A Modal Panorama

DSC04329I’ve said it before and I will say it again right now that there is nothing greater in a music lover’s world than the discovery. The discovery of new music, that is. When you’ve been a music obsessive as long as I have the music discovery is an absolute treat. It’s a treasure hunt and actually finding said treasure. Whenever I think there’s nothing left to discover and that nothing will ever come by again that will thrill me like “this” artist did or “that” artist did I’m blindsided by something. After my discovery of minimalist composer and music genius Steve Reich(in-particular his sublime piece ‘Music for 18 Musicians’) my eyes and ears were opened to a whole new avenue of music. Reich led me to Philip Glass and Morton Subotnick, which led me to Terry Riley. I was immersed in his piece ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ for an entire day before I found myself transported from my lousy desk chair at work to some other dimension as I listened to Riley’s ‘In C’.

Terry Riley looks like Gandalf in current photos. Long, white beard, with a beanie on his head he looks like some ancient cleric who’s composing pieces of music to amuse the Gods with. His later works have titles like ‘Chanting the Light of Foresight’, ‘Ides of March’,’Church of Anthrax’, ‘The Protege’, and ‘The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles’, but the one I’m concerned with is one of his earlier works composed in 1964 called ‘In C’. It’s this evolving piece of music that seems to flow as if coming out of the ether. It seems to be the same notes repeated for 20 minutes, with the instrumentation consisting of 3 vibraphones, 3 saxophones, 3 trombones; 3 violas, 3 flutes, 2 bassoons; 3 oboes, 3 trumpets, 2 marimbaphones, 2 clarinets, and piano. The woodwinds create this airy sound that seems to carry you along on this bizarre and magical dream. If you’re at all familiar with Reich’s work with ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ and ‘Octet’, then you have a pretty good idea of where this piece is firmly planted(albeit a good few years before Steve Reich previewed ‘Music’.) Overall the music stays slightly above the clouds but will momentarily lapse into this almost maniacal whimsy before correcting itself and the woodwinds grab us by our lapels and pull us back from certain insanity(those saxophones like to toy with our emotions here.) The piece is in two parts. Where on side one the music ends with the sound of what sounds like an ancient door closing, side two opens as if we’re continuing our ancient, bizarre, and most assuredly wonderful journey. Wearing headphones as you spin this vinyl you get a dizzying feeling. The feeling of a thousand ancient birds flying past your ears, barely avoiding colliding with you head on. Listening to this I can’t help but think directors are missing out on some amazing mood setting music. I can’t help but think of Bernard Hermann’s iconic score to Hitchcock’s Psycho when I listen to side two of In C. This music opens your mind and puts such intense visions in your head.

Within this piece there is something called “the pulse”. It’s the piano part in the piece. From the album sleeve it states this:

Not included in the score is a a piano part, called the Pulse, which consists of entirely of even octave eighth notes to be drummed steadily on the top two Cs of the keyboard throughout the duration of a performance. Each member of the ensemble plays the fifty-three figures of the score in sync with the Pulse and moves consecutively from Figure 1 to Figure 53. When he moves from figure to figure, where he places his down-beats, and how often and how long he rests is up to him. A performance ends after all the players have arrived at Figure 53. The quality of the music depends upon spontaneous interaction within the ensemble. A good performance reveals a teeming world of groups and subgroups forming, dissovling, and reforming within a modal panorama which shifts over a period of about forty-five to ninety minutes, from C to E to C to G.

So essentially the piano part creates the pulse of the piece and everything else comes in and buzzes around this piano “pulse”,creating this dizzying, hypnotic piece of music.

What is it about this piece that makes me so excited about music? Not only do I love sitting and listening intently to it; getting lost in the cracks and crevices that are left in-between the fluid, repetitive lines these excellent musicians makes; but this music inspires me with it’s huge impact with such a seemingly simple piece of music. It makes me want to create. It has made me create. It moves me to inspire with simplicity. To me, that’s like showing kindness and love with nothing more than a smile, a hug, or a simple acknowledgement. Intricate moves, grandiose expressions, and wild exclamations are great…but nothing beats a simple nod of acceptance to show someone you mean business.

In one piece of music, Terry Riley has shown me that he certainly meant business. His simple nod of acceptance has pushed me to a new level in my own music making. In C was my catalyst. Another wonderful music discovery that goes to prove you’re never done discovering…and certainly never done growing.


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