November 2013 Archives


Carl, Robert. Terry Riley's In C (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Terry Riley's piece "In C" has long been regarded as the first major minimalist composition, and Robert Carl's Terry Riley's In C does an excellent job of bringing the music to life on the printed page. Carl describes In C this way:

Only one page of score. No specified instrumentations, no parts. Fifty-three motives, mostly miniscule. No counterpoint. No evident forms. Spare instructions, with many aspects left deliberately vague. No tempo mark. And a title that's laconic in the extreme: In C. This would not seem a likely candidate for a study in a series that seeks to record the process of creation and premiere of the great masterworks in the Western canon. (p. 3)

There is substantial music theory in Carl's explanation of the piece, discussing modes such as Dorian, Aeolian, and Mixolydian that may be unfamiliar to the casual reader. See, for example, this passage:

And though the way that the music moves from one modal region to another can be very fluid or discrete, very ambiguous or clearly differentiated, the general progression of:
C Ionian--G Mixolydian--E Aeolian--(C) --G Mixolydian--G Dorian

tends to be a constant from one performance to the next. Only the edges are blurred, as with the overlap of harmonies, the extension of cross-relations from one region to another. (p. 107)

The discography of "In C" is quite varied,

Tabulating and examining these [recorded] results will lead to a developmental map of the work, which then can be compared with other performances to suggest the work's range of possible realizations. One of the essential aspects of In C is that it can never exist in a "definitive" version. (p. 11)

This is largely because, as Carl observes, In C "demands of its players a high degree of individual responsibility:"

No matter how many performers participate, they must listen carefully to one another for the performance to have any chance of success. Each musician must decide how many times to repeat, when to move to the next module, when to stop and when to return, what dynamic and registration are most fitting to the material played at every moment, when to join in unison with larger groups and when to stand outside the group. (p. 7)

In addition to the Piano Circus recording, I'm also intrigued by the 25th Anniversary Concert and the Bang on a Can version. Adding these three recordings to my In C collection (which already includes Ars Nova Copenhagen, Bang on a Can, and GVSU New Music Ensemble) doesn't strike me as excessive, however, because it would still yield fewer recording than some of my other favorites (such as Mahler's symphonies, Wagner's Ring cycle, or Bach's "The Art of Fugue" and Cello Suites).

Interestingly, In C marked the end of Riley's composing career:

In one important interview from the 1970s Riley stated: "I saw at the time that the opportunity was open to me to go on and do In A and In Bb, and make each one more and more elaborate. But I felt In C was really complete....In fact, I never wrote any more music after that; I started improvising." (p. 71, from Robert Palmer's "Terry Riley: Doctor of Improvised Surgery" Downbeat, 20 November 1975, pp. 17-41)

In passing, I should mention a single error which caught my eye: a reference to "Miles Davis' 1957 album Kind of Blue" (p. 134, note 31), which I'm surprised made it past any musically-aware editor. Other than that, this book was a complete joy--and a great pairing with its masterful subject.

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