Rarely does one composer earn the reputation of having changed the course of music history. With his 1964 composition, “In C,” however, Terry Riley accomplished just that by almost single handedly starting the Minimalist movement in music.
On the night of April 12, nearly 40 years after its premier, several Eastman students performed the composition.
“In C” is a hybrid of composition and improvisation. It is not based on gradually changing and tirelessly repeating musical figures with rigid instrumentation, making it different from the later, more familiar minimalist works of composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Riley also influenced the work of John Adams, not to mention several rock bands such as The Who and Tangerine Dream.
Following his “In C” composition, Riley changed his focus to solo works for electronic keyboards and soprano saxophone, setting the stage for the eventual New Age movement.
Scored for any number of players or singers, each performer reads identical pages of 53 musical cells that may be played in any octave and repeated as many times as the player wishes. Therefore, even though the pages are all the same, the ensemble is never at the same spot on the page at the same time.
While this description may make the work sound rather chaotic, the backdrop of the piece is steady eighth note octave Cs – played on the highest octaves of the piano – that sound throughout the work, providing the pulse and framework on which the rest of the piece is built.
As the composer has indicated no set instrumentation, the most eclectic of groups can perform the piece. Though Riley has delineated some unbreakable rules, the free instrumentation and improvisatory style of the composition ensure that no two performances of the piece will be alike.
Jennifer Graham, producer of this “In C” performance, said that it provides a unique opportunity for the jazz and classical departments of Eastman to collaborate.
“Riley is a saxophonist [who] was very much influenced by John Coltrane and others,” she said.
“I thought it would be fitting to make sure we had jazz players in the mix. We therefore have a very unusual and fantastic group that consists of mallet percussion, flute, celeste, electric cello, 2 basses and a singer, just to name a few.”
A California native, Riley has himself recalled that the most enjoyable part of the work is the communal atmosphere that it creates.
“In the early performances of ‘In C,'” Riley said, “people would come out and listen or dance to the music because the music would get quite ecstatic with all those repeated patterns.”
In keeping with Riley’s ideals, Graham has made sure that this concert was as relaxed as those performed some forty years ago.
“We are even putting pillows out in front for audience members who would like to sit on the floor and relax.” She added, “If dancing in the aisles is okay with Terry Riley, it is certainly okay with us.”
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