The Rambler :: blog

Monday, May 24, 2004

Music since 1960: Riley: In C 

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Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.

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Now here's a tough one. Terry Riley's In C (recording) is, like John Cage's 4' 33", probably one of the most written-about works of the 20th century. What can I add? Fortunately for Riley, his piece hasn't had to stand up to quite as much idiotic criticism as Cage's, but even so it remains one of those pieces that seems easy enough to talk about, even without having heard it.

The catch, of course, is that this is in theory an infinitely varied and complex work, of which no two performances are the same, and they may even be radically different. For those that don't know it, the score looks like this (there's also a pdf available here, which includes performing instructions). Riley's accompanying notes ask that the performers play each musical unit, in order, with as many repetitions of each as they like. Performers may begin and end units when they like, and include gaps in between, so the overall effect is of a tapestry of interlocking mini-canons. Riley's skill in constructing the piece has been in the way this tapestry progresses, and for all the freedom granted to his performers, he retains great control over the linear shape of the piece, and its structures of stasis and activity.

For example, whilst Riley absolves control over the number of performers he would like (although he expressly prefers larger ensembles of 30+ players, but such performances are very rare), there is a very definite shape to the opening bars of the work.

Throughout the piece, Riley advises keeping a steady quaver C pulse going on a keyboard or percussion instrument: this pulse on its own is traditionally how the piece begins, and it remains until the end. From this C, the shape of an upward C major arpeggio is drawn, with a prominent E in the first measure, to prominent Gs in the fourth and fifth measures, to sustained Cs an octave above the starting point in the sixth measure (by now we're four or five minutes into the piece), followed by stammers on the lower, original C. After this, in measure eight, we have more long-sustained notes (the effect of this is to compress movement of the players, since by now the majority will be playing the long notes of this or the sixth measure). The staccato judders of the opening sound more like bell tones; what is more, we are moving to a sort of cadence, as the note F becomes prominent, and rather than a C major chord, a dominant 7th on G is suggested. Similarly to Bach's Prelude in C from the first book of The Well-tempered Clavier, the busier surface activity creates and conceals longer melodic and harmonic shapes.

The Bang on a Can performance I've suggested comes very highly recommended. Seeing them perform In C live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall a couple of years ago was extremely impressive. They're great champions of this sort of music anyway, but they gave it a real strength and depth that can easily be overlooked I think (as is so often the case) when performers get distracted by the 'conceptual' nature of a work. As a piece of iconoclasm, In C is pretty important, but iconoclasm is rarely enough on its own. In C is one of a number of works of the 60s which - while always appreciated for their originality - were tacitly believed by many to lack anything beyond the surface concept. BOAC at least push In C into musical maturity, playing it as more than a proto-minimalist concept piece, making it almost symphonic in its organic development of themes.

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