American composer Terry Riley’s “In C” (1964) is widely considered one of the first and most important minimalist compositions. The piece, scored for an ensemble of unspecified instruments and size, consists of 53 short melodic phrases that musicians play and repeat as many times as they wish before moving onto the next. When all the musicians have moved through each of the 53 phrases, the piece is finished. One key aspect of the music is its sense of tonality and its steady pulse provided by a repeating high C note that anchors the music like a timeline bell pattern.
Riley’s “In C” is the focus of a series of recent promotional documentary videos for Ableton Live software about the electronic musician Hendrik Weber (aka Pantha du Prince) and his performance of the piece in collaboration with a percussion ensemble, The Bell Laboratory. (In a previous post, I wrote about an earlier recording by Weber and the Bell percussionists.)
In the first video, we learn about how Weber and the percussionists created their own version of “In C.” Some of the marimba and vibraphone sounds are still there just as they are in the piece’s original recording (percussive sounds with sharp attacks work well for this music), but there are new elements too. Weber’s electronic set up–contact microphones fed through a large mixer–allows him to sample bits and pieces of what the other musicians play, manipulate those sounds, and incorporate them back into his mix. Not surprisingly, Weber also adds a 4/4 techno beat. To my ear, the music has the sound of an electronic music arrangement with percussionists playing along –not a bad thing, but perhaps a reality of this kind of collaboration. In one interesting bit, Weber distinguishes what he does from composing or conducting, describing his role as a kind of interface between the musicians and his pre-assembled arrangement of Riley’s piece:
“I see my role as some kind of connection point. Not as someone who gives directions. It’s more like that I filter the information from each musician…I’m really trying to create this environment.”
The first video, though thoughtful and succinct, doesn’t really show the Ableton software up close. In a second, behind-the scenes video, we see a bit more of the software and how it integrates with Weber’s set up.
But still, we could see more. If the camera zoomed a close up on Ableton’s audio and MIDI clips, stacked vertically as little blocks of sound in the Session View page, we might notice their similarities to the short melodic sequences in Riley’s piece from fifty years ago. This may be the true musical prescience of those early minimalist works by Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass (not to mention, let’s not forget, their world music inspirations from Africa, Indonesia, India): that they foresaw a music based on short melodic cells that could be looped and repeated to make grand designs.