Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"The Office" (workstation series) 76 (One Big Note edition)

Quick hit this morning, which I'll return to edit and expand later: have to run off in a few minutes and lead the traditional end-of-semester in-class freshman performance of Terry Riley's 1964 masterpiece IN C. Riley, along with Lamonte Young and, a little later, Steve Reich (my favorite) and Phillip Glass, was one of the early architects of the Euro-American concert music revolution misleadingly labeled "minimalism"--which label, at the time, was assigned because the music allegedly made use of "minimal" musical materials. It was music of seemingly lengthy repetition, in which musical change (and musical material) was presented very slowly. It tended, like the African and East & South Asian musics which were its inspiration, to provoke very strong critical reactions, either for or against: the critics, who were still stoking the fires of serialism's "music is a research science and it doesn't matter if people like to listen to it" 1950s academic paradigm (most notoriously exemplified in the title assigned to a Scientific American article by Milton Babbitt: "Who Cares If You Listen?"--which was not Babbitt's selection) mostly hated minimalism, because it subverted most of the last 150 years of musical aesthetics: "density is good", "only complicated music is 'serious' music", "harmony is the most important experimental parameter", "if it's popular it can't be art" and so forth. Serialism, which had begun as a remarkably prescient and courageous experiment by Arnold Schoenberg attempting to invent a new mode of organizing large-scale compositions in the early '20s, by the mid '60s had a stranglehold on academic composers: if you didn't compose using the serial technique (compose a "row" of the 12 chromatic pitches which must then be compositionally employed in strict "serial" order, without repetition), you couldn't get tenure, couldn't get accepted into a composition studio, and didn't get the government grants.

"Minimalism" (I like Reich's term "process" music--e.g., "music about processes", not objects--better) defied that. Mostly coming from non-East Coast, non-European-trained, non-tenured or -academic composers, minimalism looked at the entire rest of the world of music, and at the changing social contexts for music in 1960s America, and asked itself whether all those presumptions cited above were necessary. Minimalism was interested in giving control--or at least choice--back to performers, at breaking down barriers between performers and audiences, at subverting the cult of the virtuoso and of the Promethean composer, and at re-connecting to music as a processual experience instead of a contemplative object. The people who liked minimalist music--in contrast to the critics cited above--tended to be the same people who were responding positively to the 1960s social and cultural revolutions.

IN C is a series of 53 short melodic fragments between 2 and around 9 beats long, each with a distinctive rhythmic shape, sketched across a single large sheet of manuscript paper and number 1-53 (the whole score is that one page). Riley instructs that, to the accompaniment of an unchanging eighth-note high C played on piano or mallets, all players--in any number or combination of instruments--will begin with fragment 1 and play each subsequent fragment in succession. The performer's input comes not in the melodic material or in the sequencing, but rather in the number of repetitions each player gives to each fragment: all begin on #1, and must repeat the fragment at least twice. But thereafter, player A may choose to move immediately to #2, while player B remains on #1 for some additional number of repetitions. All players play all fragments in strict sequence, but each player may choose individually the number of repetitions.

So what happens is that, within a fairly constant 8th-note rhythmic pulse, the parts begin together, but then rapidly move "out of phase" with one another (another early term for the idiom was "phase" music, though the early John Cage title Music of Changes, attached to a period composition not in this idiom, is an equally accurate and far more lovely and evocative descriptor). So the relationship between parts, the "polyphony", is constantly changing, is shaped by the individual players, and is unique to each individual performance.

It's a masterful balance of pre-composition and moment-by-moment player choice, and the experience of playing it, like the experience of playing Shona panpipes dances, or akadinda xylphone, or Ghanian percussion music, or Javanese gamelan, is marvelously immediate and engrossing for the players. It's music that seeks, not to "begin at measure 1 and play through in strict regimented perfection to measure Infinity", but rather to set up an experiential field, within which parts, players, and audience all interact with one another.

The kids love it. They hear a description and then a good recorded performance early in the Freshman semester (as the free jazz players say, "It was when I learned I could make a mistake that I knew I was on to a viable approach"), and then the last day of the semester, when they're hammered with data, woefully short of sleep (due to all-nighters resulting from bad time management), and scared about looming finals, we cut them loose in the classroom--all players and singers, all instruments--on a performance of IN C. It's good for them physically, and also emotionally: as close to meditation as you can get and still be playing a piece of ensemble music.

Tends to send them out the door feeling better. Or at least more like musicians.

10 days to proposal deadline.

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