer (b. 1935), has pursued many avenues both in notated works and performing pure improvisation. While coming relatively early in his career, In C remains his most well known work. Written and premiered in 1964, it sounded a clarion call for a new musical language many critics and listeners would define as Minimalism. Certainly the circumstances of the premiere performance (held November 4th, 1964 at the San Francisco Tape Music Center) resonate with the zeitgeist of the burgeoning counterculture; a light show was projected along to the music, and audience members were invited to sit or stand in the venue and freely reposition themselves during the performance. Coming during a time of turbulent cultural and artistic change, In C pointed the way for many of the main practitioners of minimalism, including Steve Reich (who participated in the premiere as a performer), Philip Glass, and John Adams. Critic Janet Rotter called it “the global village’s first ritual symphonic piece.”
While a graduate student at Berkeley, Riley met composer La Monte Young, and was immediately enthralled by his innovative approach. Young’s groundbreaking String Quartet (1960) and the String Trio (1961) made striking use of sustained tones and static harmony, as well as the use of repetitive phrases.
Many scholars and critics regard minimalism as a direct reaction to the complexity of the Post-War generation of composers (eg.. Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen, Babbitt, Carter), and though In C definitely stands in sharp contrast to the working methods if not the ideology of the established 1960's avant-garde, it transformed those precursors in the presentation of a whole new aesthetic. What stand out are two key elements for the most part unimportant to the Post-War elite: pulse, and tonality.
Described simply, the score to In C contains fifty-three modules, taking up a single page. The modules vary from rhythmic lengths ranging from half a beat to 32 beats. These brief gestures are accompanied by equally sparse performance instructions, specifying an ensemble of any size and type of instrumental combination. Beginning with a steady pulse of eighth notes on the two high C’s of a piano, each performer begins on the first module and works through each of the fifty-three in sequence, repeating each module as many times as they would like before moving to the next. The Pulse continues throughout the entire performance, and later editions of the score even make it optional altogether (perhaps to address the original instruction that The Pulse be played by “a pretty girl”, also in recognition of the intense physical and mental demands it placed on that member of the ensemble). All editions of the printed score encourage the musicians to listen to the overall group, stressing that all members can be equally heard. A unique form of improvisation grows from this, where no single voice or soloist takes center stage. Players are encouraged to “occasionally” drop out entirely just to listen and reflect on their next entrance. After all members of the ensemble have reached the fifty-third module, each person remains on it, and “the group then makes a large crescendo and diminuendo a few times and each player drops out as he or she wishes.” When played well, each performance of In C abounds with polyrhythmic and metric shifts, subtle canonic relationships that build up and dissipate, and a free treatment of tonality that in some moments exhibit a strongly modal flavor. The dynamics and direction of the piece rely largely on the performers and how they react to each other during the performance. Finding new melodic and rhythmic “shapes” becomes one of the primary satisfactions for any ensemble familiar with the piece. A particularly fresh moment may be lingered on, and the group may often choose certain locations to sound in unison and effectively “re-set” the texture. Although the electric piano and synthesizer have figured in past recordings and performances of In C, this may be the first entirely electronic realization, certainly the first performed exclusively on laptops. The unique challenges compared with performance on conventional instruments stem from the enormous timbral palette available to each member of the group. Tones must be chosen that give clarity to the written pitches, yet still blend in a convincing whole. Terry Riley left the door open for just such an interpretation.
The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble deliver a fresh take on "In C" using the musical instruments of our time, laptop computers. Made up of a broad array of local visual artists and musicians, the performers of SLEE take advantage of the diverse tonal palette and rhythmic precision offered by modern technology. While traditional acoustic ensembles are limited by the finite number of acoustic instrumental timbres available to them, SLEE employs a software music performance environment that allows any of the performers to simultaneously sound multiple musical voices, allowing for dynamic increases and decreases in the density of sounding voices. These voices are carefully sculpted by drawing from a large existing library of electronic and sampled acoustic timbres, by modifying these existing sounds, or by designing completely new timbres from the ground up. Often voices are manipulated live, in real time. Adding the drive of a live percussion section and other traditional acoustic instruments, SLEE’s interpretation of "In C" is sure to appeal to fans of experimental rock, electronic/dance, and New Music.