Terry Riley's In C

Terry Riley’s In C

Terry Riley’s In C seems to stand the whole idea of musical “progress” on its head.

Written By

Robert Carl


Reprinted from Terry Riley’s In C by Robert Carl.
Copyright © by Robert Carl and published by Oxford University Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

  • READ an interview with author Robert Carl.


    Introduction (Chapter One, pp. 1-12)




    So here it is.

    Only one page of score. No specified instrumentation, no parts. Fifty three motives, mostly minuscule. No counterpoint. No evident form. Spare instructions, with many aspects left deliberately vague. No tempo mark. And a title that’s laconic in the extreme: In C.

    This would not seem a likely candidate for a study in a series that seeks to record the process of creation and premiere of the great masterworks in the Western canon. Indeed, when confronted with Terry Riley’s 1964 work, it’s not unreasonable to ask, “Is this a joke?” The work seems to stand the whole idea of musical “progress” on its head. At precisely the same moment of its composition, Elliott Carter was working on his Concerto for Piano, a work Stravinsky was to hail as a masterpiece.1 Luciano Berio had almost completed Laborinthus II and would soon start the Sinfonia. Karlheinz Stockhausen had just finished Momente. All these works fairly scream their authority, their mastery of overwhelming complexity, mirroring a complex age. They bespeak the composer as an expert in sound, a highly trained professional who is able to harness chaos and force it into a rigorous architecture. Surely, these are the true masterpieces. Riley’s little scrap of score can’t pretend to compete with these modernist monuments, can it?

    Yet In C continues to receive numerous performances every year, by professionals, students, and amateurs. It has had repeated recordings since its 1968 LP premiere, and most are still in print. It welcomes performers from a vast range of practices and traditions, from classical to rock to jazz to non-Western. Recordings range from the Chinese Film Orchestra of Shanghai—on traditional Chinese instruments—to the Hungarian “European Music Project” group, joined by two electronica DJs manipulating The Pulse.2 It rouses audiences to states of ecstasy and near hysteria, all the while projecting an inner serenity that suggests Cage’s definition of music’s purpose—”to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.”3 In short, it’s not going away.

    But then, neither is disco. Popularity and longevity bespeak something that satisfies the human spirit, but they do not guarantee the greatest depth or the quality that we associate with concert music. The modernist works mentioned above are towering accomplishments, unprecedented feats of human imagination and intellect. In C certainly challenges these standards; it is like the scruffy longhair shuffling his feet at the doors of the exclusive club, politely asking admittance, but not changing his appearance to suit the dress code. Can we really make an argument that it deserves a place in the canon, both on historical/cultural grounds and on the basis of the music itself?

    This study will maintain that it does. It will examine In C in the context of the work’s era; its grounding aesthetic practices and assumptions; its process of composition, presentation, recording, and dissemination. It will explore how the emerging performance practice of the piece has influenced our very ideas of what constitutes art music in the twenty-first century, and it will examine its significance through discussion with performers, composers, theorists, and critics.

    Thus, this book has a double purpose. Not only must it tell the story of the genesis of a landmark work in the repertoire, it must also show why that work should be included in the repertoire. While I can only hope this justification will become evident as we explore in depth the history, theory, and aesthetics of In C, it is worthwhile to outline a series of major issues the reader can keep in mind as she or he reaches an ultimate judgment.

    Above all, In C is the founding work of the musical movement called minimalism. It is hard to realize today how marginal and belittled were the efforts of pioneering American composers in this camp. In the early 1960s La Monte Young and Terry Riley had thrown in their lot with this aesthetic (even though it didn’t even have its name yet; music would have to catch up with painting, which had already discovered and applied the term). Both were recent graduates of the American academic system, but hardly the sort of product that won establishment accolades. Young was the older and more theoretically inclined of the two, and his practice included both highly conceptual works in the orbit of Fluxus art, and extremely slow-changing drone pieces (the latter taking their point of departure from serialism but creating a time span that was glacial in comparison to the nervously morphing shapes of most post-Webernian work of the period). Riley, despite studies including a master’s degree from University of California at Berkeley, remained more of a jazzer in his outlook, playing saxophone and keyboards, and improvising as part of his practical, professional life.

    As a background to Riley’s radical achievement, it’s important to realize that “new music” at that time was assumed to share at least some of these four characteristics.

    1. It involved research. This could have to do with new sounds and extended instrumental techniques, as in the work of Penderecki and Crumb. Or it could mean new ways of organizing pitch and rhythm, represented most strikingly by “total” (or “integral”) serialism. While Boulez, Stockhausen, and Nono had all created landmark works in this medium, Europeans seemed to have felt that serialism as a specific technique had exhausted itself quickly. Americans, on the other hand, thanks in part to the support for advanced new music in the university, retained more faith in the system, as embodied above all in the work, career, and intellectual influence of Milton Babbitt.

    2. It meant formalism. Even if one did not subscribe to serialism (as in the examples of Xenakis and Berio in Europe, and Carter in the United States), modernist composers still tended to accept that a successful piece was underpinned by premises “outside of time,” which predated the actual writing of a piece. The term “precompositional procedures” had great currency, and it meant more than just sketching. It suggested that a firm set of rules, algorithms, were developed in advance of inscribing the real-time flow of a piece. Like a blueprint, these rules would ensure consistency of materials in all parameters (pitch, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, color, form). This totalism was of course a legacy of serialism, but it could apply to materials that were in no way dodecaphonic (for example, Xenakis’s realizations of stochastic processes based on probability, or Carter’s uses of interval sets to ensure harmonic coherence4). In the end, a work was judged successful if its a priori, predetermined elements were clearly and ingeniously conceived and if their application to the moment-by-moment events of a work was consistent. It also meant that once realized in notated form, these elements were fixed.

    3. It meant experiment. This may seem redundant at first, because all the music mentioned to this point posited a scientific stance toward its material, and of course the experimental method is at the heart of all science. But the great “alternative” music of the period, that of John Cage and his followers, took the concept of experimentation in a different direction. “Experimental” composers suggested that the very idea of the experiment, if it opened up new sounds and modes of perception, was valuable in itself. 5 It needed no other justification. It was up to the audience to adjust its expectations, to appreciate the sheer novelty and uniqueness of the musical event, even if (and perhaps because) it stretched the very definition of what music could be. Thus a silent piece such as 4’33” could be music, because even if its physical enactment remained the same from performance to performance (sitting before the piano, opening and closing the lid between movements), the ambient sounds during its performance would always be fresh, unexpected, and aestheticized by the seismic shift of listening attitude on the part of the public.

    4. It accepted information density. Almost all music of this period—whether serial, formalist, or experimental—accepted that a greater degree of complexity existed in art than ever before. In terms of pitch, this meant either atonality, or at least a recycling of the total chromatic so rapid as to weaken or obliterate harmonic centers. (And if centers did occur, they usually were overlaid with so much chromatic material that their resemblance to tonal practice was vestigial.)

    Rhythm also had become stretched to where periodicity—the sense of a recurrent pulse or metric pattern—was almost nonexistent. The great composers of the “heroic” modernist generation—Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ives, Bartók—had all extended rhythmic practice to make it more fluid, multilayered, and unpredictable. But they also reaffirmed the importance of rhythm in the process. Within the postwar modernist hegemony, rhythm often became nothing more than the control of duration, and the flow of time became a matter of perceiving proportions between events that floated in a pulseless zone. Other parameters, such as color and dynamics, became ever more varied and kaleidoscopic, again suggesting an accelerating overturn.

    Many of these “modernist” stances in fact continue in minimalist practice, especially the early works of the movement. There is not a hermetic seal between the musical movements of this period, no matter how different they may appear, and a tangential purpose of this study is to reveal connections that might not seem obvious at first.6 Nevertheless, In C could not have been more different, more “transgressive” of the standards of artistic validity that modernism had erected. It was pulsed and repetitive with a vengeance. It was modal, often working with pitch sets much smaller than even the diatonic scale. Its instrumentation, even its number of players, was open. It didn’t make a fetish of the score; its very simplicity and economy seemed to mock the complexity of its contemporaries. While it involved open form and a degree of randomness in its improvisatory ethos, it simultaneously rejected Cageian indeterminacy; it was closer to jazz and rock in its sound and in its presentation of a cosmic “jam.” And perhaps most threatening to a sense of professionalism in the classical avant-garde, it welcomed performers of varying levels; one did not need to be a virtuoso to participate in a successful performance. It was simply, truly of its time.

    Thus In C stands as the Sacre of musical minimalism. The following key points are elements of its importance and originality.


    West Coast Roots

    In C represents a major shift, perhaps the definitive shift, of dominant musical culture away from the East Coast and its Europhilic aesthetic to the West Coast, and in particular to California. Of course, America’s “Left Coast” had already provided several “maverick” composers who helped define the idea of a national progressive music. Henry Cowell was a prodigious product of Bay Area bohemianism, a sort of musical “wild child” whose development would have been far different elsewhere.7 John Cage and Lou Harrison parlayed their relative isolation in California and Washington State into an asset, inventing a whole new vocabulary of writing for percussion (including the prepared piano). Harry Partch rediscovered alternate tunings with his espousal of just intonation. But these composers from just before and after World War II (except Partch, who remained defiantly outside the mainstream and was accordingly marginalized) eventually made the move to New York, where they were able to solidify and forward their career (none more so than Cage). In a sense, while they created a far greater awareness of an alternative West Coast aesthetic, their career course also seemed to reinforce how essential the Northeastern imprimatur remained for ultimate success.

    Riley, though he too spent time in New York, especially after the premiere of In C, ultimately returned to northern California, where he has remained true to an aesthetic that is far looser and more inclusive than that of East Coast modernism. In a sense, he is the first major composer to remain Californian and have a substantial international career (the next in this line, quite different and more traditional but also impossible to conceive of without Riley’s innovations, is John Adams).


    Democracy and Community

    In C proposes a delicate balance between the individual and the group, which is deeply rooted in American traditions and unprecedented in its format. It demands of its players a high degree of individual responsibility. No matter how many performers participate, they must listen carefully to one another for the performance to have any chance of success. 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. The music is the result of a group decision, but each entity retains its separate character and autonomy, a great tribute to American ideals of individualism and democracy. Indeed, one can even look at the piece as an exercise in anarchy, though of the most benign and constructive form.

    But In C is also very much a product of community. That act of listening implies that all the players devote themselves to the greater good of the piece, that they not only listen to their interaction with immediate neighbors but also hear the influence of their actions on the total work. One must listen out to the edges of the piece as one plays and adjust decision-making to the amorphous but real will of the collective. In this sense, one could say that In C is 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 intersection of political and biological metaphor isn’t arbitrary: in America, the relationship between the natural and the manmade world has always been an immediate, palpable issue.


    Non-Western Foundation

    In C represents the first major work to accept into its very fabric non-Western musical traditions. I realize this claim may raise objections. What about Colin McPhee’s Tabu-Tabuhan, which evoked the sound of Balinese gamelan in 1936? Or Milhaud’s La Création du Monde, one of a series of jazz-inspired works in the 1920s? Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was influenced by Chinese music, but transcends chinoiserie. In 1964 Berio wrote his Folk Songs, which celebrated vernacular musical traditions worldwide, and in 1969 Stockhausen created Hymnen, using national anthems as the basis of an immense electroacoustic mural. How then is In C different?

    The answer rests in the words “very fabric.” In C‘s “genetic code,” its entire formal/developmental discourse, is responsive to traditions outside the Western classical canon. As in jazz, improvisation is an essential element. Players repeat a figure ad lib until they decide to continue, but they must listen to one another to decide when their change will have the greatest impact. Thus, though the notes and rhythms are all predetermined, the piece creates its own oral tradition. Like rock, it emphasizes a pulsating “groove” that propels the music forward. Though the music may relax at points, the pulse never disappears. Like Asian musics, it emphasizes mode, rather than chords, to generate harmony. In addition, though it mutates through different modal sets in a way that is dizzyingly varied from performance to performance, it also suggests (in its title, as well as its structure) a fundamental harmonic stasis similar to that of Indian music, which has been enormously influential to Riley. In short, the piece has synthesized and abstracted a host of influences, and yet the resulting music seems to have developed quasi-independently of any of them. When one listens to In C, it’s almost as though the rest of music doesn’t exist, that this is a certain essential music-making that’s at the root of the art.

    As a consequence, In C is eminently suitable for instrumentations that run the gamut of world-music possibilities. The extraordinary recording by the Shanghai Film Orchestra with traditional Chinese instruments is the most radical application of this principle, but a mixed instrumentation, such as that of Bang On a Can8 (featuring Chinese pipa and mandolin with amplified Western instruments) is just as compelling, albeit a bit subtler. But beyond the actual instruments used, it is also adaptable to a wide range of traditions.

    The only thing about In C that is truly “Eurocentric” is the fact that it uses Western notation. But that notation is simply the most efficient tool for communication, a shorthand that now has wide acceptance (like Arabic numerals). It is not an attempt to impose a particular attitude toward the role of notation. Thus In C is a work that is truly “trans-stylistic,” and as a result, possibly the first truly “globalist” composition, performable by any ensemble within any musical tradition that is willing to follow the instructions. In a period when the debate over “globalization” is more vociferous than ever, it presents a remarkably benign example, suggesting that a framework loose enough to accommodate cultural difference can exist, bringing forth new art that is neither pandering nor diluted In Comparison to source-traditions.


    A New Kind of Improvisation

    This openness suggests a final way in which the work is attuned to the demands of the twenty-first century: In C is a piece of software. I define “software” as a series of rules and predefined relationships that execute a task; the user can then customize input and tweak aspects of the rules and relations to produce a product that is regarded as personal. For example, the word processor that I am using to write this paragraph already defines many of the parameters governing my final written product (orthography, formatting, editing; even spelling and grammar are now under its watchful eye), but the ultimate meaning of my words is still under my control.

    In a similar way In C will generate a performance that is always recognizable as In C. Yet each performance will be different on a host of levels—instrumentation, duration, density, even (as we will see in analyses of different performances) harmonic content. One can again object that this process is really no different from the improvisation that occurs in classic jazz—there is a set of changes that is immutable, over which linear improvisation places a layer of personalized interpretation.9 While this is quite true, In C is yet again something new and different, because every single note and rhythm of the work is already determined in the score. The choices that performers make shape these materials via repetition, entry/exit, and dynamics (so as to background/foreground ideas). Otherwise, they do not involve the personal “invention” we usually associate with improvisatory traditions. In this way, In C strangely enough, is highly “classical” in the Western sense, that is, it is drawn from a score that determines the pitches and rhythms of the piece.

    But of course it is resolutely non-Western in a host of other aspects. This paradox is basic to its originality and success. The extraordinary balance between the constrained and free, the ordered and open, the personal and communal, help to make it original, enduring, and an emerging beacon for a global musical practice.


    Our journey toward a comprehensive understanding of In C begins with the historical backdrop for the creation and premiere of the work. Chapter 2 concentrates on the Bay Area music scene of the early 1960s and is based on conversations with Riley and those who knew and collaborated with him in that period. In addition, it closely examines several works which lead up to In C, and which develop and solidify the techniques essential to In C‘s practice (including the String Trio and Quartet, collaborative works with La Monte Young, the film soundtrack Mescalin Mix, and the multimedia tape piece Music for the Gift).

    Chapter 3 reconstructs the premiere of the piece, based above all on interviews with participants. The sources for reconstruction of the performance have been sketchy and scattered. A host of questions need to be answered, and we are in the enviable position of recording firsthand accounts from those who were present at the event. Questions include:

    How was the piece written?
    What were the stages of its conception and realization before it went into rehearsal?
    Did the piece develop/change during the rehearsal process?
    What were the contributions of other musicians to the final product?
    What were the physical circumstances of the premiere?
    What was its exact instrumentation?
    How long did it last?
    What were the acoustics of the hall?
    What was the effect, if any, on the performance of the other Riley works on the program, in terms of the context they created for In C‘s reception?

    Chapter 4 undertakes the first substantive analysis of In C. The piece has been consistently described in terms of its basic premises and elements, but never examined as a piece unfolding in time. In addition, a number of casual descriptions have summed it up as a series of general modal areas that morph from one to another, but offer no explanation of how they do so. The analysis looks at how the careful progression of motives from one to another affects both the texture and the general harmonic profile of the work. In this case the work is considered “exogenously,” outside of time, as a network of relations between motivic materials that define larger-scale connections. From this perspective, some sense of overall progression is derived.

    Chapter 5 explores a circumstance that is idiomatic to In C, both as a work with its own special qualities and as a seminal work of the late twentieth century. The piece experienced a “second premiere” in 1968 with its release by Columbia Records in a landmark LP. The chapter investigates the process of recording and the implications of the record for the position the piece assumed in public consciousness of the Minimalist movement.

    Among critical questions to consider are:

    Was there any influence on In C of Riley’s works composed during the interim period, such as A Rainbow in Curved Air and Poppy Nogood’s Phantom Band, fruits of his loft concerts in New York?
    How had the work changed since its initial San Francisco performance in Riley’s mind and ear?
    What were the exact circumstances of the recording session?
    What decisions unique to its circumstances were made to define the work’s character?

    Chapter 5 also examines the work from a different analytic viewpoint. The decisions of timing, pacing, and interaction made by real musicians will inevitably bring to the foreground different aspects of the music. By focusing on a particular set of motives, players can create a climax, push forward movement, or hold movement in a static pattern. Further, depending on which motives are held or released at what point, the modal content of the piece at a given moment may be quite different from one performance to another, suggesting variable harmonic profiles.

    Thus, an “endogenous” analysis (within time) of the piece will explore the first recorded performance to determine when motives enter, when they exit, and what rhythmic and harmonic content of the work results.

    Finally, chapter 6 considers the legacy of In C. Part of this is the evolving idea of the piece, traced through observations by the performers who premiered the work in both the concert and recorded versions (a group that contains some of the most important voices in American music). In addition, a variety of prominent contemporary musicians—composers, performers, critics, and musicologists—discuss the impact of In C on their own development as practicing professionals and on their view of music generally. These “post–In C” musicians stand as evidence of the enduring and evolving impact of the piece.

    The “endogenous” analysis of the premiere recording will be extended to a series of recorded performances (in the appendix). Tabulating and examining these results will lead to a developmental map of the work, which then can be compared with other performances to suggest the work’s range of possible realizations. One of the essential aspects of In C is that it can never exist in a “definitive” version. These analyses can only suggest the richness of the piece but can never describe it authoritatively. In C deserves the increased understanding that theoretical study can impart, but our analysis will also reveal the limits of what such an approach can yield. In C possesses certain qualities that will always defy attempts to pin it down.


    By the end I hope each reader will have experienced an “enlightenment” in regard to In C, similar to what those who undertake a performance of the piece itself experience. This book is our own “map” to follow through the forking paths of In C‘s music and history. Riley speaks of a long process of mastering the basics of a tradition so that one can “speak” within it naturally and fluently.10 Perhaps by our own immersion within the history, analysis, aesthetics, and performance practice of In C, we as an audience can come to a similarly rich, deep, and flexible understanding.



    1.David Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press 1983/1998), p. 263.

    2.Celestial Harmonies 13026-2 and Wergo 6650 2, respectively.

    3.James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 37.

    4.Cf. Iannis Xenakis, Formalized Music (Bloomington: Indiana Univeristy Press, 1971); and Elliott Carter, Harmony Book ed. Nicholas Hopkins and John Link (New York: Boosey and Hawkes, 2002).

    5.This concept was first articulated by Michael Nyman in his Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), esp. in the first chapter, pp. 1-26. Nyman draws a distinction between experimentalism and what he calls the “avant garde,” which is basically the same as what I refer to as modernist classical music.

    6.Robert Carl, “The Politics of Definition in New Music,” College Music Symposium 29 (1989), 101-114.

    7.Cf. Michael Hicks, Henry Cowell, Bohemian (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

    8.Cantaloupe Music 20014.

    9.Indeed, if In C is similar to anything, it is to a raga, whose core information of scales and rhythms intersects with a carefully preserved performance tradition, within which musicians can assert their virtuosity and individuality. And this similarity is not surprising, considering Riley’s lifelong interest in and study of Indian music.

    10.Author interview with Terry Riley, Richmond, Calif., December 2, 2006.