The Music Masterpiece That Punishes Its Players



I was introduced to Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ by a friend who goes to a lot of classical and modern music concerts. I had never heard of it. Composed in San Francisco in 1964, the score can be played by any ensemble whether trained or amateur, although the best versions are created by trained musicians who have a gift for improvisation. It is unlike any piece of music I can think of, experimental and yet entirely accessible. And it never has the same sound or the same length from one performance to the next.

How can this be, when Riley produced a written musical score for it?

I’ll attempt to explain. There’s a piano part (although it doesn’t have to be a piano) called The Pulse. It consists of even octave eighths drummed out on the top two C’s of the keyboard for the entire performance. Then each member of the orchestra plays 53 figures from the score in time to The Pulse, running in the same order from 1 to 53. But as the player moves between them, where he places his downbeats and how long or often he rests is up to him. The piece finishes when everyone reaches 53.

Now all of this is very academically pleasing, but what’s it like to actually hear? Hard work? A chore to sit through? Not at all. It becomes fascinating and hypnotic. What you actually hear is a rhythmic pulsing piece that shifts in tone and instrumentation from 45 minutes up to 90 minutes, moving from C to E to C to G. That’s as I understand it. What I heard the first time I played it was what sounded to me like instruments gently taking over from one another, the sounds dissolving and reforming constantly, so you never have a chance to get bored. Kn a funny way, it feels as if you’ve heard this music all your life.

One of the problems of playing this piece is that it’s punishing on the fingers. Musicians often end up wrapping their hands like boxers. It can break strings and destroy instruments. But it’s worth it, because in many ways ‘In C’ has come to define music in the second half of the 20th century. It’s said that many pieces of music including Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ would not exist without it. And there are other versions – there’s an African version by Damon Albarn and musicians from Yeah Yeah Yeah that’s wonderful because it’s perfectly suited to African instruments.


One comment on “The Music Masterpiece That Punishes Its Players”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    There’s certainly a great deal of repetition that would give that rhythmic feel but enough twiddly bits to make it interesting to the ear. I can just see friends sitting down to perform it, although the wrapped hands image isn’t really positive incentive.

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