Thursday, June 24, 2010

Old Song Review: Terry Riley - In C

I like to pretend I know a lot about music, but everyone has their blind spots. Classical music is mine. I took a   classical music class in college and was exposed to most of the major players, but even then, much of the enjoyment was lost in the mad-cramming session to commit pieces and dates and composers to memory. I still have most of the tracks rattling around on my Zune, and enjoy them when they come pop up inbetween Gucci Mane and Powerline. When I'm in the right mindset, classical music offers a degree of spontaneity and unpredictability that popular Verse-Chorus-Verse music doesn't offer. I'm sure there is a formula and a great deal of music theory in play in every classical piece, but it's exciting to discover where a piece takes you.

To call Terry Riley's 1964 piece In C influential is to call the Isner-Mahut match "long". It came at a time when classical music was very dark and cacophonous, essentially becoming the first minimalist piece and flipping the genre on its head. It influenced classical music heavyweights like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and musicians of every disposition. As soon as the piece lifts out of the opening piano note, the artists it has influenced floods your mind. From Jon Brion's soundtrack to I Heart Huckabees, to Sigur Ros and Sufjan Steven's Illinois album. Even techno owes a great deal to In C. It has a warm hypnotic quality, that is heightened even more by the fact that is different nearly every time it is performed.

As devised, In C has no set length or set instruments. Riley envisioned it to consist of 53 short musical phrases, of varying length, repeated an arbitrary number of times. Often times the performers are encouraged to begin at different times, so long as they remain within 2-3 phases of one another. Rhythms and keys change subtly, flowing in and out of one another gently and gracefully. Instruments form harmonies with one another that fall away and coalesce again. The piece can last as little as 15 minutes or several hours, depending on the performers involved. It's a fascinating piece that feels deeply rooted in classical music, but also like something else entirely.

Here are the first 10 minutes of Riley's original recording.

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