Eelco Grimm’s Channel Classics Favorites 3 – Riley Four Four Three

In this “Favorites” blog I pick up the thread of my personal history. After three years of electronics studies and discovering high-end audio through the renowned magazine Audio & Techniek (see this video interview with Jaap Veenstra) I went to study at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. I followed courses Music Registration and Sonology there. The latter study revolved around modern electronic composition, with of course much emphasis on serialism and composers such as Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Ligeti, etc. And a lot of physics, psychoacoustics, synthesis techniques and programming. I most enjoyed the lessons of my hero, artist Dick Raaijmakers, who pioneered with synthesizer music at the Philips NatLab in the 1950s.

A classmate, artist and musician Jan Kind, was fascinated by just intonation with 16 tones in a octave. He had tuned his own piano this crazy way, with 2 octaves of 16 keys, on which he played wonderfully well. Together we programmed a just intonated Yamaha DX7 synthesizer that could be modulated to a different key using a midi organ pedal.

In November 1988 we were lucky that John Cage came to The Hague for two weeks as an artist in residence. Jan and I built the “Cage Fright” installation: a wind chime with four scaffolding pipes cut to the right length to produce a pure dominant seventh chord when a fan blew on it. Each pipe had its own microphone, whose sound was briefly unmuted in a mixing desk when someone in the building walked through a corresponding photoelectric sensor beam. The mixer was connected to an FM transmitter and at each of the four light sensor positions there was a stack of old tube radios that received the FM signal. So you heard the effect of your own movement, but also that of people at the other three sensor positions in the building. Together the four notes of a just tuned dominant seventh chord sounded randomly out of the radios.

The installation was inspired by Cage because it was controlled by chance (the movements in the building), but it was a ‘Cage Fright’ because the sounding chord was completely pure, harmonic and not accidental – you should know that a dominant seventh chord is the most dissonant chord in the usual tempered tuning.

Cage entered the building, admired the installation without paying much attention to it, and for the remainder of the two weeks inspired a whole generation of students who gave great performances of his work. Unforgettable was the piece “Inlets” that was performed in the schools’ theater, with a burning fire on the stage (that could still be done in the 80’s).

Art by Jan Kind

Jan Kind was inspired for his research into just intonation through a piece by Terry Riley from 1986: The Harp of New Albion. This piece was written for a just intonated prepared piano – an instrument technique Riley learned from John Cage.

In 1964, Riley sort of founded Minimal Music with his piece In C. Interestingly, Minimal Music grew into a counter-movement to the strict serialism that was in fashion in the 60’s (striving for simplicity in stead of complexity). Terry Riley’s In C only has chords in C major, the most basic chord. Chance plays a major role in this piece, again Riley was inspired by John Cage for this. It consists of 53 short musical fragments, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats, and which can be repeated as many times as the musician wants. Each musician is largely free to determine which fragment to play and when to use it, but the fragments must be played in sequence.

The Ragazze Quartet, together with Slagwerk Den Haag, has recorded a beautiful performance of In C on Channel Classics. Nice detail for this blog: when it was founded in 1977, Slagwerk Den Haag was closely connected to the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, so the pieces of the puzzle just keep clicking together. As with all the recordings I select for my “Favorites” series, Jared Sacks did the recording with his Grimm Audio AD1 and it sounds downright gorgeous again. The climax at the end of the piece after 40 minutes of listening is extraordinarily special. This piece is so closely intertwined with my personal development into who I am that it should not be missing from this series.

The second piece on this Terry Riley album, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector from 1980, is a very cool and accessible piece. It is played very jazzy and swinging by Ragazze with jazz trio Kapok, a real asset. You can purchase the album this month with a 30% discount in the Channel Classics webshop. Use voucher code GRIMM03 for this.

Eelco Grimm

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