In C and Me

Sony Classical (in conjunction with Carnegie Hall) has released the original recording of Terry Riley’s epochal In C (1964, open instrumentation) in a digitally remastered version on compact disc (Sony 88697 45368 2). Countless musicians and artists, myself included, of all stripes have talked and written about In C, most often focusing on its liberating power.

A good deal of the talk about In C and its liberating power centers on how it and its popular and critical reception provided a new tonal alternative to an “hegemony” of pantonal and serial music in the prestigious music schools of the Northeastern United States. Enough testimony of this regional atmosphere exists to take it seriously and to understand how Riley would have been received by those looking for something different.

But in most of the country the atmosphere was very different—the majority of composers in and out of the academy (and concert programs) wrote tonal music of one kind or another. Even so, the appearance of In C had a similar liberating impact outside the major music centers as it did inside.

I had first been exposed to pantonal music in the summer of 1970, after a youth of listening to The Beatles and playing trombone in junior high band in North Carolina. The first pantonal works I heard and/or played, by composers like Lucas Foss, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Georgy Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski, Iannis Xenakis, and Karlheinz Stockhausen were all over the pantonal map, style wise. I started writing music in the fall of 1972, and I feel confident that my exposure to In C, which came shortly thereafter, was in an eclectic context not dominated by any one style, tonal or otherwise.

I’m pretty sure, then, that In C’s tonal pitch vocabulary doesn’t account for the feeling of freedom, of something new, of liberation that I got from it on first hearing, and that I still get now when I hear this original recording, either on vinyl or on the new CD release. What does account for its effect is, I think, how the music is freed from the constraints one normally finds in tonal music. The pulse is still there; boy is it ever, but gone are phrases, meter, development, and all the other trappings of tonal music, the music I had grown up with. It was with In C that I learned that there was more to emancipation than dissonance. That compositional and performance freedom could be found anywhere, by many, varied means.

One last thought, on this recording in particular. It may be because this recording is how I learned In C, but it remains the only one so far that communicates the deeply innovative, at times transgressive nature of Riley’s masterpiece. More recent recordings have, to my ear, emphasized the one-from-many nature of the music. By this I mean the sound is very clean, with a shiny Kronosified gleam to the surface; that the meaning resides in the completely blended sound of the surface itself. In these performances I get the feeling that every note counts for what it adds to the overall texture. In contrast, the original recording is rough sounding, like a community of many individuals, where every instrument is clearly heard, and the meaning comes from the gathering of expressive individuals.