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On the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Terry Riley’s In C

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Terry Riley’s In C. The date was 4 November 1964 at the San Francisco Tape Center. Having written a book on the topic, it’s a time of reflection for me as well. The piece continues to endure, and though only five years out, it becomes ever more clear that its inclusion in the OUP series Studies in Musical Genesis, Structure, and Interpretation was justified. In short, it’s a canonic work.

Happily, most of the participants in the event are still with us. In particular, Terry is celebrating his 80th next year, and such luminaries as Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Stuart Dempster, and Ramon Sender are still going strong. One of the great joys I experienced in the course of researching the book was to meet a group of composers about 20 years older than I who were not only still productive, but also not bitter. Their engagement with their work and purity of commitment was inspiring then, and continues to be.

By now minimalism is so ingrained in our era’s musical consciousness that it becomes ever harder to imagine what a break the piece represented. But it came over me recently in a different way, when listening to a new release on New World of the “TudorFest” that was organised in February 1964 by Oliveros. This was a series of concerts centered around David Tudor as both performer and general collaborative provacateur. The 3-CD set concentrates mostly on music of Cage (though there’s a great work for accordion and bandoneon by Oliveros, that she and Tudor perform on a multi-dimension seesaw—how I wish for a video!). Even though Cage’s ethos of experiment and freedom is obviously an inspiration to the circle that organized the event, it’s also clear just how different that sort of experimentalism was from what was about to erupt in the immediate future. Cage’s pieces, most from the 1950s, are amongst his most radical works, “atonal” in the purest sense for the word, and resolutely refusing any traditional form or teleology. Frankly, listening to several in a row, exhilarating as is their invention, they’re also tough.

For me this makes it clearer just how much the new music percolating under the surface in San Francisco wasn’t just about process or repetition, it was also about beauty (even if no one really wanted to use the word). Cage was a California boy, but he found his milieu in New York, with its intensity, rigor, and challenge. To take a counter-example, Lou Harrison, his early friend and collaborator, went there too, but he returned West and found himself in the pursuit of Asian sounds. I may be making too much of a dichotomy here, as there are many other factors involved in the making of a style and individual works therein. But the old trope of “mean old modernism” vs. minimalism is too pat; there was a generational shift at work as well. Cage was a beloved pioneer, but he wasn’t living the Haight life. The music that was about to resound in November had a new sensuality and freedom, in tune with the adventure, love, and sheer subversive fun that was erupting across the country.

Headline image credit: Music. CC0 via Pixabay

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