The Community of now
In C

  1. In the beginning, there is a pulse.

  2. Or, rather, The Pulse.

  3. Terry Riley’s In C was composed in 1964, for an unspecified number of unspecified instruments and/or voices.

  4. A performance of In C may begin with a piano or percussion instrument or instruments playing the two highest Cs of the piano at a steady rate the composer describes as “left to the discretion of the performers, obviously not too slow, but not faster than performers can comfortably play.” (See for Riley’s notes on the score.)

  5. One of In C’s most salient characteristics, its openness, is apparent from the above. (4)

  6. The size and composition of the ensemble performing In C are both up to the performers, the tempo is not prescribed, and even The Pulse itself is optional.

  7. In C seems to work best with a mixture of winds, strings, and percussion instruments.

  8. The variety of tone colors, attacks, and decays available from such a mixed ensemble enriches a performance of In C and expresses the multiplicity that is at its heart.

  9. The tempo of most performances is around 116 beats per minute, which means The Pulse would be about 232 per minute.

  10. In C embodies the 20th century’s fascination with quest for freedom in a way that is characteristic of American society in the 1960s, because it requires a combination of individuality and a strong feeling of community.

  11. The score of In C consists of 53 melodic fragments, ranging from one-half beat to 32 beats long.

  12. The fragments are located in the middle register of the piano (from just below middle C to the B natural nearly two octaves above it) but the instructions included with the In C score say that “It is OK to transpose patterns by an octave, especially to transpose up.”

  13. In addition, “Transposing down by octaves works best on the patterns containing notes of long durations.”

  14. The fragments, along with The Pulse, firmly place the music “in C,” but it’s not accurate to say that the piece is in the key of C, for there are none of the mechanisms of traditional, functional tonality at work in the piece.

  15. There are no chord changes (there are no chords to change), no move away from the home pitch, and no return to it, in spite of a few notes that briefly hint at other tonalities.

  16. In the midst of all of this performers’ choice, Riley makes it clear there are aspects of a performance of In C that are not open to performer choice — “All performers must play strictly in rhythm and it is essential that everyone play each pattern carefully.”

  17. The soundworld created in a performance of In C is a bright and shimmering one.

  18. Riley’s instructions include preparation suggestions such as “It is advised to rehearse patterns in unison before attempting to play the piece, to determine that everyone is playing correctly.”

  19. “Correctly” is not necessarily a word you would associate with In C.

  20. Despite the shimmering surface of the music, In C is full of tension.

  21. Tension can be a good thing.

  22. Many (most?) artworks of the 20th century (especially) leave their tensions unresolved.

  23. In fact, the lack of resolution is often at the expressive core of the artwork.

  24. This lack of resolution of tension can be immensely satisfying.

  25. In C, on the other hand, expresses the resolution of its tensions throughout the course of a performance.

  26. There’s a tension between individuality and community for the players in In C, as they must balance their interpretation of the patterns (including how many times they should be played before moving on to the next one) with Riley’s instructions.

  27. The instructions say that “as the performance progresses, performers should stay within 2 or 3 patterns of each other.”

  28. The score and instructions express a tension between the communal nature of the performance and the fact that Terry Riley remains the author (authority) of In C.

  29. In C is an early example of what is called “minimalism” in music.

  30. Minimalism arose in part as a reaction to the increased control some composers were exercising over their music and out of a desire to open up the process of making music.

  31. In C differs from other early examples of minimalism, especially pieces by Steve Reich and Philip Glass, in that it is not a musical process set in motion and allowed to play itself out. (See Reich’s “Music as a Gradual Process.”)

  32. In C uses techniques associated with the process music stream of minimalism, including short melodic fragments, tonal references, and (most of all) repetition, but it is not itself a process.

  33. The particular mixture of process and individuality in a performance of In C brings forth a soundworld that is both a stream of shimmering music and a series of discrete musical moments.

  34. The stream of shimmering music is calm and slow-moving, with activity underneath the surface.

  35. The discrete musical moments are melodic/harmonic occurrences that result from the individual musicians’ choices about how quickly to move from fragment to fragment.

  36. They result also from the musicians listening to each other — “As the performance progresses, performers should stay within 2 or 3 patterns of each other.”

  37. These fragments, these suggestions, this stream, these moments.

  38. What do they add up to?

  39. All music is a celebration of now, even music whose purpose and result is transcendence, or escape.

  40. In C came along at a time when people were beginning the particular kind of questioning and searching that characterized the 1960s.

  41. People were searching for commonality, for shared purpose.

  42. As minimalism was a response to perceived over-determination in music, the searching that characterized the 60s was (in part) a response to the perceived over-determination of American life.

  43. In C produces a feeling of togetherness and shared purpose amongst the performers.

  44. The audience is pulled in to this feeling and is made a part of the community it produces.

  45. The performers and the audience are in it together.

  46. It’s a community of the moment.

  47. How does In C end?

  48. Riley: “when each performer arrives at figure #53, he or she stays on it until the entire ensemble has arrived there.

  49. The group then makes a large crescendo and diminuendo a few times and each player drops out as he or she wishes.”(1)

  50. Most performances and recordings that I have heard end differently.

  51. In most performances and recordings, In C ends after everyone has finished playing the last pattern.

  52. The Pulse is all that’s left.

  53. Then it stops.