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Music and Collaboration #2: Terry Riley

Music and Collaboration #2: Terry Riley

John Colaruotolo's picture
John Colaruotolo
March 30th, 2012

This is the second post in our Music and Collaboration series.

In our last music and collaboration post, we looked at Miles Davis. In the 1950s and 60s when Miles was experimenting with new ways to collaborate with his friends in the jazz idiom, composer Terry Riley was also experimenting with new ways to collaborate in music outside of the jazz idiom. Specifically, he was interested in how musicians would collaborate with one other in the context of interlocking rhythmic patterns. In 1964, he created a composition called “In C,” which consists of a series of 53 short melodic patterns, to be played by any number of musicians (although he recommends at least 35). Patterns are to be played consecutively with each performer having the freedom to determine how many times he or she will repeat each pattern before moving on to the next. There is no fixed rule as to the number of repetitions a pattern may have. (View the notated score.)

What’s of interest with regard to collaboration is how the piece is realized, or performed, with a group of musicians. Terry mentions in the performance notes that:

“…It is very important that performers listen very carefully to one another, and this means occasionally to drop out and to listen. As an ensemble, it is desirable to play very softly as well as very loudly and to try to diminuendo and crescendo together.

“Each pattern can be played in unison or canonically in any alignment with itself or with its neighboring patterns. One of the joys of In C is the interaction of the players in polyrhythmic combinations that spontaneously arise between patterns. Some quite fantastic shapes will arise and disintegrate as the group moves through the piece when it is properly played.

“It is important not to hurry from pattern to pattern but to stay on a pattern long enough to interlock with other patterns being played. As the performance progresses, performers should stay within 2 or 3 patterns of each other. It is important not to race too far ahead or to lag too far behind.”

With In C, Terry threw out the window the idea of reading music from the top to the bottom of the page. It was no longer important or interesting to just play what is written on the page. What is more interesting is to start with a framework or a structure (the score, or 53 melodic fragments), some guiding principles (listen, leave space, play soft and loud, don’t race to the end), and let each performer do what they do best (play their own instrument). As a result, he opens the door for performers to have an experience of much greater (and much wilder) collaboration than in traditionally notated music. Terry very nicely sums up the nature of collaboration in his composition by saying that “some quite fantastic shapes will arise and disintegrate when then piece is played properly.” That is, no one performer can create this piece alone. (Listen to In C)

You can relate these principles of collaboration to any one of a number of other disciplines or practices where groups of people are working together to create something bigger and better than they could create on their own. Miles Davis believed those principles, as does Terry Riley. Collaboration still works best when everyone plays their part, brings their own experience and expertise to the table, and listens to one another to improve upon each other’s ideas.


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