Those Jangling High C’s on the Piano

InC.jpgWhat a pleasure it was to find Robert Carl’s new book about Terry Riley’s In C (from Oxford) in my mailbox today (or actually, on top of it, which was poor judgment on the mailman’s part, since it’s rained here every day for the last month). I wrote a blurb for the back cover and shouldn’t say anything more, but I’m impressed once again with the smoothness and non-academicism of Robert’s writing style – I thought composers had to work for a newspaper for years to achieve that. Also with the number of people he interviewed in great detail about Riley’s early career, which is stuff that I’ll surely end up quoting. There are people I won’t have to interview because Robert’s already done it. It’s about time we had a book on In C, which was my generation’s Rite of Spring. My Long Night (1980), though quite opposite in atmosphere, was, formally, closely modeled on it. My only thought was, if some card-carrying musicologist had written the book, and Robert had written his Fifth Symphony instead, I would be twice as happy. Why is the musicology of new music (and not all that new at that) being left to us composers? It’s a question to bring up at the minimalism conference, at which Robert will be giving a keynote address. 

Robert includes a long quote about In C from me, which reminds me of an anecdote I just read, and I’ve completely forgotten where. Some author, it seems, sent a copy of his latest book to a friend. The friend opened the book, and was peeved to find no personal inscription in the front. But then he looked up his name in the index – as those of us in certain fields and at a certain time of life admittedly tend to do upon seeing a new book in our specialty – and next to his name, the author had written, “HI.” I can’t wait to pull that on someone.


  1. says

    The title of your post caught my eye, because I was hoping for an answer to the question I once posed on S21 about the revision history of the piece. There’s a version in Ralph Turek’s textbook which is vastly different than the widely distributed version we perform today.
    Turek’s version seems to indicate that the pulse is mandatory and should ‘traditionally’ be played a ‘beautiful girl’. The common score makes the pulse much more optional. Does the book discuss any of this minutiae?
    (I know it’s trivial, but I’ve always been curious about the difference in these versions)
    KG replies: Well, I read it awhile back in typescript, and haven’t reread it since it arrived yesterday, but that rings a bell. Certainly he quotes Steve Reich on adding the drone C’s. Almost every performance I’ve been in I played the pulse myself, so my interpretations are WAY out of line.

  2. James Langdell says

    That possible instruction about the pulse in “In C” reminds me of a 1960’s performance of Robert Moran’s “Jewel Encrusted Butterfly Wing Explosions”, where the pulse was provided by a miniskirted blonde walking around the stage bouncing a ball. I wondered how specific the score was about this role.

  3. Eric Bruskin says

    Regarding Carl’s writing style – don’t forget that he’s been reviewing new music CDs for Fanfare for many years now. His reviews are always a delight to read, even if he’s sometimes overmuch nice when he’s unsatisfied with something in the CD he’s reviewing.
    But even without that experience, I’m not surprised to hear that his writing style is delightful. His speaking style is, too – or was when I knew him when he was in grad school. Anyone who could scat-sing the phone book in one breath and satirize the latest Boulez piece in the next has a breadth of reference that must be evident in his voice, written or otherwise.
    KG replies: Well, you don’t get edited at Fanfare. If you’re a mediocre writer, you don’t automatically become a good one just by doing it a lot. Some of Fanfare’s most verbose writers are awful. Some of them are wonderful, too.

  4. Bob Gilmore says

    I heard Terry Riley do a fantastic performance of In C with the Crash Ensemble in Drogheda, Ireland, a couple of years ago. At that time he said he now likes the pulse to be there occasionally, not all the time. That’s what happened in that performance and it was magical: especially the long-note section not long after the start was even more beautiful without the pulse. (Occasionally adding the pulse back in also lets it serve its traditional role of keeping the tempo up, binding the group together rhythmically, etc).

  5. David Bratman says

    “In C … was my generation’s Rite of Spring”
    I’m glad to see you think so, because I’ve long been struck by the similarity of their influence: each was a markedly revolutionary (if not totally unprecedented) work that took a few years for other composers to absorb, but once they did, virtually everything in “classical” music showed its influence, directly or indirectly, for the next half century in Rite of Spring’s case, and it looks that way for In C’s too.
    There seem to me to have been two such watershed works, also at approximately half century intervals, for the 19th century too.
    KG replies: Mmmmm… Hammerklavier and Tristan?

  6. Lance Brunner says

    “Why is the musicology of new music (and not all that new at that) being left to us composers?”
    Ah, Kyle, echoes of your wonderful Longyear lecture at UK of a year and a half ago! [For those who haven’t read it: PostClassic, February 11, 2008, “My Longyear Musicology Lecture”]
    Glad you will take up the topic at the minimalism conference. I won’t be able to attend, but a couple of my students are going.
    I have aspirations of exploring aspects of Buddhist influence in new music, but I have been too busy leading meditation retreat and watching my mind (now in Mexico, next month in Spain, etc.) to do the musicological digging I did in days of yore. Perhaps the right goad or the smack of the roshi’s stick…? The sound of not one musicologist clapping?

  7. says

    I’ve discussed In C quite a few times with Terry since studying with him in ’95.
    He told me he really enjoys performances where the pulse is not always there (agreeing with Bob here) and where the tempo can change. He liked versions where it becomes quite symphonic he said, and where there is a big dynamic range, with large-scale crescendi and the like.
    This doesn’t go against what Kyle observed once about the NY Phil playing it with all sorts of careful phrasing as if it were Mahler – it’s more on the higher levels of structural hierarchy.