TERRY RILEY — In C (Members of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts in the State University of New York at Buffalo feat. conductor & saxophone: Terry Riley) (review)

TERRY RILEY — In C (Members of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts in the State University of New York at Buffalo feat. conductor & saxophone: Terry Riley) album cover Album · 1968 · Third Stream Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
This is it, the mother lode. With the completion of this composition in 1964, western composition and music would never be the same. Starting with the mid-20th century, western composers had been struggling with various ways to break their music free from predictable linear patterns. Much of this creative struggle culminated with John Cage's indeterminate chance operations which allowed for musical pieces to change freely in the course of their performance much like the mobile in visual arts. Terry Riley sought a more human solution then Cage's intellectual approach, hoping to create a music that might also be pleasing to non-academics. The end result of Riley's efforts was this sound structure composition, "In C", in which musicians follow a steady pulse and freely play interlocking tonal parts that are graphed on one sheet of paper. This piece's blatant bland tonality defied almost every harmony stretching composer since Debussy and became the beginning of a new homogenous relaxed musical style known as ambient in the world of western music. Beginning with "In C", western music had moved beyond the linear into the more luxurious and sensual world of horizontal movement in music. This piece is the great grand-daddy of so much we would consider modern in today's musical world; post-rock, ambient techno, new age, minimalism, trip-hop, nu jazz, or anything touched by Brian Eno or Bill Laswell.

"In C" may be a great idea for an experiment and a breakthrough in western musical thinking, but how does it sound as a piece of music. Surprisingly enough, this piece has mostly aged well and still sounds almost as nice, although not near as revolutionary, today as it did in the mid-60s. Credit is due to Riley for writing a mature composition that goes beyond a clever idea and focuses on maintaining relevance and some sort of entertainment value in the centuries to come. If there is a drawback, it is the limited sounds of the small orchestral ensemble used here. Soon after this piece Riley would switch to electric keyboards and tape loops to achieve a much more pleasing and powerful sound for his minimalist improvisations and compositions.

This isn't something I would want to listen to everyday, the constant chirping orchestral instruments can get annoying after a point, but if you can relax and sink into the complex tapestry, it becomes fascinating to hear how similar the resultant musical phrases are to Riley's later electronic pieces. That's another sign of a truly great composer, that his musical vision remains intact while working with almost opposite mediums.

The world of western composition in the 50s and 60s was a wild and wacky place. Sometimes revisiting old pieces from that period is like opening a time capsule to a culture that was open to almost anything except anything that happened previously. I enjoyed re- visiting this old minimalist war-horse, and hopefully others who are interested in the history of modern and ambient music might set their pre-conceptions aside and give it a chance too. On another interesting note, future founder of nu jazz, Jon Hassell, plays the trumpet part.
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