Terry Riley – In C

I was talking with one of my music instructors about my classes this semester, and I brought up the Minimalism class that I am taking. He kind of half smiled and said that he wasn’t familiar with much minimalist music, “…except, of course, In C. Everyone does that because it’s so easy to play.” I winced inside and politely nodded. He’s not exactly wrong, In C is about as transparent as it gets (the whole score fits on a single sheet of letter-sized paper), and yet looking at it like that completely misses the point.
In C revolves around “the Pulse,” a steady eighth note ostinato in the high register of the piano. For the other musicians (the ideal ensemble is somewhere between 20-35 players), there are 53 melodic cells. The performers are instructed to play them in sequence (and only in sequence), but they are free to decide how many times to repeat the cell, or to play the cell at all. They are instructed to never be more than four cells ahead or behind the rest of the ensemble, but everything else is left to the musician’s discretion.
In that sense the piece is simple. All of the information necessary to perform the work is found on that page. Yet it is a virtue of this work that looking at the score will tell you nothing about how the work sounds. By giving the musicians choice, collective and individual decisions completely change the character of the work. To give a couple of examples: players choosing to drop out for a few repetitions or cells completely change what would be the orchestration in a conventional work. If all your brass instruments drop out, that changes the character. If the musicians decide to play softly, that opens up the soundscape for an instrument to take a “solo.” Musician’s decisions can complely change the harmony and rhythm as well. There are different levels of syncopation in the cells. If the ensemble is spread out, those rhythmic changes come slowly and subtly, leaving the audience unable to distinguish where one rhythmic idea ends and another begins. If the ensemble is fairly close together, those shifts can be dramatic.
I had the opportunity to run through this with my college’s orchestra at the beginning of the semester, and was really surprised by things that I didn’t expect to be difficult. First, my instructor didn’t give enough credit to the difficulty of the cells. They are extremely fast, and occasionally are quite rhytmically complex. Not virtuoso music, certainly, but not easy either. It also requires a tremendous amount of self-confidence, as it can be very disorienting to try and keep to a pattern when you don’t quite know where everyone else is and there is no dominant beat except the Pulse. It would require a lot of rehearsal for any group to get to the point where they could begin exploring the possiblities I mentioned above.
In C had a great impact when it premiered in 1964. Steve Reich was a member of that ensemble (he was actually the person who suggested a Pulse when the ensemble had trouble keeping a steady beat) and his Music for 18 Musicians is clearly a descendent of In C. My Minimalism professor claims that everything that has ever been explored in minimalist music (I’ll have some thoughts on that later), and there is an argument to be made there. All minimalist composers who folowed Riley owe him a debt for his work in controlling harmony in the context of a musical process.
Terry Riley (b. 1935) is an American composer who studied with LaMonte Young (who I might write about). He also did some crazy cool work with early synthesizer music (see A Rainbow in Curved Air) and was one of the namesakes of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”

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