The annual presentation of In C.
The students of MUS 202 along with several members of the department ensembles, faculty, and staff will perform Terry Riley’s IN C on Thursday, May 13, at 12:00 pm. The performance is planned for the front steps of Chapin Hall – weather permitting. If rain, the performance will move into Chapin Hall. This free event is open to the public.
“[Listening to In C] may be like staring at a mirror for forty-five minutes; or it may be more like sitting at a window and watching the carnival of life go on below. It is a matter of enjoying things that happen, of being moved helplessly by an exciting performance and at the same time following each development in the performance, and somehow determining in your own head what is and isn’t a development and therefore really defining for yourself whatever it is you’re following…. Most of the prime components of the musical experience are expressed here, and expressed in such a basic way that one’s awareness of these components is totally unimportant, unnecessary: They are there before you, for you to dig; and nobody’s asking you to file them away in categories. The music is close to the nitty-gritty; you can go into it with no assumptions whatsoever and come out of it with no assumptions and still be very certain that you heard something that it was refreshing, that it was incredible, that its inability to be classified is of no importance at all. This stuff here is close enough to the basics of what music is to be listened to and appreciated with no musical background of any sort. It’s kind of like not necessarily knowing if you dig ballet, but definitely liking the way the girl across the table moves her hands. No preconceptions, you just dig it. Welcome in.” (Paul Williams, 1968)
Terry Riley’s “In C” stands at the crossroads of two of the most significant musical styles—aleatoricism and minimalism—to emerge during the middle of the twentieth century, both of which were reactions against the perceived elitism and over-intellectualism of the then-dominant compositional trends (serialism and atonality): aleatoricism and minimalism. Aleatoric music (also called “chance music” or “indeterminate music”) is music in which some element of the composition is left to chance, or some primary element of a composed work’s realization is left to the determination of the its performer(s). Perhaps the most famous (or at least infamous) aleatoric piece is John Cage’s 4’33”, a three-movement work for solo piano in which Cage instructed the performer to create absolutely no sounds for four minutes and thirty three seconds; thus, “the music” of the piece became the sounds of “the silence” in the hall. Minimalism, on the other hand, is “a style of composition characterized by an intentionally simplified rhythmic, melodic and harmonic vocabulary” (Keith Potter). In the classic minimalist pieces of the 1960s, practically every musical element—harmony, rhythm, dynamics, instrumentation, etc.—remains fixed or relatively static (or, if changing, moving at a glacially slow pace) for the duration of the piece; and, as K. Robert Schwarz writes in his Minimalists: “the chief structural technique is unceasing repetition, exhilarating to some, mind-numbing to others.”
“In C” combines features of aleatoricism and minimalism, consisting of only 53 short melodic cells (dynamics and articulation non-specified), each player freely repeating each phrase as many times as desired before proceeding to the next (although Riley does instruct the ensemble members to attempt to remain within two or three cells of each other). Speaking to the aleatoric nature of the piece, Riley once commented, “When I’m not playing it, it’s not necessarily my music; I always feel it has a lot more to do with the performer. The performer should own the music he’s playing, in the sense that he feels free to shape it…. I gave a prescription of what notes to play and a direction for it, but music is either alive or dead, and the life in that music has to come from the performer.” The musical materials—especially for a work that lasts about an hour—certainly qualify as “minimal.” The harmonic scope of the work is even more limited: the 53 melodic riffs (some of which are variations of each other) imply only four harmonic regions, creating what Douglas Leedy calls “a communal joyous cacophony of secular yet spiritual ecstasy.” As Alfred Frankenstein wrote in his November 8, 1964 review of the premiere (titled Music Like None Other on Earth): “[Riley] is bound to make a profound impression with [In C]…. This primitivistic music goes on and on. It is formidably repetitious but harmonic changes are slowly introduced into it; there are melodic variations and contrasts of rhythm within a framework of relentless continuity, and climaxes of great sonority appear and are dissolved in the endlessness. At times you feel you have never done anything all your life long but listen to this music and as if that is all there is or ever will be, but it is altogether absorbing, exciting, and moving, too.” And so it is today.