22.8.2019, 18:00, BrickHouse, Hlubina Coal Mine
Terry Riley: In C (1964)
Robert Ashley: The Wolfman (1964)
The opening event of the festival will take place in a fitting setting: the newly renovated premises of the Hlubina Mine in the Dolní Vítkovice area. The 6pm concert presents important works from the year 1964. Composers Terry Riley and Robert Ashley had a fundamental influence on two generations of composers and musicians and inspired an entirely new way of making and listening to music. This music from 1964 (!), which, for Ostrava Days is a look into the past, would be a daring step into the future for most other Czech festivals. A glimpse of the future is offered in the second concert (The Coming) of the evening at 8pm, which presents compositions of student-residents – emerging composers who are part of the Ostrava Days Institute – as well as works by two well-known composers from Berlin: Steffi Weismann and Peter Ablinger.
Although the full score of In C is only one page, with several instructions from the author, the work has significantly influenced music since it was composed 55 years ago. In C may be viewed as the culmination of an intersection of diverse influences that had been acting on Terry Riley for several years leading up to its composition. The common denominator is the breaking up of the standard conception of musical structure and linear time. Riley had been indulging in free improvisation as a pianist throughout the 50s, and he also adopted various ideas from jazz – he was fascinated by the potential of multiple repetitions, shifts and interweavings of phrases. This method of structuring music was further refined by Riley in the early 60s when he experimented with tape loops. Such experiments resulted in his composition Music for the Gift (1963), which was based on a performance of Miles Davis’ So What by Chet Baker’s band, which Riley recording. He subsequently divided the recording into individual instrument tracks and created loops, which he layered on top of one another in various time intervals, creating a remarkable, repetitive sonic collage.
Riley’s instructions for In C are very simple. The composition may be performed on any musical instruments by any number of performers (an “ideal” ensemble is a group of 35 musicians). The composition consists of 53 written-out patterns, which are played successively by the performers from the first to the very last. Each pattern can be repeated a random number of times and the performer should play it for approximately 45–90 seconds and then move to the next pattern. When the performer reaches the last pattern, they repeat it as many times as needed until the other players reach it as well. The whole ensemble then plays crescendo and diminuendo a couple of times over, and the piece ends. The performance usually lasts around 45 minutes. As a matter of fact, In C transfers Riley’s concepts from Music for the Gift to a whole group of live performers, whose “loops” are now layered over each other in real time. By doing so, the composer achieves a markedly complex musical structure thanks to the interplay of simple elements. The most interesting musical activity can be found in the space betweenthe individual patterns – the result of their clashes and penetrations cannot be predicted in advance, and each performance of the piece is a new and unique experience. At the same time, the processes at play may be observed to some extent over the course of the performance, which makes it attractive for the listeners. The multiple repetitions and the interweaving of patterns can also disrupt our perception of time, giving us the possibility to free ourselves (at least for a moment…) from its rule.
“A composition which can damage your hearing!” or “Singer screaming into the microphone for twenty minutes!” Unfortunately, myths such as these have long accompanied Robert Ashley’s compositionThe Wolfman. The work incited mixed feelings in the listeners and they did not know how to approach it. Ashley, whose works markedly defy common standards and conventions, actually finds himself in a very similar position. After his university studies (University of Michigan, Manhattan School of Music), Ashley, along with George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds and Donald Scavarda, organized the ONCE Festival of New Music (Ann Arbor, Michigan) from 1961 to 1966, which represented a key cultural event in the Midwest. Until 1964, the festival mainly presented works of contemporary instrumental music. Over the following years, the focus of the festival shifted towards multimedia and performance works. To a certain extent, this turn is reflected in Ashley’s compositions. At that time, he was experimenting with various ways of blending live vocal expression with prerecorded sounds by technological means, and The Wolfman(1964) combines amplified “singing” with tape and feedback. The input level of the performer’s microphone is set extremely high, and any sound captured by the device may become a source of feedback. Therefore, the singer has to stand close to the microphone in order to regulate the feedback, and is paradoxically driven to limit their vocal expression to very soft levels. Simultaneously, the speakers also play the content of the tape, which consists of a mix of various sounds, noises and hisses. The performer’s vocal entries and the sounds from the tape mix in the space and create a shifting wave of noise, which is continually penetrated (or complemented) by feedback. The whole space is literally saturated with this intense, harsh and “dirty” mix of sound, which may come across as bleak or disturbing (in live performances, the listeners may often experience the illusion that the sounds are coming from different places). The gloomy atmosphere of the work is crowned by the theatrical dimension of the piece – the singer should look like a „sinister nightclub vocalist“. Ashley approached feedback by artistic means not long before it became a commonly used technique, for example in rock music. Perhaps due to the fact that this acoustic feature was still a novelty for the majority of listeners (and owing to the gloomy nature of the work), The Wolfman was rather unjustly labeled as a “dangerous composition”.