Oxford University Studies in Musical Genesis, Structure and Interpretation : Terry Riley’s In C

Several weeks ago, I discovered that “In C” was included in this Oxford University Series with a 2009 study done by Robert Carl. “Terry Riley’s In C” is the ninth book in this series. Past volumes were dedicated to “rigorous sketch studies” of individual works by Donizetti, Beethoven, Wagner and Debussy. In the Series Editor’s Foreword, Malcolm Gillies asserts that the inclusion of “In C” as a masterwork broadens the concept of “musical genesis” in signifigant ways. In C is recognized as a “masterwork” not so much for what it is as “what it causes to happen.”

Robert Carl proceeds to illuminate this idea through interviews with the composer and all the major figures from the San Francisco Tape Center, analyses of both the text of the score and recorded performances, and extensive archival research. He demonstrates that “In C”‘s West Coast roots, it’s non-Western musical tone and structured improvisational format – all of these elements give substance to it’s originality and importance. They illustrate why “In C”, as Gillies puts it: “now holds a crucial place in the legacy of twentieth-century music”

The book is a wonderful resource. It includes a whole chapter on the Premiere of the work and interviews with many of the musicians and composers who were part of the whole San Francisco Tape Center scene. Robert Carl has a deep appreciation of the piece, which makes reading the book a delight. I was particularly struck with his take on the way “In C” in performance creates a sense of community and democracy:

In C proposes a delicate balance between the individual and the group… Each musician must decide how many times to repeat, when to move to the next module, when to stop and when to return, what dynamic and registration are most fitting to the material played at every moment, when to join in unison with larger groups and when to stand outside the group…each entity retains its separate character and autonomy, a great tribute to American ideals of individualism and democracy.
But In C is very much a product of community…a musical ecology, where a network of relations brings forth a continually evolving aesthetic product that has its own genetic blueprint but can never be predicted exactly.

This describes perfectly much of what I love about In C as a piece of music with endless possibilities. There is much more that I will share from this book in future posts.

3 thoughts on “Oxford University Studies in Musical Genesis, Structure and Interpretation : Terry Riley’s In C

    • Hi Jim, how wonderful to meet another In C celebrant!! Where are you located? I am planning multiple performances this year with a culmination in a twelve hour In C happening in Sept or Oct. Let me know if you can participate and what forms your celebration takes. Thanks for commenting!


  1. Hi Jude! I’m in the San Francisco East Bay, near Berkeley. Still trying to figure out how to commemorate the 50th… Let me know if you’ll be in the area!


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