“A Rainbow In Curved Air” by Terry Riley
Performed by “The Charles Hazlewood All Stars”
Programme also included “Four Organs” and “Harp Phase” by Steve Reich and Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”
St Georges Bristol 4th November 2011
Queen Elizabeth Hall London 7th December 2011
Sage Gateshead 8th December 2011
Charles Hazlewood: Hammond organ, Will Gregory: keyboards, piano, oboe, Adrian Utley: guitar, bass guitar, electric sitar, Ruth Wall: keyboards, piano, harp, Graham Fitkin: Keyboards, Joby Talbot: tuned and untuned percussion, Alex Vann: guitar, bass guitar, Denny Illett: guitar, bass guitar, Alan Thomas: guitar, bass guitar, Viv Hope-Scott: Keyboards, Ross Hughes: keyboards, bass guitar, flute, Eddie Parker: keyboards, flute, bass flute
Some performances of Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow In Curved Air” I recently took part in got me thinking about some philosophical issues. More accurately, the challenges of putting the performances together brought up what I would regard as philosophical problems. I call them philosophical on two counts: one, of authenticity – how “faithful” can or should a performance like this be? And in what way can and should we be faithful – to the notes or to the intentions? Two, of mind, and the ontology of performance: where do we “go” when we are improvising? How is it different to where we “go” in other kinds of performance?
In reality these problems and issues were all intertwined with each other, and not being much of an essay writer I have found it difficult to separate them out. So forgive me if this darts back and forth from one subject to the other. Here goes:
First, why should a performance of “Rainbow” be faithful to the original recording? After all, the piece was improvisatory in the first place. I believe that in a first iteration, before I was involved with the group, the players had departed far from the source material; it had been largely improvised, treating the original as a very loose framework/ vehicle. The key movers of the group evidently felt that while this performance had had validity in itself, justice had not been done to the original work and that a fresh approach was needed. The point of working from a transcription, as was decided, rather than merely “doing an impression”, was to give proper respect to this iconic piece. I don’t know quite how authentic our performance was by comparison – the improvised spaces certainly took on their own identity, but more on this later.
Next, in which ways can and should a performance be faithful, and to what degree?
For its second iteration the group commissioned an accurate transcription by Peter Riley (no relation) of the original recording. This consisted in a mixture of conventional notation of the various interweaving strands of keyboard melody, including two main “anchor” parts of endlessly repeating patterns and five other parts consisting of variously repetitive or improvisatory lines (further identified as “free” or “ornamental”); and graphic score –style notation: start and end pitches, start and end times, and up/down direction by glissando markings. Often these notations were punctuated by conventional notation where notes and phrases are discernible in the original. So the transcription was in itself a feat given the homogeneous quality of the recording and the way lines weave around each other; it was as accurate as it could be without becoming prohibitively difficult to play.
Nevertheless, the fast passages were challenging! No doubt the publicity hype describing Terry Riley as a virtuoso is true, but the speed and sound of some of the lines belies some kind of technological enhancement of human capabilities. The ornamental passages in particular are a blur of notes. So a first consideration was, how do we achieve the same effect, or an effect closely resembling the original? After some experimentation with a delay pedal I provisionally settled on a two-handed classical technique rather than electronics. The result was not exactly the same as the original but deemed (by the prime movers of the group) close enough for the time being. In subsequent performances this approach was modified: more time spent battling with a delay pedal yielded results. In the end I settled on the two-handed technique in combination with the delay pedal on a very short setting.
But in these passages, I noticed, a new difficulty arises: losing the sense of time. In improvising a different set of skills and a different state of mind is engaged which is difficult to reconcile with reading notation and counting beats and bars: for improvisation to be successful improvisers need to feel free of the “nuts and bolts” of the music. The difficulties are compounded by the fact that the piece is in 7/4 time (possibly inspired by the Indian tal “Rupak”), but not in a “groove” as such – like in rock, funk or fusion – but played in a way which flattens the contours and produces the effect of a seamless continuum. It is very easy to lose one’s place and “float” over the music. I noticed that my perception of the passage of time became suspended in these moments – I couldn’t easily tell if one bar or two or even eight had gone by. I did eventually begin to handle this, but it took a degree of removing or distancing oneself while playing, which was at odds with the improvising mindset.
Another authenticity problem was the instruments and the sounds they make. In this digital age it is possible for sounds to be too “perfect” when what is needed is “grunge”. Where possible digital sampling technology was passed over in favour of older instruments. The group were lucky enough to have access to a number of Farfisa organs, a Hammond organ with Leslie speaker, and various other antique synthesizers and keyboards. With these we were able to come close to the original sound world of the piece; one major problem was to find a sound which adequately reproduced the sitar/harpsichord, originally played on an instrument called the “Rocksichord”.
Another related problem was the business of mixing and balancing the sounds – in the original a subtle balance is achieved in the studio with lines emerging and then receding into the distance, lines being revealed from behind a veil of other sounds, etc. The solution to this was achieved through the sensitivity of the group, through some discussion and direction, and by listening together to the original recording.
Every performer has to deal with how the sound changes in front of an audience, but particularly players of amplified music are subject to a great many variables of this kind. In the larger venues this problem was further complicated by the group’s reliance on monitors; it was sometimes hard to distinguish one’s own sound from the rest, and so a compromise was to have one’s own amplifier on stage and use monitors to hear everyone else.
Because there was not much time to rehearse, the group set about solving the “geography” problems through a shared system of cueing: one player gave most of them (downbeats on rehearsal marks) and then two other players gave downbeats in particular places in the music where the first player was playing and therefore unable to give cues. This led to a complicated arrangement of cueing, and one’s attention as a performer had to be directed in different places through the piece. So between the difficulty of the keyboard music itself, the seamless continuum of the time signature with attendant potential for losing one’s place, remembering which musician to look to for cues in any given part of the piece, and various other concerns, the performer’s experience of “Rainbow” is rather different to the spaced-out, transcendental, floating effect that the audience experiences! It’s the classic contrast between art and artifice: the art is to conceal the difficulties. I’m not sure the first performance achieved this – there was much mouthing of numbers, anxious glances around the stage, etc…we did our best!
With repeated rehearsals and with the experience of performances a performer could get used to these difficulties, become familiar with the topology of the piece and either develop the necessary skill or devise strategies to sidestep the problems: but this does not adequately explain what I’m calling the ontological problem that I believe is nested within any approach to performing this piece. I don’t intend to mystify improvisation and put it beyond analysis; I say merely that this technique of music-making is different from other forms, and needs to be quantified on its own terms. Because I am, from my training and from my professional experiences equally an improviser and a “reader” I feel confident enough to make the assertion that there are different things going on in the two approaches; during rehearsals and performances of “Rainbow” I found myself switching between the two, with some feeling of disorientation or dislocation as I did so.
A further layer of sophistication again lies within the improvisatory aspect: improvisation is always “located” in some shared vocabulary – in this case the vocabulary is partly jazz derived, partly rock derived. As an improviser, I consider it part of my job to find the right vocabulary for the piece: it would not be right, I feel, to play in a bebop style, for example. Also in order to maintain the integrity of the piece one should not dominate in a soloistic way, but be part of the landscape of the music.
Terry Riley’s improvising voice is quite an individual mix of the rock and jazz; it sits well alongside other jazz-influenced rock improvising like that of Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, etc; and, contrarily, with rock-influenced jazz playing like in Miles Davis’ electric period, and perhaps jazz with an Indian music influence like Don Ellis etc. But as an improviser I don’t want to merely ventriloquize Terry Riley; nor do I want to insensitively stamp my own improvising identity on the piece. It is a question of balance, and judgements on these matters have to be made not only before but during the performance in order to maintain the equilibrium of the music. This is where the authenticity view and the ontology view coincide. I might characterise this as another problem of authenticity – only this time the problem is to be authentic to one’s own improvising voice without destroying the identity of the piece itself; viewed from the ontological perspective one may characterise the problem as – whose voice am I “using”, and how does this happen? Can it be done without being self-conscious and contrived?
Also, I was not the only improviser in the group and it was interesting how over the three performances and rehearsals a group approach to the improvising emerged. Five of us had our “spots” during the piece, and though we never particularly tried to consciously blend our sounds or approaches, some common ground became established between us by some tacit process of exploration and consensus. I believe a continuity was achieved but I’m not sure how. One would have to be able to hear each player’s own internal monologue to truly understand this. Definitely for me there were times when I had to consciously avoid certain kinds of generic jazz pentatonic language; there were also times when I consciously imitated or answered phrases from my colleagues’ improvisations. I’m not sure but I think they also copied me, so between us we arrived at a common voice for the piece. Later a solo on electric sitar was added which gave another quite unexpected and beautiful dimension. I found myself quite transported in these moments.
But this brings me to another authenticity issue: if the proper vibe of “Rainbow” is transcendental, ecstatic trance, how can this be achieved? Can it be achieved at all in these cynical post-modern times? Was Terry Riley himself in this ecstatic state when performing the piece? Perhaps we can get somewhere close to the original vibe; perhaps similar issues face any performer of music from another period. It’s just that this music is closer to us in time but further away in zeitgeist. There again, it should be possible to approach this piece as one might any piece – as a text, a text to which one might bring any number of potential interpretations; with the ideology or contextual assumptions of another age and community; or perhaps with an inspired new interpretation. So I could start all over again and characterize this according to yet another set of philosophical discourses – those of interpretation and reception.
But I won’t.