An anniversary "In C"

Not many composers can claim credit for initiating an entire musical movement with one piece. Terry Riley can. With "In C," first heard in San Francisco in 1964, what I have called motoric minimalism burst onto the scene and is with us still. Reducing music to its simple basics had been around before 1964 (La Monte Young, for one), but the idea of coupling consonance and simplicity with a steady, driving pulse had not. The subsequent music of not just Riley but Steve Reich (who had a hand in the creation of "In C," reportedly suggesting the plinking octave pulse that can underlie the music), Philip Glass, John Adams and many more -- no matter how eventually overlaid and elaborated -- had not.

On April 24 David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet organized a 45th-anniversary celebration of the piece at Carnegie Hall -- the big Carnegie Hall, the Stern Auditorium, not the smaller Zankel Hall, where hipper music usually cavorts. The place was packed and the audience cheered, and rightly so.

This was an all-star affair, with 70 credited musicians and their sometimes bulky and exotic instruments crowding the stage like some mega-Mahlerian extravaganza. Among them were Riley himself, white-bearded and benign; the Kronos players, front and center; Dennis Russell Davies, billed as "flight pattern coordinator" though "sound mixer": would have been just as appropriate; Stuart Dempster (one of the several performers from the original performance or the first, 1968 recording; Glass; Osvaldo Golijov; Scott Johnson; Joan La Barbara and Morton Subotnick (who commsioned it for the San Francisco Tape Music Center); Kathleen Supove; Margaret Leng Tan; Wu Man; and 16 members of the Young People's Chorus of New York City. Instruments included all the conventional suspects plus didjeridu, conch, "little instruments," theremin, claviola, bass melodica, Uillean bagpipes in C, "original and neglected instruments," Nord Electro, toy piano and toy glockenspiel, pipa, guzheng and three kotos

Other than its flowing, surging beauty and sonic splendor, what made this 90-minute performance so interesting was its further proof of the malleability of Riley's inspiration. As those who follow such matters already know, the "In C" score (projected behind the musicians at Carnegie) consists.of 53 short motifs. Any number of musicians on any kind of instruments may perform it, at any tempo, though Riley has expressed an inclination for about 35 and high, bright sounds. Each musician plays the motifs consecutively, but may repeat each as long as he or she wishes, or pause to listen. When a performer reaches no. 53, the motif is repeated until everyone has arrived there. The steadily plinking high C's, on a piano or mallet instruments, is a suggestion, not an imposition, though I have never heard the piece without them. There are some other rules and suggestions (build to a crescendo, then subside to a diminuendo at the end, and so forth), but that's pretty much it.

Riley says the group can be larger than 35, but again, I had never heard one this big. Typically, "In C" is an enlarged chamber work, with each musician compelled to be highly attuned to the others and to interact with chamber-music-like precision. The performance on April 24 was overtly orchestral, emphasized by the presence of Davis, who wandered about the stage, cueing the wildly disparate subgroups to bring out different layers of aural color.

We sometimes talk of a great orchestral performance as chamber music writ large, with the refined  sensitivity of the players to one another. But this was truly orchestral in the weight and sweep and controlled tonal variety of the music. That "In C" worked so well in this very different guise was yet another tribute to Riley and the nova-like brilliance of what he had wrought. I can hardly wait to see what his followers come up with for the 50th anniversary in 2014!   

May 10, 2009 4:05 PM |


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