This afternoon the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival presented one of its more unconventional (if not the most unconventional) of its outdoor offerings for this summer season. The performers were the members of Brooklyn Raga Massive, which has lined up a series of performances in the Bay Area (including one at the Red Poppy Art House, which happens to be tonight, and another at the Center for New Music) over the course of the coming week. Today’s offering was announced to be Terry Riley’s “In C,” whose score consists of 53 short numbered music phrases, which may be played by any number of performers on instruments of their choosing. The rules are relatively simple. Beginning with the first phrase, each phrase may be repeated any number of times, after which one may pause before moving on to the next phrase in the ordering. The piece is over when all players have gotten through the 53rd phrase. The tempo is set by the pitch C being played at a steady pulse, usually on the highest octaves of a piano keyboard.
Brooklyn Raga Massive is a relatively large ensemble that brings traditional Indian instruments together with more familiar Western instruments. On this occasion, however, the group was even larger. Members of Classical Revolution were invited to participate, making for a total of twenty performers.
On their “home turf” Brooklyn Raga Massive offers a weekly Raga Music Jam Session. This amounts to an exploration of the similarities and differences that arise in the improvisational practices of the raga in Indian Music and jazz in the Western world. From this point of view, “In C” is a somewhat unlikely selection for performance. The timing of the individual phrases is left to each performer, but improvisation is not part of the framework. This afternoon Brooklyn Raga Massive chose to respond to Riley’s constraint by bending his rules, so to speak, to allow improvisation to enter the process.
To understand how this worked involves a bit of explanation of what makes the rules behind “In C” tick. As might be expected, all 53 phrases are rooted in the tonality of C major. As the piece proceeds, those phrases tend to accumulate in piles of superpositions, giving rise to an overall sense of a rich texture that is always gradually changing. As might be expected, the texture itself is consistently oriented around a C major triad (C-E-G). However, the first non-triadic diatonic pitch (an F) shows up in the second fragment; and the first chromatic pitch (F-sharp) appears in the eighteenth. Thus, while the triad may dominate, the changes in texture often convey a sense of a modest harmonic progression.
As a result, the changing texture itself serves somewhat as a sort of “chart” against which individual performers can improvise. Because of the varying backgrounds of the performers, those improvisations reflected both raga and Western jazz practices. Furthermore, following the usual jazz conventions, it appeared as if there had been some a priori agreement over which musicians would take improvisational “departures” from Riley’s score and in what order they would do so.
It is not hard to imagine that such a practice would rub purists the wrong way. “In C” has achieved iconic status for its role in pushing back against the complex abstractions that had obsessed composers of serial music. It chose to confront the demons that only saw beauty in the mathematics behind the permutations of twelve-tone rows by bursting forth with a barbaric yawp worthy of the poetic excesses of Walt Whitman. However, if the “message” behind that yawp was “It’s time for a new set of rules,” then why should we push back when an ensemble comes forward to apply that same declaration to Riley’s own rules?
Remember, Riley himself had a thoroughly engaging capacity for improvisation. I have been fortunate enough to listen to him exercise it in concert several times. I even had a chance to chat with him a bit. My guess is that, had he been in this afternoon’s audience, he would have had no trouble buying into how Brooklyn Raga Massive had worked out their own approach to his score. (I also think he would have been delighted to observe that his pulse was being provided by pitched Indian drums.) Judging from the way in which this performance attracted a large number of listeners and held their attention for over an hour, I suspect that Riley would also have felt that both he and his music were in good company.