Who is Terry Riley and what is “In C?”

Who is Terry Riley and what is “In C”?

A friend asked me this question after my first post. Here are some personal thoughts, some provocative quotes, and some general pointers toward sources for learning more about minimalism/contemporary classical/new music/Terry Riley/In C.

“More than any other single piece, “In C”, written in San Francisco in 1964, gave voice to the minimalist movement in America. In some ways, it became its anthem.” – William Duckworth

The sound of music in the Twentieth Century was shaped, in part, by recording technologies, amplification technologies and digital technologies. First we captured -on a wax disc, a strip of tape, a vinyl platter- the basic, primary expression of a source vibrating air molecules that bump into a receiver and are interpreted as “sound.” Then we intervened between the source and receiver with microphones, effects and amplifiers, which allowed us to shape and transform the original source sound. Finally, we took the properties of sound behavior and, through binary modeling, became the source and receiver. We can create waveforms, envelopes and specific sounds and timbres which can only be heard through digital to analog conversion to an amplification device. These technologies broaden and constrain the contemporary composer. Terry Riley along with Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Lamonte Young allowed these new technologies to stretch their ears and bring new sounds to a classical music movement that was known as minimalism.

Terry Riley grew up listening to hard bop and experimental classical music. He trained as a pianist and frequently made his living playing piano in bars and restaurants. Later he played sax and studied Indian Classical Music with singer Pandit Pran Nath. Here is a link to a rare YouTube video of Terry, LaMonte Young, and Marian Zazeela with Pandit Pran Nath. That is Terry on the tabla drums.

Riley’s music was influenced by his study of Indian ragas, Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique, just intonation, and his friendship with LaMonte Young. Here Riley speaks about LaMonte Young’s contribution to minimalism in general and “In C” specifically:

“People say minimalism started with Erik Satie, and it may have started with Gesualdo; I don’t know who it started with. But in this group of people, which is Steve Reich, Philip Glass, LaMonte Young and me, obviously it was LaMonte who was the first one. The ‘Trio for Strings’ is the landmark minimalist piece.
What LaMonte introduced was this concept of not having to press ahead to create interest. He would wait for the music to take its own course. You start a long tone, that tone has its own life until it extinguishes, and the next one starts. So it was this kind of Oriental patience that he introduced into the music which created a static form. Even his piano playing and his saxophone playing, even if it was fast, always dealt with repeating the same notes over and over again. So the form is always standing like some kind of mountain… and not creating a real varied form. I think that without that there would have been no ‘In C,’ because ‘In C’ is a static piece in that same tradition.”

I am very interested in patience, static form, and deeply listening to the life of a long tone. This is the path for cultivating intimacy with sound. This is an antidote to the fast paced, quick cut and, at times, frantic world we live in. This is what draws me to spend so much time with this work. The patterns of “In C” are primarily long tones, eighth and sixteenth note patterns of one, two or three notes. There are some longer phrases, but these form the majority of the piece. They are fragments, wordless haikus of sound that reveal deeper meanings with each fully embodied repetition.

The word “influence” is coming up a lot in this post and the reason for that may lie in this wonderful Terry Riley quote from an interview by Robert Barry in FactMag an online zine:

“I like to learn from everybody. I like to work with everybody. I always feel like, if I hear something – some musicians doing something that pricks up my ears – then I want to do it too. I want to learn what that is and incorporate it into the whole stream of the work I do. I don’t mind being influenced if it’s something that really is beautiful.” and “wild” I would add!

Actually, that would make a wonderful self-inquiry statement: Fill in the blank – “I don’t mind being influenced if it’s something that really is _____________!

While Young’s music influenced Riley’s form and tone on ‘”In C”, the basic structure of the piece was inpired by Riley’s work with tape loops. With the help of an engineer at the French National Radio, Riley created a “time-lag accumulator” made up of two reel-to-reel tape recorders feeding into each other in a loop. This feedback loop created a delay or echo that accumulated into a dense and textured music. He applied this technique in composing “Music for The Gift” by recording Chet Baker’s quartet playing “So What” and then feeding the recording through the tape recorders. Riley said composing this piece by running the pre-recorded sample through the time-lag accumulator was “the forerunner of “In C.”

The time lag comes into play with “In C” due to the lack of an exact downbeat. Each pattern can be launched at any moment with that moment’s eighth note pulse as the downbeat. Each musician is keeping their own downbeat for each pattern they play. Here is an example of a time lag-like layering of pattern 26.

Riley describes the moment that “In C” came to be:
“At the time I was playing piano every night in San Francisco at the Gold Street Saloon. So one night I was riding to work on the bus, and ‘In C’ just popped into my mind. The whole idea. I heard it. It was one of those things. I didn’t want to go to work that night. As soon as I got off work I came home and wrote it all down. Yes, almost all of it. I had to revise a couple of the patterns, but it pretty much came as a package, you know. It was quite exciting; a this-is-the-answer experience.”

When I read this, I giggled with delight remembering a story that Einstein had figured out Relativity while riding on the bus… or was it waiting for the bus? Either way, something about buses may create an inspirational vortex. This needs further exploration.

Riley says he did not think of himself as a minimalist while writing “In C.”

“I felt like a transcendentalist, an illusionist, or a magician. Something that has to do with magic. I feel it is my field to try to create magic in sound. Magic in the sense of transcendence of this ordinary life into another realm. An awakening, you know. To use music to try to awaken ourselves.”

and (from a 1977 Mother Jones/Real Paper article):

“My own feeling is that if people aren’t just carried away to heaven I’m failing…I want to create a kind of concentration on a musical idea so that people can go inside themselves and comfortably follow the development until they slowly rise up and disappear into the clouds.”

“In C” has the potential to stir up some amazing vibrations. I invite you to listen (with headphones, preferably) to the excerpts I have posted and will post within this blog. Lie down or sit down and breathe into your belly.

Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.


William Duckworth, “20/20: Twenty New Sounds of the Twentieth Century”

“Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip
Glass, Laurie Anderson and Five Generations of Amer-
can Experimental Composers” 1995

Keith Potter, “Four Musical Minimalists” 2000

David Toop, “Ocean of Sound” 1995

1 thought on “Who is Terry Riley and what is “In C?”

  1. Pingback: Durham Events | Rabble & Twine

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