After 40 years, it's easy to forget how important In C was to the 20th century. Yet while some would say Terry Riley created an entire sub-genre of modern classical music, I don't necessarily subscribe to the notion. He simply solidified an aesthetic, giving a face to what we now know as minimalism. In a sense, In C is closely related to the 20th century's other major form of minimalism: rock and roll. Both genres took musical elements that had been stewing under the surface and brought them to the fore in a major way. But I'm getting ahead of myself here, let me back up and introduce the work as I experienced it.
As a testament to In C's fairly ubiquitous nature, I was subconsciously aware of the piece before hearing it. It was the song that repeated one note for an hour, interesting in a purely nihilistic sense. At least that was the misconception I picked up along the way. But after accruing a bit of musical knowledge and actually hearing the piece, I was stunned. This was no droning, one-note torture session. It sounded like a highly conceptual, fluttering work of ambience, that, when scrutinized, revealed an intense amount of musical interplay.
The idea behind the piece goes like this: In 1964 Riley composed 53 short phrases of music in (you guessed it) the key of C -- not so much a score as a musical outline. An ensemble of musicians were instructed to go through each of the 53 phrases consecutively, placing their own rhythmic accents. They were also advised to hold and repeat each note/phrase for as long as they wanted, ultimately creating a living, thriving work of improvisation. The piece's first recording, from 1968, highlights Riley's modern ideas of spontaneity vs. structure. Here, he leads eleven musicians through 45 minutes of interweaving melodies and ever-shifting down beats. The most exciting moments occur when several instruments break from the chaotic rhythm and lock in together, displaying highly contrasted and clarifying moments of structure.
While the CBS recording is slightly rough, with an awkward balance of volume between instruments, Riley's concept comes through loud and clear. His imposed sense of structure and space is very much a modern device to my ears, and permeates so much of the music we hear today. But beyond any cultural or musical impact, In C works as a solid piece of music. When you hone in on a single instrument and follow its progression, there is a certain feeling of discovery, a sensation of peeling back the layers to reveal order within the chaos. It's the dichotomy that works. In my mind, In C will be played as long as humans are alive, because it's one of the few pieces I've known to so thoroughly engage its performers without requiring any great level of skill. It's also one of the few pieces that inspired me to get a group of friends together and actually perform the damn thing. I can think of no greater compliment.
1. In C