Legend has it that composer Terry Riley was sitting on a bus in San Francisco when the idea came to him for one of the most important and influential pieces of music of the last half of the 20th century.
Riley began composing IN C in May of 1964. The work had its premiere that November, and it is often credited as the launching pad for the minimalist movement. IN C influenced countless musicians from Phillip Glass and this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, Steve Reich, to such rock bands as The Who and Soft Machine.
Carnegie Hall recently hosted a 45th-anniversary celebration of IN C featuring the likes of Glass, Kronos Quartet and Terry and Gyan Riley, the composer's son, in the ensemble.
Composer Osvaldo Golijov was also part of the group. Golijov has won his share of laurels — including Grammy awards and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant — and here's what he has to say about Terry Riley's most famous work:
"The greatness of IN C is like the greatness of the Rite of Spring or Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso. These are the first pieces — No. 1 in history — and then constantly imitated, consciously, unconsciously, with thousands of spinoffs," Golijov says. "And yet, the original — both IN C and Rite of Spring — they are still superior to any imitators. So that is sensational. How can somebody be so radical and then in one masterstroke include the future?"
What IN C isn't really is a score. It's a single page of melodic phrases, or themes, or modules. Anyway, each performer plays the same 53 phrases, but there's no — well, maybe we should just let Terry Riley himself explain.
"IN C is made up of 53 modules and we progress from 1 to 53 as we're playing and each player has to decide when he enters into the stream of the music and when he comes out. so the more people you have, of course, the more complex web you're going to build up," Riley explains, sort of.
From Distant Echo to Pulsing Cacophony
At Carnegie Hall, the number of people performing IN C topped 60, so complex only begins to describe the music. Terry Riley describes it this way:
"It's very much like if you're watching birds on a lake and they suddenly take flight and as they move through the air they create different patterns and they regroup. For me, IN C is very much a sonic image of that."
Gyan Riley says that listening to the work and playing it as a member of the ensemble isn't really that different. During the rehearsal for IN C Gyan Riley sat with his guitar directly in front of his father's keyboard and behind Kronos Quartet — with a table of homemade instruments and a Guzheng player to his left and a trio of didgeridoos to his right.
"There's so much spontaneity and complexity in it," says the younger Riley, "that it's so much more important to just listen to all the other sounds happening around you and just be a part of it."
Osvaldo Golijov was also part of the IN C ensemble at Carnegie Hall. Where the original recording of the work runs about 40 minutes and was met with some befuddlement by the establishment, the 45th-anniversary presentation ran close to two hours and received a standing ovation that lasted over five minutes. That acceptance, Golijov says, suggests that time has finally caught up with the ideas Terry Riley was exploring back in 1964.
"IN C is a radical experiment but it's also so embracing and so joyous," Golijov says, "that it also symbolizes what the spirit of California was at the time and how it really was in a way at the center of our world at that time and how it propagates, how it reverberates up to today and across the world."
An Influence Beyond Minimalism
Gyan Riley has been listening to IN C and other pieces by his father for his entire life. He has been playing in Terry Riley's ensembles, as well as composing his own music — mostly on the classical guitar — for the past decade.
"Growing up in a house that had his music being played by him or by someone else," says Gyan Riley, "rehearsing ensembles [like] Kronos [Quartet] — just having that in my ears from a small child I think is probably the biggest influence because that's the time when you're not even quite aware that something is influencing you."
What becomes clear in listening to the Rileys is that they both thrive in the kind of environment where unexpected developments are allowed to blossom into major themes. And that's the case whether they're on a stage with 60 other musicians, or it's just the two of them.
"What I see with our duo work," says Terry Riley, "is this kind of intuitive collaboration where nobody quite knows what's going to happen in the next moment and we influence each other by what kind of energies we're putting out."
Gyan Riley says that growing up around his father's music helped prime him for that kind of off-the-cuff collaboration. Even in those moments where they're forced to wing it entirely, which happened when the duo walked out onstage one night a few years ago to perform what was supposed to be a very traditional through-composed piece.
"So what happened," Gyan Riley remembers, "is he forgot the music backstage for that piece. So we got onstage and [he] sort of motioned to me, 'Looks like I don't have my sheet music,' and then starts playing something I've never heard before and I thought, 'Oh, this is going to be interesting.' And it was. It was tons of fun and those are usually the best things that come out of [the duo], and sometimes they're accidents."
Whether it's a psychic link, shared musical DNA or just the product of years of playing with and listening to each other, it's a relationship onstage that echoes the one off.
"We have complete trust in each other as far as what we're going to do musically," says Terry Riley. "And that's what really makes it happen for me because you know the other person's gonna be there wherever you go."
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