Every note is danger

April 24, 2009
The entire score of In C

One version of the entire score of In C

Terry Riley’s—dare I say it—revolutionary In C will be performed tonight at Carengie Hall on the occasion of its 45th anniversary. I can’t get a sure number of performers for tonight, but it’s at least 40, the better for which to make generative musics. The group is packed with amazing musicians assembled by the Kronos Quartet, including several members of the original ensemble, Riley himself, Philip Glass, electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick, Kathleen Supové, Trevor Dunn, Joan La Barbara, and Michael Hearst, the impressario behind One Ring Zero, Songs for Newsworthy News, and Songs for Ice Cream Trucks.

I wrote a review for Wired of In C’s 25th anniversary performance released by New Albion (recorded in 1990, released in ’95):
“The joys of this recording are manifold; the ensemble bulges with 31 members including Riley, Jaron Lanier, Henry Kaiser  members of the Kronos Quartet—saucy and sensuous, rich with reed instruments and percussion.”


Brian Eno concisely explained the piece in an interview with Wired about his 77 Million Paintings:

You probably know that famous Terry Riley piece called “In C.” It’s this piece of music which is 22 or 26 bars long [sic, there is no authoritative score but is mostly known as 53 bars]. All the bars are in C, and the musicians all start at bar one. They can repeat bar one as many times as they want before moving on to bar two, and each individual musician makes the decision when to move on to the next bar. So, of course, halfway through the piece, there are at least 20 or 25 different bars being played simultaneously. As a piece on paper, it’s very simple. But as a performance, it’s very complex and always different. This really inspired me. I saw such economy in that and such admirable ingenuity in it.
The original Sony recording, 1968

The original Sony recording, 1968

That no two performances of this piece can be the same continues to haunt me. Michael Nyman’s excellent book Experimental Music further describes it:

. . . the pulse is stated directly, in the form of a regular quaver high C which maintains the tempo and gives the performers a permanently audible constant to relate to. In C is a genuine ensemble piece which can only be performed by individuals acting as a group rather than as a group of multiplied soloists. . . . After the pulse has been established each performer determines for himself [sic] when to enter, how many times to repeat each figure and how to align the figure with the other parts.

The beauty of In C, then, is the open-ended possibility of its simple template; it is ever renewed at each performance. Nyman includes a quote from Riley that I’m sure will set the bar for tonight’s iteration of this astonishing and influential piece:

The ritual spontaneity of [my] music derives from the fact that most of my musical experience has been in the jazz hall, or places where musicians are actually on top of the notes they’re playing, every note is danger. . . . If you never get on the brink you’re never going to learn what excitement you can rise to. You can only rise to great heights by danger and no great man has ever been safe.

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