Friday, 2 April 2010

Reflections on 'In C' following yesterday's performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

It is tempting to wonder if Pierre Schaeffer, Luc Ferrari and the other members of the Groupe Reserches Musicales were aware of the presence in 1963 of an American named Terry Riley at one of the studios owned and operated by the French national broadcaster, Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française. Riley apparently described the engineer from the RTF who helped him to record Chet Baker, Luis Fuentes, Luigi Trussardi, and George Solano jamming around the theme from Miles Davis's 'So What', as "a very straight guy in a white coat." Riley recorded the group, first altogether, and then individually on separate tracks. Allowing these tapes to go out of phase with each other, looping parts, and creating recurring delays, Riley created the music for The Gift, a play by the influential 'maker' of 'Happenings' Ken Dewey, with members of the Living Theatre and Anna Halprin's dance company.

When, on November 8th of the following year, the audience filed into the San Francisco Tape Music Center, its door held open to conceal a notice from the fire department declaring the building off limits, it was this music from The Gift that was playing on as background music. It is important to locate Terry Riley's 'In C' - the very piece said audience were attending the first performance of - within the history of electronic music, because in a way it is the first piece of music whose performance relies on human instrumentalists imitating the behaviour of tape recorders, as opposed to the serial music of Stockhausen and Boulez which essentially used machines as a kind of perfection of human fallibility, its basic concepts nonetheless derived from instrumental music. Playing the same thing, in the same way, over and over again, gradually phasing and going out of time with the other players around you is actually something very difficult for a human musician to do. For a tape machine, it is just what comes naturally.

This was the curious thing about the performance of 'In C' yesterday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Recorded for Radio 3's Discovering Music series, the performance featured seventeen members of the BBC Concert Orchestra playing glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, piano, and harp plus two flutes, two clarinets, two trumpets, and a string quintet. They just couldn't quite leave it alone. The pulse kept rotating between the different pitched percussionists, losing its gnawing insistence, players would show off by playing some of the piece's fifty-three reiterative motifs in octaves or in double time, flautists were flutter-tonguing, trumpeters fanning their mutes suggestively. The beat was considerably slower than usual, and much more sparse. Instruments would drop in and out an awful lot, playing a phrase just once or twice very delicately and then keeping quiet for a bit, not at all like the kind of frenetic hammering away one hears on early recordings. This was very much an 'In C' to contemplate and appreciate, rather than an ecstatic, trancelike 'In C', and as such it stood as a marker of the piece's newfound acceptance as the 'Rite of Spring' of the late twentieth century, a fully integrated part of the canon of great western classical works.

Warner Jepson was one of the performers playing 'In C' that night in November 1964. A few years later he would leave the Tape Music Center for the National Centre for Experiments in Television (NCET), but not before creating an extraordinary electronic score for Carlos Carvajal's dance-drama, Totentanz, based, like Franz Lizst's Totentanz, on the 'Dies Irae'. The piece was created using a combination of concrete sounds and sounds from a Buchla Box, the first ever electronic sequencer, designed by Donald Buchla at the Tape Music Center while Terry Riley was in France. The period in the early to mid-seventies, with Jepson as composer-in-residence was one of the most productive in the history of NCET. Jepson was interested in the full integration of sound and vision, creating images in much the same way that he had created music, by feeding into a variety of processors a combination of found images and raw electronic signal. It was around this time that Stephen Beck invented the Direct Video Synthesizer.

Jepson was far from the only member of Riley's group that night to go on to interesting things. Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick had started the Tape Music Center in 1962, and Subotnick's (1967) piece, Silver Apples on the Moon was the first piece of electronic music commissioned by a record label (Nonesuch), and thus, in a way, the first piece of music conceived specifically for a record and not a performance. In the seventies, Subotnick began composing pieces for live instruments processed through what he called a 'ghost score'. The ghost score is a series of predetermined control voltages that effectively patch the live instrument through the audio processing modules of an analogue synthesizer, creating an entirely new means for the performance of electronic music. The instrumentalist plays, and their performance is haunted by, and filtered through, this variable virtual mesh.

The composers Pauline Oliveros and Steve Reich were also present, and it was apparently Reich's idea to include the eighth note pulse to keep everyone together. As was the multi-wind instrumentalist, Jon Gibson, who has since gone on to play in the first performance of practically every major minimalist work by LaMonte Young, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Gibson also played on the recordings of Arthur Russell's Instrumentals. Phil Winsor, a composer whose graphic scores were part of the groundbreaking (1986/87) Eye Music touring exhibition, has more recently been composing using fractal and stochastic algorithms in order to create music based on the universe's "own rhythms" for the sake of its possible healing powers. Tony Martin, also part of the group, went from designing light shows to accompany concerts by Oliveros and Subotnick to creating lighting effects for the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka. Stan Schaap, on the other hand, teaches a "practical spirituality" promoted through his Power to Share website, and Mel Weitzman has become the abbot of Berkeley Zen Centre.

I think in some way the sensibility of that first performance of 'In C' might be summed up by a sort of imagined triangulation point between the varied interests of its players, many of which seem to circle around the idea of the concert as a profoundly immersive and encompassing event, and around ideas of multi-media experimentation and interactivity. Terry Riley has described his initial conception of the piece as "a kind of cosmic vision of patterns that were gradually transforming and changing." This oh-so-Californian 'cosmic vision' was notable for its absence from the QEH on Thursday afternoon.