Rhythm, Compatibility, and Riley’s In C

Have you ever noticed that when we talk about people we really love being around, it’s easy to speak of our connection in rhythmic terms? 

“We’re on the same wavelength.”
“It’s like they’re tuned to the same frequency as me.”
“She and I vibe so well together!”
“He and I, we just click.”
“We’re so in sync!”

There are so many ways to describe friendships, but rhythm as a metaphor seems to uniquely describe the essence of what it means to have a meaningful connection with another human being. I recently was introduced to the concept of rhythmanalysis, and once I started delving into the topic, it made me reevaluate so many things through a completely different lens – such as the topic of how people find and make their friends.

Energy moves in waves.
Waves move in patterns.
Patterns move in rhythms.
A human being is just that
Energy, waves, patterns, rhythms.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
A dance.
(Gabrielle Roth)

Rhythms pervade every layer and every corner of our existence. Some can be heard and felt in the moment (drum beats, heartbeats, vibrations), while some require a longer span of time to notice (the day/night cycle, the changing of the seasons, global warming). Some are more conceptual vs. directly sensed by the body (such as the regular transfers of political power). Vibrations happen on a molecular level and create color, sound, temperature, weather… we are enveloped in rhythm from womb to tomb, while also being part of a larger rhythm – the life/death cycle.

In addition to being surrounded by rhythm, as humans, we are polyrhythmic beings. The human body inherently operates on multiple rhythmic levels – it’s in our breathing, our heartbeat, our sleep/wake cycles, the speed of our gait. The cycles and patterns we learn from childhood can affect us as adults, from what we were fed, what we were taught, how we were loved, who/what we worship, and how we learned to seek solace when times are tough. Every individual is a complex combination of rhythms and cycles – physical, intellectual, emotional, psychological – and when you meet another person, there are so many ways that the combination of those rhythms can create something beautiful – or unbearable.

Each human personality is like a piece of music, having an
individual tone and a rhythm of its own.
(Hazrat Inayat Khan)

I think the word ‘friend’ is one of the most vague and misunderstood words in the English language, as people use the word for everything from acquaintances to people they trust with their lives. Acquaintances are made from common circumstance. You might meet at school or work, through a mutual friend, or from sharing the same hobby. Often, the relationship doesn’t progress beyond this surface level – but sometimes, we are lucky enough to find people with whom we sense we resonate with on a deeper level (getting a “good vibe” off of them!), and we start sharing more of our hidden inner selves with each other in an attempt to ‘level up’ our friendship to something deeper. Does this mean that friendships are only made by people who have lots in common? No. If we all exude our own individual rhythmic vibrations, we might gravitate most naturally toward people who are the same as us (synchronization), or people who are different yet complementary to us (syncopation – a contrasting rhythm that still meshes well and adds layers of interest). Like attracts like, AND opposites attract… both of these things can be true at the same time. 

Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when
we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue.
When it does, it grows sweeter.
(Mary Oliver)

Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of
balance, order, rhythm, and harmony.
(Thomas Merton)

Music theory nerds might already know about this, but it was a mind-blowing revelation to me when I discovered that polyrhythms create harmony. When sped up, beats create pitches, and depending on what the polyrhythm is, the resulting sound could be consonant or dissonant. Adam Neely has a fascinating video on this topic. 

A polyrhythm that sounds good together creates consonance, and I think this is a good analogy for a healthy friendship. Music is full of consonance and dissonance, and most people need a balance of both to have a satisfying musical experience – the exact ratio of which is an individual preference. Too much consonance can be dull, but it’s uncomfortable to sustain a chord (or a friendship) long-term if there’s a lot of dissonance, if the rhythms don’t work well together. For most people, dissonance demands some form of resolution – it demands that someone be made to change eventually, while consonance is inherently more stable and satisfying; consonance feels like peace. I can tolerate mild dissonance in casual friendships, but I feel most comfortable surrounding myself with people whose rhythms feel like a natural fit to my own, rather than constantly having to adjust to someone else’s tempo and never being able to truly relax and be myself. Obviously, we can’t possibly have synchronicity with everyone we meet, but it’s a feeling I think everyone deserves to experience at least once, to feel like their internal rhythm is a natural fit with another person’s, and that the combination of 1+1=rich, complex, soul-restoring consonance! After all, there’s more than enough conflict to be had out there; it’s wonderful to have a refuge in another person when the dissonance of daily life is just too much to bear.

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive,
and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.
(Anaïs Nin)

Terry Riley’s “In C” (1964) was one of the first minimalist pieces to make an impact on the music world. It has no set instrumentation, length, or number of musicians, and the piece itself is made up of 53 short musical fragments which the musicians repeat at will, with encouragement to play unaligned from others in the ensemble. Even though everyone starts with the same musical material, the varying timbre of the instruments and the staggered entrances create a wide variety of musical interest that cuts through all the repetition – consonant and dissonant harmonies, cross-rhythms, syncopation. Every performance will be unique because of the players involved, their musical decisions, and the chemistry of the ensemble.

In some versions of this piece, there is a constant eighth note pulse on the note C throughout (literally called “The Pulse,” and usually played on a pitched percussion instrument such as a marimba). The Pulse, suggested by Steve Reich, functions as a metronome that begins the piece and provides a framework for everyone to follow. However, Riley’s original version of In C did not include The Pulse, and I prefer listening to how this music breathes and evolves without the singular, incessant rhythm throughout. Without the structure given by The Pulse, the players look to each other at the start to collectively feel the rhythm together, and they communicate nonverbally to find the group’s natural groove, rather than following a preset pulse that dictates the pace. They are invited to sync with each others’ rhythms, the tempo ebbing and flowing in the way that human energy does, and in doing so, they create a unique moment of beauty that can never be exactly repeated again. It’s a similar feeling of freedom, when we as people feel free to express our individual pulse while being open and receptive to another’s beat. Every moment of friendship is as unique as the people in it.

My favorite recording of In C is of Terry Riley performing with Stargaze. The Pulse is absent. There is an eclectic, diverse, non-traditional collection of instruments on stage, and you can clearly hear and see how locked in the performers are with each other, even with all the complicated finger work going on above the fundamental groove. There is no one person in charge, there is an open dialogue going on between all the instruments, and the group moves organically and inevitably through the music. I imagine Riley meant the title – In C – to be literal, as the piece consists of all of the notes in the C major scale. However, listening to the music makes me wonder if C could perhaps stand for something? Collaboration. Congruence. Camaraderie. Cordiality. Company. Companionship. Collegiality. Communication. Concordance. Communion. Compatibility (as opposed to Incompatibility?). The piece sounds like good friends engaging In C(onversation), and it certainly feels appropriate on some level that the site on which I first encountered this video (Boiler Room) credited the performance to “Terry Riley & Friends.”

My friendships, they are a very strong part of my life, they are
as light as gossamer but also they are as strong as steel.
And I cannot throw them off, nor altogether do with them or without them.
And I love them at the point where they say:
It is nice to see you again.
And I love them too at the point when they say:
Good-bye, come again soon.
The rhythm of friendship is a very good rhythm.
(Stevie Smith)

This post was borne from two separate conversations I had with two wonderful people… our exchange of ideas is a rhythm I will never tire of being a part of! Thank you both for allowing my mind to run free and for running alongside me with intellectual fuel to keep us both going. 🙂

4 Replies to “Rhythm, Compatibility, and Riley’s In C”

  1. Great article! Really enjoyed reading this. Some really interesting examples, quotes and ideas used too..

  2. Brilliantly written and thought provoking. People’s individual preferences for ratio/balance of consonance & dissonance as related to our friendships hits right for me. You see it all the time—certain relationships thrive with more dissonance. Like you, I require more consonance in my deep and true friendships. Xx

  3. Beautiful piece Margaret. Being non classically trained I’d be lying if I said I truly understood all of the musical references but I understand the overall rhythmic metaphor and appreciate and agree with it. For me I see friendships/relationships as energies that ebb and flow and compliment or conflict so I guess this is not too distant to what you are saying here – albeit from a different academic background (yours musical, mine scientific, though of course you know I instinctively love music too!). I really like the references too, you have either researched them throughly or retained ones that you like as you’ve come across them in life; both skills I have seen you hone whilst we have been friends. I hope our rhythms continue to meet as I value your intellect, attention to detail and loyal friendship.

  4. Brilliant article.

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