Terry Riley’s In C
Robert Carl is Professor of Composition and Theory and Chair of Composition, Department of Music, The Hartt School, University of Hartford. In the post below he reflects on writing his book Terry Riley’s In C, in which he explores how the work’s emerging performance practice has influenced our very ideas of what constitutes art music in the 21st century. After reading this article consider seeing In C performed at Carnegie Hall this Friday, April 24th.
A few days ago, my editor, Malcolm Gilles, sent me an email celebrating the impending issue of my book on In C. Malcolm, along with being a musicologist, is the President of City University London, and I notice his messages tend to come from all over the world…Dubai, Singapore, London. And he’s Australian, so he truly straddles the globe.
But I mention Malcolm because he noted that our first contact about my project dates back five years. That’s right; that was the point I sent him an email out of the blue, asking if a study of In C as a repertoire “monument” was something he might support. To his everlasting credit in my eyes, he immediately responded “yes”. And so I began the process, which has been a labor of love.
I don’t know how many readers have a sense of that process, but it’s lengthy, and not just because of the writing and research. OUP has very rigorous standards, and to even get accepted into the pool of authors, you have to write sample chapters (I did about two and half), then be vetted by three outside readers, and respond to any criticisms. After that you just may get a contract. And then the real fun begins.
Back in Fall 2006 I began research in earnest. I was on sabbatical from the Hartt School, University of Hartford. My training is as a composer, and that’s what I teach. I’m not “officially” a musicologist or theorist, but I also believe that composers, of all the musical disciplines, have to come closest to knowing everything in order to do their work, which is make a piece of music out of nothing other than their vision and technique. And I always felt that one of the most important things I could do was to talk to as many as possible of the participants in the preparation, premiere, and recording of In C. They’re almost all still around, a feisty group of septuagenarians, foremost being the amazing Terry Riley. For some scholars, oral history is suspect, and of course it’s never totally reliable…people forget, get mixed up. If you’re musician, could you remember how you rehearsed a particular piece forty years ago? Well, it depends on different factors, like how sharp your memory is to begin with, and how distinctive the experience was, how important it felt to you. The good news is that the group of Terry’s fellow creative musicians tends to pass these tests with flying colors. And one, the trombonist Stuart Dempster, kept a copious diary, notes, and programs from everything he did professionally. So the job was not as ambiguous or contradictory as one might think.
My meetings were concentrated on the two coasts–the Bay Area and New York City in fall and early winter 2006. I spent a long afternoon at Terry’s home in Richmond, CA, overlooking Wildcat Canyon, me grilling him about all sorts of details over tea. Fortunately it wasn’t all minutiae; Terry also has lucid and penetrating thoughts about the very nature and role of music, and he presents them gently and firmly. I met Ramon Sender and Bill McGinnis (the recording engineer for the premiere) in a funky café in San Francisco; it felt like discovering two long-lost cool uncles. Bill pulled out his copy of the original manuscript, and we rushed to a copy shop to get an initial image for me. In his spacious trailer home in Sonoma, Warner Jepson revealed a stash of amazing photos he took of Terry, one of which is now the cover image of the book. Mel Weitsman (who played sopranino recorder in the premiere!) is now the abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center, and sweetly suggested he thought he still had the original score of Terry’s “lost” Autumn Leaves; a couple of weeks later it showed up (the original!) in my mail. [I had it performed later at Hartt, and it will get its professional premiere this September at the International Minimalist Studies conference in Kansas City]. Pauline Oliveros spoke to me in a pillow-filled living room of her house in Kingston, New York, festooned outside with prayer flags. Morton Subtonick was quick-witted (and quick-spirited) in his Village apartment studio. David Behrman and Jon Gibson both presented relaxed reminiscences in their Tribeca lofts. Anthony Martin in Williamsburg gave detailed descriptions and demonstrations of his light projections that adorned the premiere’s hall.
Later on there were phone interviews: with a generous, animated, and precise Steve Reich from Vermont; with David Rosenboom from his office at Cal Arts, helping recreate the atmosphere of the recording session; with the ever-young Anna Halprin, from her home in Kentfield (CA), musing on the serendipity of chance encounters in art, and of Terry and Lamonte Young creating so much racket at a dance concert of hers that the audience became genuinely frightened. And this doesn’t cover everyone, nor show all the treasures that were unearthed from a grand cast of characters. But at least I hope it starts to give you an idea of the pleasures of the chase I’ve experienced.
Some of you may wonder how I got into this. The short answer is: reviews and students. For the first: I write for Fanfare, one of the last remaining non-blogging publications for classical recordings (though it does have an online version), and over the years I’ve heard multiple recordings of In C. After a while it dawned on me that this piece was something of a miracle–every note and rhythm specified, and the general contours remain similar from one performance to the next. But so much else can be different! Different sized ensembles; totally different timbres; durations from a few minutes to hours; and different characters, from rock-jazzy, to world music, to precise classical, to joyous hippy-dippy, to dark and driven. It’s more inclusive than almost any other music, truly global, but benign, an invitation, not a conquest.
For the second: I’ve watched my composition students over the years become more open, fluent, and unintimidated by improvisation as part of their practice, even if they self-identify as “classical”. Maybe it’s because so many grew up playing in rock bands. Whatever the reason, they are willing to trust other musicians with their ideas, and they don’t see it as a copout. The key is to find really good, ingenious ways to convey the essential music that defines their own vision, and not be so vague as to sacrifice personal character to others. In C is one of the greatest and first models of how to do so, and they know it.
When I was their age, a sophomore or junior in college, I first heard the Columbia recording of In C. That was probably around 1974 or ‘75, so it was only about six years since its release. At the time I was puzzled by it. I guess it scared me, because on the surface it was so simple. I was just starting to compose, and it seemed so essential to be complex, to prove your stuff that way. I didn’t know what to do with it (except that my father came in one time as I was listening and said “What is that crap?” and that made me even more interested in it). Well, look how the wheel turns. In a couple of weeks there will be a sold-out 45th anniversary concert of the piece in Carnegie Hall. Terry, never one to pursue career at the expense of substance, has emerged as an elder sage for an entire generation. My music is still pretty complex, but I surely learned an enormous amount about space and pacing from minimalism, which is all for the best. So maybe there are happy endings after all, and if so, I’m glad to be part of the crowd scene at the end-credits, happily waving and cheering the passing parade.