The (Musical) Games We Play: (Musical) Exquisite Corpses and Terry Riley’s “In C”

This past weekend, as part of the MakeMusicNewYork festival, I took part in a interesting “game” entitled Exquisite Corpses. The term refers to a artistic technique invented by the early 20th century surrealists in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the writing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contribution. The concept of the musical version I took part was fairly simple. Musician #1 would start playing and after 5 minutes, be joined in an improvised duet with musician #2. After another 5 minutes, musician #1 would be replaced by musician #3. After another 5 minutes, musician #2 would be replaced by musician #4 and so on. The result would be a series of improvised duets between musicians from different backgrounds and create a chain of unique cross-genre musical dialogs. A host plays the role of traffic cop, directing when a player joins and exits from the performance. Playing my Chapman Stick guitar, I wound up replacing a cellist and playing my first duet with a electric ukelele player who was using several effect boxes to further mutate his sound. He in turn was replaced by a “human beat box”. I must admit that I found this second duet particularly fun. The overall effect of the entire performance can be inconsistent as some spontaneous duets can exhibit more chemistry than others. In many ways it reminded me of more than a few jam sessions I attended where sometimes the particular group of players that night would click and other times it would devolve into an endless E9th funk jam (see my earlier post:

The game ended with a improvisation involving all the players. Below is a short clip of the improv.

Exquisite Corpses, with it’s rule based structure, reminded me of Terry Riley’s minimalist masterpiece, “In C”. The piece, written in 1964, is considered one of the first minimalist compositions. The landscape of contemporary classical music at that time was dominated by academic abstract pieces that often were atonal (as in not having a tonal center). Terry Riley was one of the first of a new wave of composers whose work was a reaction to all that. Riley, along with other composers like La Monte Young, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, composed music that did not shy away from having a consonant key center or a regular rhythmic pulse. The music featured the gradual transformation of musical phrases through additive repetition and the use of of process techniques that followed strict rules. All of those attributes were first laid out in “In C”.
The piece consists of 53 short, numbered musical phrases. Each phrase may be repeated an arbitrary number of times. Each player has control over which phrase he or she plays but the phrases must be played in their numbered order. The musicians are encouraged to play the phrases at different times, even if they are playing the same phrase. It is customary for one musician to play a C note in a steady eighth note rhythm, usually on a piano or a pitched percussion instrument like a marimba. This part is referred to as “The Pulse” and serves as the timekeeper of the ensemble, eliminating the need for a conductor. Due to the chance aspect of the compositions structure, the length of each performance is highly variable, as short as fifteen minutes and as long as several hours. The number of players involved can vary as well as the instrumentation. The musicians shape the performance with their individual choices in regards to the number of repetitions they play of specific phrases, their entry and exit into the ensemble and their choice of dnyamics. At the same time, the individual phrases are all predetermined in the score, relating it back to the Western tradition of classical music.

Below are video clips of several different performances of “In C”. They duration vary as well as the nature of each ensemble, attesting to the flexibility of the composition.

If you’re interested, below is the score of “In C”. Get a bunch of player together and give it a go (click on the image to view).


What attracts me to both these musical “games” is that they remind me that making music is often a product of community. It’s one of the many things that I love so much about being a musician.

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Posted in Classical, Improvisation, Music Appreciation and Analysis

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