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Thoughts on Terry Riley’s “In C”



Darmstadt Essential Repertoire and LPR will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Terry Riley’s In C next Tuesday! We’ve asked some of the musicians performing next week to share their thoughts on this seminal work.

“Terry Riley’s In C is imprinted on my psyche.
I was introduced to the original record by Steve Bartek while still in high school, in LA. I heard about this record that was not only in one key, but with the same notes repeated over and over, for two entire sides: I was immediately transfixed. As a college student, In C was ubiquitous – there was one guy, who we called “Granola”, who played In C half speed – at 16 rpm. My own first work – “Machomusic”, for multiple saxophones riffing F – was a nod towards In C.
Later, I went to Mills College for grad school. Terry Riley was now my teacher. His composition classes were a turning point for me. We’d bring instruments, and there were keyboards in the room, as well. Terry would initiate some musical ideas and we would join in, collectively developing the music. Very little words were spoken, and those that were spoken were mostly words of encouragement. The entire class was focused on the actual exchange of musical ideas. Terry Riley taught me how to trust the pure, experiential essence of music – music as timelessness: without ego, explanation, or excess.” – Peter Gordon, saxophone & composer
In C might be the most inviting piece I know.
It is written for any number of people and has no set duration. While the melodic content of each phrase is written and there are guidelines as to how iterations of these should interact, each musician has control over which phrase he or she plays and for how long.
Besides the statement this makes about autonomy and spontaneity (as much a sociological/philosophical assertion as a musical one)… it’s just so damn fun to play!
In C is often credited as beginning the “minimalist” movement in composition and is certainly a radical departure from much of the concert music of its time – which, if anything, seemed to be getting ever more staunch and dogmatic – but the faith Terry has in the interpreter and ultimately the listener is what makes this piece so special to me.
That it has endured is a testament not only to the collective and spontaneous creative spirit that it affirms, but simply how enjoyable it can be to play and hear.” – David Handler, violin & LPR co-founder
“Performing Terry Riley’s In C each year not only keeps me grounded and rooted within a specific musical community that I cherish here in New York but it also keeps me rooted with my minimalist, aleatoric past at Mills College where I went to graduate school and where Terry Riley previously taught. I was not a student of his but we talked about him often and it was there that I first learned about his score for In C. It’s a fun piece that musicians of many levels can play and it surprisingly turns out to be quite enjoyable for the listening audience too! I am always happy to play it!” – Shelley Burgon, harp & composer
“The first time I heard In C was as an undergrad at CalArts, 1974, organized by the percussion department of course…the concert started at midnight lasted until 1:30AM or so. 3 dogs wearing bandanas wandered through occasionally…” – John King, guitar & composer
In C remains an important piece of music because it’s something that I can play with any musician I know. There’s no fixed instrumentation or number of performers, and its technical demands are more related to focusing and listening than musical training and virtuosity. Especially in New York where many musicians are busy in their own scenes with their own specialties, a performance of In C is a great way to bring people from different scenes together and get back to making music all together.” – Sam Kulik, trombone
I’m looking forward to Tuesday’s performance. It will be a chance to catch up with some old friends. To have some fun. And, finally, I get to help my fellow musicians do what they do best – create great music!” – Mustafa Ahmed, percussion
In Cis sort of my personal national anthem. It represents all the political optimism to be found in minimalism: tonal positivity, aesthetic transparency, leaderless cooperation and inherent inclusivity. It’s perfect music, totally different and totally the same every time. I’m thrilled to be performing it alongside so many inspiring individuals.” – Jeff Tobias, saxophone
“Many years ago I performed the In C with the Darmstadt Series at the then Galapagos, now Public Assembly.
After the show, a Japanese boy in the audience excitedly told me that he was a tourist just wandering on the streets of Brooklyn that night and he heard the in C from outside.
He just wandered in, because he knew the piece. And he was mind blown by what he saw at the concert. He couldn’t stop saying how cool New York is. Imagine, a tourist wander on the street, hearing pieces he knew at home, walked in on a whim and having a blissful time. Not because he read about the show at all.
This is why seminal American pieces like this remains relevant to this day, and still kicks our blood to play for years to come: that how international it is, that it truly crosses cultural and geological boundaries and generations.” – Du Yun, accordion & composer
“Terry Riley’s In C offers so much more to me than simply a brilliant piece of joyous music. It represents a refreshingly democratic approach to musical performance, community and participation. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to perform this piece every year for the past ten years with so many friends and fellow musicians. In C, for me, is a celebration of this friendship and a recognition of the power and vitality of our artistic community. – Zach Layton, bass & co-founder of Darmstadt
“The Choose Your Own Adventure format of In C is just one of the things that I love about the piece. Each performer must make countless private decisions about how to navigate the score. As the sonic mass builds from the other players, it’s easy to get turned around and lose your way.
Thankfully, Terry Riley’s score has all the elements of a great road map. It gives you the tools you need to find your way again, and like the open road, In C feels like it could go on forever. That impish B♭ at the end beckons you to keep on driving to see what the next mile has to offer.” – Joe Drew, trumpet

“The genesis of In C came as a result of Mort Subotnick and with fellow composer Ramon Sender (who started the San Francisco Tape Music Center on Dividero Street in San Francisco) asking Terry Riley to write a piece that a group of musicians could play with non-specific instrumentation. According to some stories, Steve Reich suggested the pulse, to keep everyone together, but it also could be that Terry suggested the pulse and Steve, being a percussionist, played it. The folks who played that premiere were a notable bunch!
The Creative Associates in Buffalo played it some time later and did the first recording of it.” – Joan La Barbara, voice & composer
From these stories it is clear how much In C truly has the classical world, even to this day.
If these words have moved you like they have for us, join us to hear these players perform & celebrate Terry Riley’s In C next Tuesday! (tickets & details here)
posted by M.B.D