In C, published in 1964, is the most famous piece of music by the composer Terry Riley (b.1935). It is a fascinating work in that, in a similar fashion to the music of Ives and Copland, it manages to be fairly accessible despite the fact that it is an innovative piece of contemporary art, something it does through the extensive use of simplicity. In fact, In C is considered to be among the first examples of minimalism, a brand new style of American art music which Riley helped found and popularize, along with La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Tom Johnson. Minimalist music is based on the expansion of a small amount of material into an entire work, often through the repetition of a few motifs, the use of a steady pulse, or the composition of music based on a specific set of rules. In C does all of these things.
In C isn’t written out like most pieces are, and it doesn’t even have a set instrumentation. Instead, Riley supplies a series of 53 short phrases, and a set of basic instructions on how to play them. At first, a single performer (usually on a piano or mallet instrument) provides a steady pulse of eighth notes played on a high C. Then, the other instrumentalists are instructed to play all of the given patterns consecutively, choosing on their own how many times to play each one, until all of the performers reach the final pattern, at which point each one gradually drops out. The performers are also given various directions on how to collaborate with the ensemble to produce the desired effect, but overall, they are given quite a bit of freedom. This introduces an element of chance into the music, and ensures that no two performances will sound the same.
Riley’s music, which was written during an increasingly globalized era, was influenced heavily by both American and foreign cultures. Apparent in In C are influences such as the repetitive structure of North African music, and the improvisatory elements of John Coltrane and Miles Davis – musicians whose work Riley admired. Perhaps the most substantial influence on Riley’s work was that of the growing hippie culture, which took many ideas from eastern philosophy, and sought to explore altered states of consciousness. Riley was living in San Francisco at the time that he wrote In C, and was involved in the hippie movement. He used both LSD and marijuana. The piece evokes a blissful and psychedelic feeling, stemming from its simplicity and repetitive nature. By giving the performers the freedom to play the piece the way they want, and collaborate with the rest of the ensemble to achieve a specific effect, In C also emphasizes personal freedom and responsibility, as well as coöperation within a group, which are ideals that were common among youth throughout the 1960s.
In helping found the minimalist movement, In C did a few things. First, it was a factor in creation of what was one of the largest original American art movements since transcendentalism. The foundation of minimalism represents a cultural shift within the United States from the East to the West coast, and especially California, which continues to attract new innovators, making it a spawning ground for new cultural ideas. Also, minimalism managed to make avant-garde art accessible and even enjoyable to the general public, bring art music back into popularity among the public.
- Some excerpts from Terry Riley’s In C, by Professor Robert Carl:
- A review of the same book:
- An article from the Guardian:
- Wikipedia’s article on the subject:
- The original score and performance instructions:
- A few performances – including the original (worth comparing):