Playing Terry Riley’s “In C”

Last week I had the opportunity to perform Terry Riley‘s minimalist piece In C with a group of students and faculty.  The performance was part of a collaborative outdoor event which also included painting and dancing.  If you aren’t familiar with this piece, here’s a brief but excellent description from The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross.

The score took the form of a chart of fifty-three “modules,” or brief motivic figures. Each player in the ensemble is instructed to proceed from one module to the next at his or her own pace, tailoring the music to the needs of the instrument and the desires of the moment…Tying the whole thing together is a pair of high Cs on the piano, pulsing without variation from beginning to end. Hence the title: In C. [p. 540]

Riley’s performing directions indicate that a typical performance of In C lasts about forty-five minutes to one and a half  hours, thus each of the fifty-three figures should be repeated several times, from several seconds up to a minute or more.  Here’s an example of one of the figures (note that this is an F part).

The concept of the piece is simple, but what results is a texture that is, for lack of a better description, both static and dynamic at the same time.  As individual performers make their way through the fifty-three patterns, various types of harmonies, phasing, and syncopations occur, creating some very interesting moments. In C can be performed by virtually any combination of instruments, provided that there are enough players to keep things going for forty-five minutes or more. Our ensemble was pretty eclectic: two marimbas, bass guitar, horn, violin, two trumpets, and a flute. Our bass guitarist Jacob Shelby can be seen with me in the picture above (photo by Terrance Armstard).   As a brass player, a minimalist piece like In C can be quite a challenge simply because of the physical demands of playing more or less constantly for an hour or so.  Having played this piece before, I knew going in that it would be very important to pace myself.  Riley says that you can augment the patterns rhythmically, which helps, and you can also incorporate rests into your repetitions.  For instance, in the figure above, you could play three repetitions, and then rest for four beats, play three repetitions, and then rest for four beats, etc.   Playing the patterns down an octave is both helpful and necessary at times – one of the patterns is simply a written D above the treble clef staff – try repeating that one for a minute!  The beauty of the piece is that augmenting the rhythms and playing things in a different octave only adds to the overall texture.  After settling into the piece, say after about the first twenty minutes, I started to notice my fellow performers much more than I had previously.  Over time,  the repeating patterns create a kind of framework in which you can really listen and respond to what is happening around you.  Although you might think playing repeated patterns for an hour would get boring, the piece is set up in such a way that new and unexpected things keep happening.  As brass players, and horn players in particular, we sometimes get caught up in “goal-directed” performing.  This is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact it can help us stay motivated and energized – but playing a piece like In C is a great way to experience a different kind of music making.  If you ever have a chance to participate in a performance of this work, I encourage you to go for it.

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Cool piece – thanks for writing it. I discovered In C a few months ago, and have been listening to several different recordings of it quite a bit. I love this music, and now want to bring a bunch of folks together to play it. I am a rock bass guitarist myself. Most of the players would be drawn from the rock world, though I do know a few trained classical players I’d try to rope in too. I do not think any of us would have ever embarked on such a piece before. I wonder if you can offer any insights or advice on pitfalls to avoid, strategies to try, or other wisdom that might help us along? Researching the topic, which is how I came cross your post. Many thanks.

Hi Gully,

Thanks for reading! If I remember correctly In C comes with pretty detailed instructions for performing it. You can decide in advance approximately how long you want the performance to be, anywhere from 20-30 minutes to over an hour. You will need a couple of instruments, either keyboard or mallet percussion, to produce a steady pulse on octave Cs for the duration of the work. Good luck!

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