Oh Say Can You See The Way I Play "In C"?
March 4, 2009 7:16 PM   Subscribe

Terry Riley celebrates the 45th anniversary of his groundbreaking composition, In C. A major work in the history of minimalist music, In C has an incredibly flexible score and performance guidelines, which have inspired many musicians to make their own versions, including a French guitar quintet, a traditional Chinese orchestra, a keyboard ensemble, an all-synthesizer group, CalArts Music students, French-Canadian hippies, a Danish vocal and percussion ensemble, another percussion ensemble, Japanese acidheads, a "laptop orchestra", the Bang on a Can Orchestra, and a rock "orchestration" by the Styrenes. No two versions can sound exactly the same, but it's still an open question how they will compare to the performance of In C at its Carnegie Hall debut next month. No recording of the original 1964 performance has ever been publicly released, but some eyewitness accounts can be found here.
posted by jonp72 (40 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
In C is my ringtone.

Actually I knew about it for about ten years before I finally got a chance to hear it, and my first encounter left me with an odd sense of deja vu. It took me a long time to work out where I had heard it: it wasn't until I learned that Pete Townshend is a fan of Riley's that I put the Baba O'Riley connection together.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:24 PM on March 4, 2009

Fantastic roundup of covers. In C (as well as A Rainbow in Curved Air) is a masterpiece. BTW the second link -- the 45th anniversary -- is nogood.
posted by porn in the woods at 7:24 PM on March 4, 2009

This should be the second link about the 45th anniversary.
posted by jonp72 at 7:29 PM on March 4, 2009

Oh man, the "Danish vocal" one (it's Ars Nova Copenhagen conducted by Paul Hillier) rocks so hard, and I love the one by Bang on a Can as well.

Fucking awesome post.
posted by the_bone at 7:30 PM on March 4, 2009

Nice post. In C is an important work and it's nice to see all these examples of various interpretations here.
posted by ob at 7:37 PM on March 4, 2009

Great post, thanks for this!
posted by treepour at 7:41 PM on March 4, 2009

excellent post! you made my day. thanks!
posted by quazichimp at 7:45 PM on March 4, 2009

I just heard this for the first time two weeks ago. All these seem really interesting. I might have to dedicate a whole radio show to In C.
posted by azarbayejani at 7:46 PM on March 4, 2009

Nice post. Terry Riley is my favourite of the minimalists.
posted by dydecker at 7:47 PM on March 4, 2009

Your Chinese orchestra link is borked.
posted by vronsky at 7:57 PM on March 4, 2009

Oh, this is great.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:02 PM on March 4, 2009

No diggity, no doubt.
posted by penduluum at 8:07 PM on March 4, 2009

Yeah, great stuff.

I was on a road trip late one night out in the middle of nowhere, and I remember turning the dial looking for something, anything, and Hearts of Space was just starting to play Rainbow in Curved Air. And you know how sometimes it all just comes together? The road, the night air, the music, the stars? It did that night.
posted by vronsky at 8:09 PM on March 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mmm... delicious minimalism.
posted by spiderskull at 8:12 PM on March 4, 2009

Allow me to be the first to say I really didn't care for it. It was like listening to ten different versions of orchestras tuning up.
posted by rocket88 at 8:20 PM on March 4, 2009

By the way, the "Carnegie Hall debut" link is borked.
posted by spiderskull at 8:23 PM on March 4, 2009

Un-borked links:

Chinese orchestra (The Shanghai Film Orchestra, to be exact)

Carnegie Hall debut
posted by jonp72 at 8:30 PM on March 4, 2009

Allow me to be the first to say I really didn't care for it.

Musical minimalism is definitely an acquired taste. I really didn't care for In C when I first encountered it years ago, but love it now. I've coached the piece a couple of times with various ensembles of undergraduate music students, and their experiences usually goes from puzzlement to confusion to dislike to grudging practice to this-is-OK to WOW-this-is-amazing. Always fun.

This is a great post, thanks!
posted by LooseFilter at 8:34 PM on March 4, 2009

Terry Riley is my favourite of the minimalists.

He's got more soul (IMO) in his pinkie than Reich and Glass combined. And I like Reich, basically. But Riley is just full of music. He loves music, and that's one of the things that makes him great. You can feel him. I thoroughly enjoyed the concert I heard him do here in Tokyo a few years back: intimate setting (the room held about 150 people or so), Riley playing acoustic piano and singing (his years of studying Indian music and vocal techniques have paid off big time)... a fine musical experience.

Happy birthday, In C! And nice post, jonp72.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:34 PM on March 4, 2009

Hey flapjax, I was just listening to this Buffy Sainte-Marie and the vibe really reminded me of Roomful of Ghosts :)
posted by vronsky at 9:10 PM on March 4, 2009

I'm sorry. I have listened to a reasonable amount of minimalist music, but this just bores the hell out of me. The variations, when they occur and such as they are, are so barely there and so repetitive and it just gives me a headache. It a little less pretentious than some of Phillip Glass's stuff, but still, it just doesn't go anywhere. Where is the feeling, the passion, the intensity?
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 10:32 PM on March 4, 2009

Seeker, you gotta realize that this piece is soooo dependent upon the ensemble playing it. Really look at the score. [pdf]
  • "The tempo is left to the discretion of the performers, obviously not too slow, but not faster than performers can comfortably play."
  • "It is very important that performers listen very carefully to one another and this
    means occasionally to drop out and listen."
  • "Patterns are to be played consecutively with each performer having the freedom to
    determine how many times he or she will repeat each pattern before moving on to
    the next.'

  • Its not an exact science, and one group might nail the... um.... "pacing in your heart" while another group might miss it entirely. One interesting facet of this piece and pieces by guys like John Zorn, is the removal of the focus away from the composer and back to the musician. It the "anti symphonic work", and serves an important cultural footnote.

    Really, Imagine a symphonic ensemble.
    A mass of faceless performers, dressed like a tuxedo army. They pull out a piece of sheet music, their master, and then turn to the conductor, also their master (but still subservient to the sheet music). The general taps his baton. Everyone grows silent. No one dares *COUGH* or stir, or anything. Its about Beethoven tonight. His long shadow cast upon the audience and performer alike, spanning the ages like a mighty colossus. Every note has been decided, and there's a "right" way to do it. The performance you see is about a law of averages, or in other words ...not "doing it wrong". Channeling the "composer" faithfully. Letting Beethovern speak to you, rather than say letting the third trombonist speak to you.

    Now imagine the exact opposite of that. That sir, is what this piece is about, in a lot of ways. Some day you might roll across a version of this thing,and some say, relatively unknown bassoonist ( or one armed bagpipe player, or whatever) , might just put this piece in a context that makes you say :yeah!: I dig that! YES! THAT! What HE said!
    posted by 5imian at 12:20 AM on March 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

    Hey it sounds like Sufjan Stephens! But seriously, this is amazing. I'd never heard it before and the first link is blowing my mind.
    posted by minifigs at 12:45 AM on March 5, 2009

    Terry came to CalArts last year to give one of the commencement speeches, along with Harry Belafonte and Herbert Blau. Word had gotten around the music school that he was speaking, and as we began to recognize the bearded fellow before he was introduced, we all turned to each other, nodding, with expectant grins.

    His speech was mostly gibberish. Well, most of the nouns and verbs. Truly nonsense words that he must have made up in advance. He managed to imply all the art school schtick the other speakers avoided, simultaneously playing around with his status as elder statesman. He finished, and those of us still laughing (maybe 40% of the graduating class) stood and roared in delight. It seemed that a good deal of the student body were pretty annoyed. Also, the parents had no idea what was going on.

    (had to write in present tense):

    Dude proceeds to sit at the keyboard prepared for him on stage. He starts with some jazz voicings, he's carrying his vocals...abstract lyrics...he's a very strong singer, and he's singing softly. It's like a totally morose showtune! The audience is still very "wtf?". He's come full circle, thematically...it sounds like the end.

    Suddenly, here comes the three note motif. Music school flips out. "It's a two-parter!" Song slowly comes back through the interlocking rhythms, inside-out. Terry is singing again, too...he's got mad muscle independence. He goes all melismatic and shit, glissing some intervals...man, this old white guy is totally going Indian Classical on our asses. OMG..the guy is shredding the keyboard...thousands of people are completely silent...

    ...there's no point to this story. Lots of people hated Terry. Also, it's now called the Herb Alpert School of Music.
    posted by Monstrous Moonshine at 1:26 AM on March 5, 2009 [6 favorites]

    If you only have time to click one of the links to hear what this is about, I strongly suggest the version by Bang on a Can. Lots of sensitivity in the playing makes it easy to hear that measure is different, the recording and instrumentation offers lots richly different tones, and I think it's good way to get into the minimalist thing.

    For me, after the initial "this is all the same" boredom/annoyance comes kind of a blooming realization: every measure is different, no performance is perfect, by error or choice each note follows the last different in pitch, tone, and time, and the music is in the variance as much as in the repetition.
    So I start out impatient, waiting for the next variation to come down the pike, dickying with the youtube slider to jump ahead.... and then after it settles down and the realization forms, I feel almost sad when the next variation comes along because it means no more nuanced play on the last one.

    This makes the synthesizer version creepy and full of a panicky hilarity. I imagine a perfectly sequenced piece of music as an orchestra playing with guns to their heads: perfectly in time but kind of a stressful experience, you know?

    Except sometimes with this stuff the blooming realization doesn't come. I haven't heard enough to know why some minimalist pieces have something that grabs and some do not. Perhaps it's like fish and my tastes will keep growing as I get older.

    I had the pleasure of hearing the Bang on a Can All-Stars live. They do a 24 hour marathon. I only caught about 2 hours or so. Where I heard this piece, Sweet Air by David Lang. You can also check out a very cool piece by David that was featured on Radio Lab, called Salle des Departs. If you like In C you may like these.
    posted by sol at 6:02 AM on March 5, 2009

    *ahem* Self-link.
    posted by NemesisVex at 6:23 AM on March 5, 2009

    I like the concept of leaving so much to the performers, and allowing freedom of expression and being guided by the "feel" of the performance...I just wish it was implemented with a more musical piece than this. Minimalism can be enjoyable to listen to as well as being a purely intellectual exercise. This isn't.
    The same idea with a different collection of melodic patterns might work better.
    posted by rocket88 at 8:07 AM on March 5, 2009

    For a sample of a little Terry Riley variety, this blog post contains links to the 1967 tapeloop insanity of "You're Nogood", an infectiously disorienting cut-up of Harvey Averne's "You're No Good."

    Considering the complexity of working with analog recording technology it's the goddamn jam.
    posted by Hammond Rye at 8:33 AM on March 5, 2009

    Excellent post. 'In C' has always been a favourite of mine, though I tend to pooh-pooh minimalism. It's hypnotic and has so much emotion for a genre that frowns upon feelings.
    posted by spamguy at 8:45 AM on March 5, 2009

    I stumbled upon In C shortly after it had been released in 1968. I drove my college roommate absolutely batshit with it. I believe Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band was on the flipside. I enjoyed that as well. His music meshed in interesting ways with the pharmaceuticals that were in vogue at the time...
    posted by jim in austin at 8:46 AM on March 5, 2009

    For those that don't know, Terry Riley, along with this guy, were the inspiration for the Who's "Baba O'Riley". You can certainly hear Riley's influence on the intro.
    posted by jpdoane at 9:30 AM on March 5, 2009

    I just wish it was implemented with a more musical piece than this.

    I try never to tell people what they should or shouldn't like (though I will advocate for works of art, particularly ones I've found very rewarding that are, on the surface, inaccessible). But that's a non-statement--I think you meant to say "expressive" rather than "musical"? If so, you're applying 19th-century aesthetic standards to a mid-20th century work. By the time Terry Riley came along, concert music had long sense moved past emotional expressiveness as its focus.

    It's hypnotic and has so much emotion for a genre that frowns upon feelings.

    (Apologizing for continued pedantry) Minimalism doesn't frown upon feelings at all. The early minimalists (Young, Riley, Reich, Glass) were trying to remove the composer as the agent of intent so that the performing/listening experience unfolds on its own, and in Riley's case, be influenced hugely by the performers' decisions. Compositionally, they were reacting against what they saw as obfuscation and unnecessary complexity in most of the music being composed around them, especially nontonal and serialist music--much like the early, then-radical Classical composers (among them one of J.S. Bach's sons). They were reacting against the complexity of line in the late Baroque, and responded by clearing the decks so to speak, and fundamentally reorienting musical composition to harmony rather than line.

    Minimalism in music values three fundamental things above all others: a consistent, audible pulse; primarily consonant harmonies; and repeated material that is clear to the listener. So much in the compositions from the first several decades of the 20th century delighted in complex underlying structures and musical ideas that were not evident in the sounding music, and the net result seems to be that listeners just sort of walked away. This is the crucible in which American musical minimalism formed, and to what it is a specific reaction. Steve Reich articulates all of this beautifully and succinctly in this essay.

    I also recommend reading any comments that the composer John Adams has made about minimalism (he is probably our earliest post-minimalist composer, but was very strongly influenced by minimalism), or read Michael Nyman's seminal work on the subject, also short and accessible.
    posted by LooseFilter at 10:09 AM on March 5, 2009 [5 favorites]

    No..."expressive" doesn't quite capture what I mean, but I guess "musical" was too ambiguous a term. What I'm trying to say is that not all collections of notes are music, just as not all collections of words are poetry. It's probably impossible to define the point where notes do become music, even from my own subjective viewpoint.
    It's entirely possible, given the nature of this piece, that some performer(s) may produce a version I like, but since I've heard several versions I'm leaning to the conclusion that it's the compositional starting point that's lacking.
    Like I said, I love the concept, just not the implementation. I guess I'll have to listen to more of Riley's stuff, and that of other minimalists, to see if there's anything in the genre that grabs me.
    posted by rocket88 at 10:41 AM on March 5, 2009

    Man, this makes me wish I played any instrument well enough to play this. As much fun as it is to listen to, I bet it's awesome to play.
    posted by hapticactionnetwork at 10:42 AM on March 5, 2009

    The comment on the initial YT link sums this up (and all minimalism IMNSHO) perfectly:
    "You can almost smell the pot coming out of the speakers."

    I've really tried to like minimalism. I mean, *really* diligently. I hear the subtleties and "depth" people talk of. They just tend to remind me of the Emperor's new clothing.

    When I want subtle depth, I listen to Brahms.
    posted by cleancut at 11:49 AM on March 5, 2009

    Hey it sounds like Sufjan Stephens!

    Terry Riley sounds like Van Dyke Parks?
    posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:25 PM on March 5, 2009

    When I want subtle depth, I listen to Brahms.

    How do you feel about Jackson Pollock? His work and that of the minimalists share the important trait that they are process pieces. They give the piece certain immutable parameters at the beginning and the experience is the result of how they unfold. In this way, they effectively broaden what constitutes "the work": in addition to the final product presented, the viewer/listener is also able to discern and appreciate the motions and processes that were involved in its creation. The experience created is very different from what you might go through listening to Brahms, who only intended that you apprehend the final product, with the process hidden behind a veil. If you listen in kind to a piece by one of these guys, you're almost bound to be disappointed, but I argue that the surface texture isn't the entirety of what goes on in a minimalist piece.

    Maybe you'll tell me that that's dumb because it involves no skill, but the skill lies in illuminating processes that are compelling to witness. It's maybe hard to appreciate in light of our general understanding of creators having omnipotence in the realm of their art, but it's no less nuanced.
    posted by invitapriore at 2:12 PM on March 5, 2009

    invitapriore that's an excellent comment on the fundamental difference between work as object and work as process. Where I find many listeners struggle with minimalism (and where I struggled initially) is in changing their own expectations for the music should do or be, what kinds of goals it should have.

    They just tend to remind me of the Emperor's new clothing.

    Well, like I said it's not for me to tell anyone what to like or not like, but I wonder what may convince you that there is something there that you may be missing--enough respected musicians say so? Texts? Anything? (I don't mind anybody not liking a particular kind of music I love and respect, but don't have much patience with dismissing its quality. Again, I recommend this as a conceptual starting point.)

    Man, this makes me wish I played any instrument well enough to play this. As much fun as it is to listen to, I bet it's awesome to play.

    It is fun to play, and you actually wouldn't have to have huge technical skills to participate in a performance. Most of the cells are pretty limited in terms of technical difficulty. The ensemble listening skills, now those might take some more time.
    posted by LooseFilter at 5:23 PM on March 5, 2009

    The aural equivalent of flying geese morphing from one formation to another.
    posted by inkyroom at 5:38 PM on March 5, 2009

    I've really tried to like minimalism. I mean, *really* diligently.

    Then the failure is clearly minimalism's.
    posted by cortex at 8:28 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

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