Music Machines in C (An arrangement of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’).


This composition is based on the idea of ‘plunderphonics’, a term first deployed by John Oswald in 1985. Although this term is most commonly associated with Hip-Hop and Turntablism, there is use for the term outside of these musical genres. On speaking about Jim Tenney’s Collage 1 (1961), John Oswald says that:

“Elvis Presley’s hit record ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ (itself borrowed from Carl Perkins) is transformed by means of multi-speed tape recorders and razor blade. In the same way that Pierre Schaeffer found musical potential in his objet sonore, which could be (for instance) a footstep, Tenny took an everyday music and allowed us to hear it differently. “

This composition will involve the use of a toy Music Box, with sheets of card on which I will punch holes to arrange a version of ‘In C’ (1964) by Terry Riley. I will arrange this piece for a Music Box, limited to a fifteen-note range, in the C major scale. My aim is to effect the piece using live electronics to make the music unrecognizable, following the ideas of Oswald’s ‘plunderphonics’. According to Orde-Hume:

“Musical boxes have been made by master artisans since the 1700s, playing classical music, hymns, operatic arias and popular tunes by means of discs or cylinders. The industry started in Europe, flourishing in Switzerland, Germany, and Great Britain, finally crossing the Atlantic to America, before ending in the early 20th century.”

This technology has predominantly been used as a way of replicating pre-composed works such as, classical music and hymns. Although, in this case, I want the music box to act as the sound source for my own live electroacoustic composition. (Taking into account John Oswald’s idea of ‘plunderphonics’). The way in which I will manipulate the sound source will involve a patch in Max MSP, designed for live electronic performance. The Patcher I built for Max MSP consists of a Pitch shifter, a Looper, and Reverb. I arranged the signal chain so that the dry signal runs through all of the effects in my desired order. The pitch shift allows control of the desired pitch and a balance of original and transposed signal. This is then put into the looper, which can also act as a delay, due to its wet signal fader. The reverb has options to alter the size/decay time/high frequency damping/diffusion of the effect. I have altered these parameters throughout the live performance to react to the Music Box, specifically to disguise any recognisable traits of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’.

Another work that I have been influenced by is ‘Should One Applaud?’ by Pinch and Bijsterveld. This text describes the controversial nature of music technology, specifically questions of musical authenticity. Pinch and Bijsterveld write that:

“The impact of technology upon music is not solely a twentieth-century phenomenon. Throughout history, new instruments and instrument components drawing upon the technological possibilities of the day have often incited debates as to their legitimacy and place within musical culture.”

Their writing also states that the player-piano (pianola) is of key importance to their research. I feel that this is similar to my music box composition. This is because it is mechanical but involves an element of ambiguity which may be the result of slight human performance nuances. The only factor of the music box composition that I will have absolute control over will be the speed at which the handle is turned (i.e. tempo). The card upon which the holes are punched will be fed through the mechanics of the Music Box, and stuck together at both ends as a loop. This is so that the melody for ‘In C’ is looped continuously; mimicking the electronic loops I have created for Max MSP, and further demonstrating the Music Box’s ‘machine-like’ quality. Riley’s work is credited to launching the genre of ‘Minimalism’.