Terry Riley, Terry Riley: In C

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 09.14.11 in Reviews

Terry Riley: In C

Terry Riley

This is the piece that started it all. And by “it,” I mean not only the style of music known (for better or worse) as Minimalism, but also the careers of a generation of groundbreaking musicians and composers. Terry Riley’s In C is a grand etude, or study, in rhythm, pulse, heterophony, tone color and ensemble playing. (And we call that Minimalism?) The first performers of the piece included Riley’s friends in the Bay Area; people like Steve Reich, Ramon Sender, Pauline Oliveros and others who would go on to productive careers in music and who would consider their In C experience a formative one. This recording — the original Columbia Records release from 1968 — features future new music stars like trumpeter Jon Hassell, trombonist Stuart Dempster and composer David Rosenboom (here on viola).

The musical and historical document that started it all

Written in 1964 in a single burst of inspiration, the work consists of 53 short musical fragments, and a set of simple instructions: everyone starts with fragment No. 1, plays it until they feel like moving to No. 2, then on till they reach No. 53. The instrumentation is open, and at this point, In C has been played by countless different ensembles, from New York’s Bang On a Can All-Stars to the Shanghai Film Orchestra. But all In C performances begin with a simple pulse, which continues through the piece and underlies all of the roiling, swelling waves of music that occur over it. This recording, for some reason, hints more clearly than any other at the work’s unexpected origins in electronic music. The gradual procession from one fragment to another, as each musician separately decides when to move ahead, suggests the sounds of tape loops moving in and out of phase — something that Riley had been experimenting with in the early ’60s and an idea that would be profoundly influential on the music of Steve Reich. So this is both a musical document and a historical one: capturing a moment when the worlds of electric and acoustic music, and the avant-gardes of classical and popular music, achieved a rare détente.