Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble – Terry Riley: In C

Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble – Terry Riley: In C

Back in 1964, Terry Riley introduced to the world what many consider and herald as the first proper minimalist work with his renowned In C. Composed through a new method where musicians are allowed to play different notes and rhythms to their liking, it is also an almost aleatoric musical piece in that its outcome can be decided a number of ways. But looking back and listening to the piece now, it’s astonishing that music like this was being made, rehearsed and performed more than 45 years ago.

In a new series, where contemporary music is being combined with classical music, the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble’s November 8th , 2009 performance at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge is being brought to our attention as a resonating reminder that music can be loved by all, anytime. This astounding performance, which features a sixteen-person orchestra (the piece is written for as many performers as desired, though Riley would go on to say that 35 was preferable), is joined by New York producer/composer Dennis DeSantis, who layers his own effects by way of a laptop on top of the musicians’ performance. The end result is a fascinatingly remarkable one, where the organic touch of the instruments and the electronic feel of DeSantis’ treatments add up for a fusion of contemporary classical music that is remarkable.

The explanation of the music is always the hardest to describe because of the music’s own ever-changing features. But the best way I can explain it is that the music consists of 53 short phrases (known as cells) that may be repeated and played as much as the instrumentalist likes. While each musician has complete control over what they play, they are encouraged to bring forth their ideas at different rates and times, while traditionally there is always one musician acting as ‘the pulse,’ or more rudimentary, as the tempo. This particular performance lasts for sixty-five minutes but other performances have been known to last much longer and shorter (the sixty-five minutes fits in between the norm of 40 minutes to an hour, hour and a half.)

As for the actual musicians, the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is made up of some of the finest musicians. Each one is clearly heard with the saxophones shining brightly. Near the beginning, it is a lone sax that brings the music to a rousing climax before the ten-minute mark and later, around the forty-minute mark, the trumpet passes the lead to the sax for another wonderful excerpt.

Even DeSantis’ timely and subtle touches add color and dynamics to the music’s minimal movements. DeSantis’ electronics take over the strongest on the back-end, where he adds jagged beats and drums on top of the moving melodies. Although the piece is focused on a repetitive, looping feel, the electronics provide an even better sense for the music’s originality and innovative influence. And the memorable moments come from all over the place with a new entrance, introduction or exit always remaining in your memory bank.

While the piece begins on a C major chord, the piece is mostly heterophonic in demeanor as it is characterized by the variation of a single melodic line. That line, coming in the form of a few eighths notes always shifts from tone to tone, instrument to instrument but it always exists as the main idea. Though the polyphony might be taken to a new level simply because of the dissimilar ideas DeSantis brings to the table; this alone is one of the many reasons why others like Flying Lotus and Explosions in the Sky have lent their contemporary hands.

I remember when I first studied In C, it took me for a ride because of its tendency towards allowing the musicians to take over. Much like jazz with its improvisation, it’s a landmark classical piece and this new performance by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is arguably, the finest I’ve heard. The collaborative effort is a worthy one that has turned out something truly sublime and one that all fans of music should seek out.

Ghostly International / Wordless Music