Music For The Masses

How new is new, how old is old? When does the new become the old, and can something be permanently new, or permanently renewed? The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is organized to play ‘new music,’ which generally means music from after Word War II, leavened with L’Histoire du Soldat here and Appalachian Spring there. A lot of the repertoire is accepted, familiar, even institutionalized – the GVSUNME fine recording of “Music For 18 Musicians” is an interesting case of excitement in hearing a student ensemble play this powerful, collaborative music balanced with the chagrin of realizing that this touchstone revolutionary work is now a part of the academy. That’s not a bad thing, it just means it’s time to make more new music.

The GVSUNME doing just that on their second release, available digitally on the 27th and as a two-CD set on November 17th, of music which, although forty-five years old, is eternally new, and which has also been remade as part of the project, “In C Remixed.” The album is made up of eighteen remixes, by sixteen artists, of the ensembles new recording of Terry Riley’s In C, which brings up the rear as the last track on the last disk. It’s one of the most interesting releases of the year and is packed full of music; this is truly a ‘various artists’ type collection and although the original material is the same for all involved, the remixes run the gamut from the ordinary to the extraordinary, both in terms of quality and conception. There is something in the recording to recommend it to everyone.

Riley’s piece produces good music and is also one of the most important compositional works of the past fifty years or more. More than most pieces, it is a set of instructions, but while generally compositions set out a sequence of events which occur across a well-defined duration and in specific order and coordination, and that come to an end when all the musicians reach their final bar, In C allows the musicians to determine the overall duration of the piece and the point and manner in which it will start and end. The musicians also determine such factors as tempo, dynamics, overall density of sound and even the composition of the ensemble. The actual music is made up of fifty-three shorts phrases, played in order, with each musician deciding for themselves how many times to repeat each phrase. Riley also offers guidelines on how to shape the overall piece and on how the musicians should listen to each other, but that’s it. The music is not difficult, any intermediate level amateur musician could play it.

These qualities make the work important for more than just the music. The context of the piece is that this is a guide to communal music making, available to anyone – the score and instructions are available to all online – and that any interested group of people with instruments can gather together and perform, amateur and professional alike, without anything other than desire and ad hoc organization. It’s an avant-garde piece that completely ignores centuries of music-making hierarchy, including that of the academic and professional avant-garde of its era, and brings revolutionary ideas about musical form directly, simply, to the masses. It elides that line between the experimental and the accessible that musicians rarely are able even to draw. Aesthetically, it is a complex question asked in response to the wall drawings and paintings of Sol Lewitt, whose own avant-garde work was more of what a composer makes than a painter; Lewitt didn’t draw on walls himself, instead he made sets of instructions for others to execute in order to produce the work (the instructions are also the titles of the pieces) the only difference from music being that Lewitt’s results were for the eye, not the ear. Riley and Lewitt each made pieces that provided for freedom and expression within a set structure, pieces that would never be exactly alike in each performance/production, while always being identifiable, and the work of both artists is gorgeous and fun.

The GVSUNME performance of In C on the album is good (I don’t know of a bad performance, and it’s hard to imagine one) and it is a bit darker and more intense than other recordings available (Riley’s own original, thus classic, recording is still in print, and there are excellent and individual ones from the Bang On A Can All-Stars, Paul Hilliard leading an ensemble featuring voices, and an exceptionally wonderful and unique one from the Shanghai Film Orchestra. That recording has a real sense of discovery, of professional musicians finding that they can make their own music like they used to, and is full of fresh joy and excitement, as well as the fascinating timbres of Chinese instruments). It’s the remixes that the album is all about, though. All of them are skillfully made and they fall into two general categories, one more fruitful than the other. There are remixes that take the material from the recording and put it into clear song form, they aspire to dance music, funk and rock. The other remixes mine some specific aspect of the recording and use that material in an expansive way. While most of the music is well-made, and there’s enough in here to please and excite just about everyone, the former approach to the remixing works against the nature of In C, while the latter responds to it and extends that nature.

Since In C is about eliminating most structure, leaving only listening and cooperation, it’s a little odd for remixes to lay down the rigid, mechanical beats of electronic rhythms, but that’s what Jack Dangers, Mason Bates, Dennis DeSantis and a few others have done. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of such limits and as a practical approach it takes a piece which could, theoretically, be played without end and puts it into a well-defined structure and duration for practical recording and listening. The general novelty of hearing this transformation of the avant-garde into pop has a lot of charm, and most of it endures through repeated listening. Two remixes don’t offer much after the initial impression, though, those from DJ Spooky and Kleerup. Once past the intrigue of hearing In C made into rock and hip-hop, comes the realization that their rock and hip-hop are ordinary, predictable and too long. On a surprising album, they are expected quantities. The other dance-style remixes are made with great skill and inventiveness in the details. In his ‘Bints Mix,’ Michael Lowenstern uses a timbre and phrase right out of the soundtrack to Blade Runner and the meeting of Terry Riley and Vangelis in the minds’ ear, mediated through the remix project, is a pleasure. The two from Dangers are complimentary versions, the first solid and straight forward, the second featuring a horror-movie type palette, a touch of Goblin in the concept, and it sounds great. These approaches don’t just remix the recording but put Riley’s ideas together with others in a pop music context which makes it all much more interesting. It also keeps the remixes, with their strict sense of song-form and use of measure to measure time signatures (there are none in Riley’s piece), from denaturing the original material.

The non-dance approach is more imaginative, more difficult to pull off and more rewarding. There’s a startling variety of ideas, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, but they all break the original down then build it up in a completely new way. On a range of ambition and imagination, the starting point is Daniel Bernard Roumain’s ‘Zachary’s Dream,’ where the mix focuses on individual instrumental fragments, building them into a very different ensemble piece, which ultimately serves as a background for a solo turn by the violinist. The ambition is in the details, but the damper is the indulgent personality. Other remixes do similar things but with much more satisfying results. Glenn Kotche’s ‘Smooth’ emphasizes rhythm, turning the work into a live percussion ensemble piece, while the remixes from Zoe Keating, ‘Zinc,’ and Nico Muhly, ‘In C With Canons & Bass,’ isolate sounds and timbres, change the original sense of the passing of time into exactly what each musician seeks, then create entirely different pieces which still sound identifiably like the original. Each is beautiful in ways which follow the musicians’ styles; Keating adds her cello and uses layers to build a piece which is at once delicate, driving and powerful, and Muhly’s work has ravishing sounds and a contemplative, quizzical attitude.

There’s a glitchy mix from R. Luke DuBois, a weird, abstract soundscape from Michael Karlsson and Rob Stephenson, and an ominous, obsessive and intriguing one from Todd Reynolds which fascinates more with each hearing. ‘Counting in C’ from Jad Abumrad turns the work into a modernist, slightly abstract children’s composition, literally melding the audio of a mother teaching a child with a dignified pulse from the music – it’s got the best sense of humor on the album. At the most furthest end, and most successful, are two extremely creative, abstract remixes from Phil Kline and David Lang, each very different and each extraordinary. These are complete recontextualizations and transformations of the music. Kline’s ‘In Cognito’ processes the sound of the tracks into a shimmering, pulsing mass, set in the distance, then draws out particular woodwind and chiming sounds which he mixes against recorded bird song. It’s gorgeous and compelling, and even though it belongs to the same way of thinking as Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus and the extraordinary “Evan Parker With Birds (For Steve Lacy)“, it’s entirely undefinable. Lang’s concept is truly unique. In his ‘simple mix,’ he treats the original recording as a whole, physical object, bending and warping the sound into a queasy mass. It’s a culmination of two of his most intriguing techniques as a composer, the making of great masses of sound and the conception of rhythm and tempo as inconsistent, elastic quantities. It won’t please everyone, but it will be deeply fascinating to many.

Fundamentally, the eternal newness of In C meets the current newness of remixing, and remixing itself is literally a way to make something that exists into something new. Remixing is also part of the new democratization of music-making in that the tools are available to anyone with a computer, and In C is about democratic music-making among any and all who can play an instrument. Conceptually, each lies at a different end of the spectrum, and they meet in this record at a point of constructive tension, where the autocratic choices the remixer makes refashions the open-source culture of the original piece. The idea, the means and the source piece present a mass of intoxicating possibilities that set the mind to racing, and so the dance mixes eschew the most daring and iconoclastic possibilities. They conflate the mass with the common and overlook the brilliance of In C, which is that it is available to the mass yet is enduringly uncommon. Still, they a mostly well-made and a pleasure to hear. The other remixes are deeply personal and idiosyncratic, unselfconsciously uncommon and iconoclastic, and they are mostly excellent and even astoundingly brilliant. This is an important release, full of quality music-making and with the style and knowledge of contemporary culture to spread the most positive and exciting aspects of the avant-garde to a mass of new listeners. I would offer the suggestion and encourage the GVSUNME and Innova to release the tracks to everyone and let that mass of listeners try their own hands at remixing In C. There are sure to be many interesting and worthwhile takes on the music, and it would fulfill the inherent promise of the piece, that this is music and art for the masses.

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11 thoughts on “Music For The Masses

  1. Definitely an option, needs time to prepare the files and organize, then a place to host, then a means to share the results… All new to us and our resources are limited. Thanks for your great article and interest.

    1. You’re welcome, thanks for producing the great music, and I say that as more than just a Composers Forum member!

      If you don’t know this, I would recommend a look at the way Trent Reznor makes remix files available at http://remix.nin.com/ – they use the bit torrent method for downloading.

  2. Just wanted to clear up a technical matter: “In Cognito” was recorded live with a group of boomboxes playing in a meadow in Spencertown, NY. In other words, the birds are live, too!

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