Ad Vitam In C
April 24, 2009
Per Alex Ross, this year marks the 45th anniversary of the composition of Terry Riley's In C. I am mightily fond of Terry Riley's In C. I have six different versions of it living on my hard drive, and there are more out there.
For a while earlier in the year, In C was your Best Entertainment Value in the Amazon MP3 store, which offered the seminal original record (I still have my old Columbia vinyl copy) as a single 42 minute track for 99 cents; then, for a week or so, it was available for free; today, sadly, it is priced as an album at $9.99. iTunes is similarly priced. There are several versions -- the best of those being a performance by the Bang on a Can All Stars, the strangest being a feedback-drenched electric guitar version from Japan's Acid Mothers Temple -- at EMusic, downloadable as single tracks and therefore cheap cheap cheap. Amazon is still offering the great early Riley double-header of A Rainbow In Curved Air & Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band for a mere $1.98, though it's rather a different sort of a beast than In C. But enough of base consumerism! Let's move along.
Like the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt, In C exists principally as a set of instructions. (The score and instructions can be downloaded as a PDF here.) A group of musicians, the size and makeup of which is whatever the players decide it will be, work their way in sequence through 53 brief musical motifs, all in the titular key of C. Riley sees 35 as the optimal size of the ensemble, but allows for wide variation. Each player may repeat each given segment for as long as he or she wishes before moving to the next. Throughout, at least one player maintains "The Pulse," a steady stream of eighth notes played on the high C's of a piano or mallet instrument. The piece ends when the last player stops playing the last segment. While the element of spontaneity makes every performance different, the core structure produces performances in which the essence of In C is almost always recognizable. when Terry Riley unleashed it on the world, it served as catalyst for much of the music -- Philip Glass, Steve Reich and more -- that is typically, lazily, lumped together as "minimalism."
The 45th anniversary will be marked this evening by a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring a very large and varied ensemble centering around members of the Kronos Quartet and divers figures of prominence in the New York New Music scene. Below is a rather different version for quite a small group of performers that I just discovered, uploaded a few days ago.
This 55 minute performance -- a bit on the long side for In C, which tends to clock in around 40 minutes or so in most renditions -- comes from the closing night of the 2008 Tone Deaf Music Festival in Kingston, Ontario. The performers are the self-described Canadian "nerdgrass" band, The Gertrudes. In C does not usually feature banjos or accordions, but this version does. It turns out to work perfectly well that way.
While we are on the subject of unconventional versions of In C, here is a video trailer for a project I am looking forward to hearing later in the year. The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble (of Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan) released a very fine recording of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians in 2007. This year, they are taking on In C in a series of remixes by a fairly dazzling array of remixers. It's got a Pulse and you can dance to it!