in social music making on
a global scale.
Terry Riley’s hallmark piece is now playable on your smartphone, tablet or computer.
Choose your own instrument and get started with players all over the world every hour on the hour.
Terry Riley (*1935, Colfax, California) is considered as one of the founding fathers of American minimal music, providing with In C the landmark breakthrough work of the style and arguably one of the most influential compositions of that era.
Riley met composer LaMonte Young while studying at Berkeley, which was the beginning of a long musical association. He became involved in the San Francisco experimental scene, providing (with young) music for the choreographer Anna Halprin and working at the San Francisco Tape Music Center – where the first performance of In C took place in 1964.
Riley took up the soprano saxophone and developed solo performances with a time-delay system he called the time-lag accumulator. In 1970, Riley (like Young) became a disciple of the Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, studying Indian Classical music in the Kirana style. After concentrating on Indian music and a period of mainly performing solo concerts, he returned to written music at the request of the Kronos Quartet, for whom he composed a large number of string quartets – many of them large-scale, such as the cycle Salome Dances for Peace – as well as pieces involving Kronos alongside other musicians.
Minimal music emerged during the 1960s in the United States and went on to become probably the most thriving direction in new music during the final decades on the 20th century (and its appeal is still far from diminishing). It took its name from minimalism in other disciplines, notably minimal art, with which it shared some characteristics. There are basically two types of minimal music: one which focusses on long sustained sounds (‘drones’), of which LaMonte Young is the most influential example. The second type, best known to the general public, is the repetitive type, based on extensive repetition of short, simple patterns. In both cases, time is a crucial factor, featuring gradual transformation (often according to strict processes) over a relatively long time. In C is generally considered as the landmark piece marking the ‘birth’ of the repetitive, pattern-based type of minimal music.
IN C: HISTORY
Although according to the original manuscript, Terry Riley composed In C as early as March 1964, it wasn’t until 4 November of the same year that In C received its first performance. It was part of an all-Riley portrait concert organised by the The San Fancisco Tape Music Center. That concert (which was repeated two days later) also included four tape works, and a solo performance of Coule (an early version of the composition that was to become known as Keyboard Study no. 1). In C was featured as the high point of the evening, if only because of the duration (about one hour) and the size of the ensemble (14 performers). Among the original performers were several composers who were (or were soon to become) among the leading figures of that generation in American new music: Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick, Jon Gibson, and Steve Reich.
In C features a voluptuous flow of sound, producing a tangle of seemingly-floating patterns and motifs constantly combining and recombining into new configurations. The effect on the listener that this can produce has often been compared to similar psychedelic effects, often associated with 1960s counterculture (including the use of Marihuana, LSD and other controlled substances). One remarkable aspect is that at the first performance in 1964, artist Tony Martin – who also provided similar visuals for rock concerts at the famous Fillmore Hall – made colourful live visual projections by manipulating lighting and different kinds of objects, oil and sand on overhead projectors, projecting onto the ceiling, while the audience was given the liberty to sit and stand wherever they wished. The slowly evolving play of colours and shapes provided an apt visual counterpart to the music, connecting it with the similar visual style that would become popular through the association with many 1960s rock act such as the Grateful Dead or Jimi Hendrix.
Although the association with such psychedelic phenomena may well have contributed to the piece’s popularity in the years following its premiere, some caution may be useful. Although In C did originate in San Fancisco, hotbed of many of the countercultural developments of the sixties, it was created in 1964, still three years ahead of the famous ‘summer of love’ with its prominence of hippies, Flower Power, free love and all related phenomena.
SAN FRANCISCO TAPE MUSIC CENTER
The premiere of In C was performed at (and organised by) the San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC). This center originated in 1962 from an improvised electronic studio at the San Francisco Conservatory, but soon became an independent new music hub in the SF area. Composers Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender and Pauline Oliveros (all of them performing in the world premiere of In C) were among the driving forces of the SFTMC. Terry Riley was closely involved from the very start of the center. From 1962 to February 1964, Riley spent time working in Europe, but upon his return to San Francisco, Sender and Subotnick offered him the opportunity to present a portrait concert. This event, featuring an ensemble of composers and musicians associated with the SFTMC, would feature the very first performance of In C.
THE 1996 RECORDING AND BEYOND
Terry Riley – photo: Jon HurdThe first performance of In C was a rather small-scale event. Although the concert was performed twice, on 4 and 6 November 1964, the performance space at the San Francisco Tape Music Center could only hold about 120 people. The influential status of the piece is largely due to the fact that already two years later, it was released as an LP on a major international record label. At that time, composer David Behrman was working as a producer for Columbia Records, where he was contributing to a series of recordings of avant-garde music. While Behrman was in residency at the Center of Creative and Performing Arts of the State University of New York in Buffalo, he arranged to record the piece. An ensemble of eleven musicians active at Buffalo, took part including Stuart Dempster on trombone, John Hassell on trumpet and percussionist Jan Williams. The ensemble was led by Riley himself, playing soprano saxophone. The producers took advantage of the possibilities of recording technology, overdubbing the initial recording twice with new takes, so that the small ensemble produced a much denser, fuller sounding texture.
Since then, In C has been recorded in many versions. Most of those employ a similar hybrid line-up of acoustic and some electric (or electronic) instruments as the original performance (which included a Wurlitzer and a Chamberlin), but the piece has proved to be eminently suitable for quite different choices of instruments as well, as is proven by recordings on such diverse combinations as Chinese traditional instruments, a rock group or a laptop ensemble. However, the original Columbia recording is still available today and stands as a true historical document
IN C: MUSIC
The score of In C is very simple and fits onto a single page. It consists of 53 modules with short musical patterns ranging in length from one to 60 beats (taking the eighth note as value for one beat). Each musician plays these patterns in sequence, and can choose how often he or she repeats each individual pattern before moving on to the next one. Terry Riley indicates that the piece can be performed by any number of musicians and any combination of voices and instruments, including the possibility to transpose the parts up or down one or more octaves in order to suit the range of the instrument. Non-pitched percussion may also be used. A steady pulse of eighth notes – the two top Cs on a piano – is provided throughout.
Although the musicians have the individual liberty to decide how often, in which register and with what type of phrasing an dynamics they play each of the 53 patterns, the composer made a few recommendations: first, that the musicians are encouraged to listen closely to each other while playing, allowing for some spontaneous interaction. Secondly, that the ensemble moves through the score at a more or less even pace, everyone staying within a range of 5 successive patterns so that no musicians should be lagging far behind or moving very fast ahead.
The piece is kept together by a steady eighth-note pulse, traditionally played on the two top Cs of a piano. Riley initially conceived of the piece just as a freely-overlapping network of the 53 short patterns. During the rehearsals, however, it turned out that the musicians had trouble staying in tempo when the overlapping patterns started to blend. It was the suggestion of fellow composer Steve Reich, who played a Wurlitzer electric piano in the premiere performance, to add a constant beat. Riley’s choice to do this on the two top Cs of the piano served a double purpose: the metronome-like function of maintaining a steady beat and the continuous presence of the pitch ‘C’ as a harmonic center, which gives the piece its title.
In C App, pattern 1
The central importance of the pulse appears from the liner notes to the first recording (on Columbia Records in 1966), where all the musicians are listed with their instruments, except for Margaret Hassell, who is credited as “The Pulse” (with capitals!). Nowadays, with new generations of musicians accustomed to the particular difficulties of the piece, the pulse is optional.
The main creative freedom given to the performers, is the decision how often to repeat each pattern before moving on to the next one (or resting – which is also an option). This places the emphasis on repetition as a musical device. At a time when avant-garde music was concerned with extreme differentiation of the musical elements (explicitly striving for diversity instead of sameness), this was as radical a thing to do as it gets. The repetitive slant of In C paved the way for the emerging minimal music and it is mainly for this reason that In C is still regarded as the symbolical starting point of the repetitive type of musical minimalism which was taken up in the next few years by Riley himself, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and many others, emerging as one of the dominant directions in contemporary music.
The title seems to suggest that the piece is in the key of C (major). That a piece would be in any key at all was already quite provocative at a time when avant-garde aesthetics favored a consequent use of all twelve tones, regardless of key center. C major, the most ‘basic’ of all common major and minor keys – using the white keys on the piano only – must in that respect have been quite a statement.
However, it would be wrong to assume that the piece simply is in C major (or in a related C-based mode). The music is clearly diatonic but suggests some different key centers in the course of the piece because of prominent repeated notes or the addition (or disappearance) of certain pitches. Thus, the music clearly starts in C, then moves towards E (the arrival of F sharp, replacing F in unit 14) which is confirmed by the e minor-like rising scales in units 22-26. Then the harmony briefly touches upon C again before veering off towards G (major/minor). The most intriguing moment is unit 35 – the longest and also melodically the most irregular in the piece – where both B natural and B flat, F natural and F sharp appear, making it a harmonically unstable, remarkable moment in the piece before returning to a more coherent blend of harmonic elements centering on G.
The exact identification of all these keys is not very important and indeed even quite difficult due to the overlapping fabric of patterns, vaguely suggesting harmonic movement rather than clearly establishing key centers. What is important is the sense of gradual shifts in harmony: the piece deals with vagueness and ambiguity, with different possibilities emerging more or less clearly depending on each performance.
The repetition of the patterns is often taken as the quintessential minimalist characteristic, making In C truly the landmark composition starting what is now known as minimal music. More important, perhaps, than the repetition as such, is the notion of process. The gradual blending of overlapping patterns into slow-paced and large-scale musical movement in In C is typical both of the sensual, overwhelming capacity of so much minimal music, as of the more strictly organised slowly evolving musical processes of, for instance, Steve Reich.
In C introduced many musical ideas, creating a landmark work which inspired possibly all subsequent minimalist composers (as well as many others not commonly associated with minimalism or, indeed, with new music as such). But the piece also demanded a particular way of performing – a musical attitude which in a larger context was about how musicians communicate and collaborate.
Typically, In C is not conducted and the musicians are encouraged to listen to each other and somehow make their musical decisions in response to what their fellow musicians are doing at that point. This allows for a spontaneous, organic way of musical interaction, where listening is equally important as playing or singing.
As such, the piece has the characteristics of a truly democratic process. First of all: all musicians are equal They play the exact same material, they have the same liberty to choose phrasing, dynamics or register and obviously: the same liberty to repeat each of the 53 patterns. Secondly, it is a collective effort: without any predetermined plan, the piece has the ability to persuade the musicians to join together, interact musically, and decide to stay onto a pattern or to move to the next one, depending on the overall flow of the entire ensemble.
The way in which this spontaneous collective process takes places can be easily (somewhat metaphorically) compared with basic democracy. The non-hierarchical approach suggested by the music (the piece is, after all from the 1960s…), inviting a spontaneous collaborative effort, has led to the view of the piece as moving beyond the merely musical domain, and basically becoming a metaphor for political/societal organisation. It is probably no coincidence that when in 1970 the British composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) founded his Scratch Orchestra in 1969, a group of musicians working according to communist principles (actively attempting to join music and politics), he listed In C as one of the compositions among their core repertoire.
In C App, pattern 53