Experiments in Audio Origami # 3: Sampling Terry Riley’s “In C”

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Once again, my attention is drawn to this amazing piece of music as a palette for my own sound creations. Terry Riley’s In C is a sonic Universe to be explored, and even though I spent a year studying the work, it continues to beckon me saying “There is more here than meets the ear!” I am re-reading analyses of the piece to help me appreciate the harmonic, rhythmic and tonal shape of Terry Riley’s In C even as I seek other ways to play with it.

In 1964, Terry Riley came up with these 53 patterns or phrases while riding to work on the bus. He arranged them in a particular order that, when played in the overlapping format described in his performing instructions, manifests a rich and flowing harmonic structure with density, space and shifting pulses. While Riley’s performing instructions are clear, they read more like guidelines than absolutes. Robert Carl, in his book Terry Riley’s In C, notes that the language of the instructions is qualified in a way that invites interpretive freedom and individual expression. The performing instructions themselves elicit interesting questions:

  • While the piece is usually played with all the voices within 2 – 3 patterns of each other, can patterns that are further apart be layered to interesting effect?
  • Riley recommends “not to hurry from pattern to pattern”; what would happen if each voice played each pattern a few times and then moved on? Could we play a Minute In C?
  • The 8th note pulse has become a sonic character of In C performances, but is it necessary when performing with midi loops? It loses its functional necessity; is there an aesthetic, acoustical necessity for it?
  • Can In C be played in reverse? inside out?
  • What happens when In C is played at very slow tempos?

When I look at the score of Terry Riley’s In C (hereafter known as TRIC) each of these patterns stands as a clearly articulated moment that, when looped, carries momentum. As such, they appear to me like notated samples to be mixed down into soundscapes. By calling them samples, I release them from the authority of “the score” and invite them to “talk among themselves.”  At one point, Robert Carl calls TRIC a “matrix of possibilities.” In the context of 21st Century electronic music and the age of sampling, In C offers a bounty of material for building soundscapes.

When the patterns in TRIC are viewed as electronic music samples, a whole new world opens up. The patterns become Lego blocks, to be held up against each other, pushed and pulled apart. They are sonic colors to be tweaked and mixed into new shades and hues. All the while, retaining the DNA of the “Mother.” Here is an example I have been playing with called Blended Edges – this spiraling loop consists of three TRIC patterns, all of which stay true to their internal rhythmic structure with some harmonic alterations. Pattern 10 is two 16th notes (equivalent to one 8th note pulse) which serves as a steady background flutter. Patterns 18 and 20 bring a polyrhythmic two against three into the mix. Pattern 18 covers two quarter note beats, while Pattern 20 covers three quarter note beats. Both patterns have a longer tone on the second quarter note beat, and the remaining notes are 16th notes, so there is this flutter and drag that create the spin and momentum of the soundscape. The notes as written in P18 and P20 have an F# that gave the scape an ominous aura.The F# was transposed to a G and an E. To my ear, the spinning pulse is more upbeat and hopeful with this change. Here is the excerpt with some piano improv:


The impetus for this next wave of exploration into TRIC is the Folding/Unfolding Series that Glenna Batson and I have been engaged in for the past six months. We meet to play with ideas on a regular basis, and we have presented three workshops around the idea of the body folding and unfolding in relation to itself and to paper, cloth, and sound. Rhythmic figures, melodic patterns, reverb, echo, and overtone series/harmonics render sound as a fold (and unfold) around and in the body. The participants in previous workshops noted that the soundscape sometimes lead and sometimes followed their movement – a sort of “meta-fold” in the scape itself.

The first two iterations of the Folding/Unfolding soundscape have been modified and streamlined to create oceanic waves of sound moved more by pulsations than pulse. When playing the soundscape live for movers, I improvise on a grand piano midi-voice to illustrate ways to relate to the swirling pulse. In melody as in movement, patterns can be imitated, contrasted, paralleled, resisted, reconstructed, etc. The piano improvisation provides aural feedback in the moment to the movements I observe from the movers. So the soundscape, like a river, is never exactly the same in any given moment in time.

To further shape this soundscape, I will mix in patterns from TRIC. Here is an example of a quartet of samples from In C, all from far-flung regions of the orginal score. I call this groove “elegant.” The tempo is ultra-slow.  This is heart music to me!

Come enfold with us this Saturday, December 3 from 4 – 6 at The Joy of Movement Studio in Pittsboro. We will explore echo and spiral as folds in action.

(image is of “from your heart to God’s ear” – a pocket installation by Jude Casseday)

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