Riley Completes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A minimalist and largely improvised work, In C reflected composer Terry Riley’s background as a performer and questioned the boundary between professional composition and amateur improvisation, helping expand the definition of professional music.

Summary of Event

Terry Riley’s In C was a watershed in the evolution of American experimental music. In large part, its significance derived from its status as a work conceived by a performer who happened to compose, rather than a composer who happened to perform. Although it is structured upon a pulse, or drone, and a sequence of fifty-three notated but extremely short motifs, In C’s distinguishing characteristic is the collaborative role assigned to its performers. The piece begins with the pulse, a piano part not included in the score, which consists of notes played steadily on the top two C’s of the keyboard (hence the title of the work) throughout the performance. Each player is then free to determine when to enter, how many times to repeat each motif, and how to fit each motif into the composition’s overall flow and texture. In C (Riley) Music;avant-garde[avant garde] Minimalism (music) [kw]Riley Completes In C (1964) [kw]In C, Riley Completes (1964) In C (Riley) Music;avant-garde[avant garde] Minimalism (music) [g]North America;1964: Riley Completes In C[07850] [g]United States;1964: Riley Completes In C[07850] [c]Music;1964: Riley Completes In C[07850] Riley, Terry Cage, John Glass, Philip Reich, Steve Young, La Monte

From a compositional standpoint, In C marked a culmination of Riley’s interest in notated repetition. Repetition has always been one of music’s basic organizing principles, but for Riley—and fellow minimalists La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass—repetition had taken on a significance far greater than it typically had in folk, popular, or classical music. Indeed, during the 1960’s, repetition was Riley’s primary means of permuting and structuring a restricted number of highly abbreviated melodic motifs.

For Riley, the fascination with repetition was heightened during a 1962-1964 stay in Europe, where he had access to the recording facilities of the state-supported French broadcasting system. Riley used tape loops and overdubbing to explore the effects of lengthy repetitions of short melodic cells set against steady metronomic pulses, a process permitting the building of superimposed layers of recorded sound. One such piece, Mescalin Mix Mescalin Mix (Riley) (1963), evoked dreamlike sensations apparently stimulated by the overlapping of slowly evolving melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic patterns. The piece’s effect stemmed from an emotional-cognitive process that also produced a perception of gradual shifts in the stress points of the repeated phases. Indeed, one of Riley’s main interests in repetition has been as a psychological-physiological means of arousing “emotional vibrations” in the listener.

In 1964, Riley transferred his preoccupation with repetition from studio-constructed tape pieces to live performances. In Keyboard Studies No. 2 Keyboard Studies No. 2 (Riley)[Keyboard Studies Number 2] (1964), Riley employed a sequence of fifteen modal figures, or cells, indicated with traditional Western notation. The first cell is repeated throughout the performance, thereby functioning as a pulse against which the other figures are played. The overall length of the performance is not predetermined, and the length of the separate notes may be long or short, at the discretion of the player, provided that they are of equal duration. Variations in dynamics and articulation are not permitted, and each melodic cell is to be played loudly. For Riley, Keyboard Studies No. 2, as well as similar piano pieces in the series that were never notated, served as études, daily improvisational exercises used by Riley to limber up for his solo keyboard concerts.

Later in 1964, Riley composed In C, now regarded as the archetypal pulse piece. Based on principles first explored in Mescalin Mix and Keyboard Studies No. 2, In C was conceived as an exclusively ensemble undertaking. Instead of the fifteen melodic cells of Keyboard Studies No. 2, In C featured fifty-three repetitive motifs. The number and kinds of instruments to be used are not specified, except for the requirement that they be capable of negotiating the octave-and-a-half range notated in Riley’s score. In C’s gravitational center, the reference point regulating the tempo of the individual parts, is a rapidly and continuously pulsing C, doubled at the octave on the piano’s two high C’s; the pulse, incidentally, is not scored like the other parts but instead indicated by Riley’s written instructions.

Each of In C’s parts is of equal significance, since there is no real foreground, background, or leading melody. The performers, except for the pianist generating the pulse, play from copies of the same brief, one-page score. Each player is granted the liberty of determining when to start, and since the number of repetitions of each motif is also left to the performers’ discretion, each player will take a different length of time to complete the cycle of fifty-three melodic cells.

Since so much of the decision making in the execution of In C rests with the players, each performance is a unique event. Riley’s considerable trust, though, is not without limits. One stricture specifies that no player should function as a soloist. Indeed, each musician is urged to relate his or her individual part to the aggregate effort of all colleagues. The overall unreeling of the piece is similarly governed by a concern for the ensemble’s interpersonal dynamics. Composer-musicologist Michael Nyman has observed that the performers “should not wander too far ahead or lag behind the ensemble” in order to guarantee that “the basic textural density and structure is maintained.” Nevertheless, performance times for In C have ranged from half an hour to three hours.

In C was premiered at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the fall of 1964, and the event set off ripples among avant-gardists, musicians as well as partisans of painting, film, and the other arts. Yet it was not until the 1968 release of an inspired recording of In C by members of the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at Buffalo’s State University of New York—a recording that featured the composer himself on soprano saxophone—that the general public began to understand and even to accept Riley’s experimental minimalism.


Predictably, In C, like so many other experimental artworks that appeared in the 1960’s, was met by wildly divergent responses. For musical traditionalists, the self-styled keepers of the European classical flame, In C was dismissed for its lack of substance and form. Naysayers also pointed out that since a “composition” such as In C could be successfully performed by amateurs, it in no way qualified for consideration as “serious” music.

In C, however, arrived at a perfect moment in America’s cultural history. In a sense, the 1960’s was a gigantic laboratory in which old assumptions about race, sex, politics, and the arts were challenged and tested by countless alternative and experimental probings. As a result, In C found a large and sympathetic group of supporters. The fact that the recording of Riley’s In C was produced and distributed by the prestigious Columbia Masterworks Columbia Masterworks Record labels;Columbia Masterworks label amplified the impact of Riley’s minimalist masterpiece.

The minimalist Minimalism (art) impulse was an important part of the 1960’s zeitgeist. In sculpture, there was Tony Smith’s six-foot steel cube called Die Die (Smith) (1962). In painting, there were bold, geometric arrangements of primary colors such as Ellsworth Kelly’s Red, Orange, White, Green, Blue Red, Orange, White, Green, Blue (Kelly) (1968). In film, there were experiments Cinema;avant-garde[avant garde] such as Tony Conrad’s The Flicker Flicker, The (Conrad) (1966), a stroboscopic progression of flashing light. In each medium, conventional content had been virtually erased; as in In C, traditional content of a mimetic, narrative, or emotional nature had been reduced—or “minimized”—so as to focus on other, often more formal and basic, elements having to do with the very natures of the various media.

In the evolution of twentieth century music, the tonal system codified by Johann Sebastian Bach and the European classicists had been challenged by the introduction of the twelve-tone Music;twelve-tone[twelve tone] Twelve-tone music[twelve tone music] serial Music;serialism procedures of Arnold Schoenberg Schoenberg, Arnold . Since Schoenberg and other serialists reduced composition to a stipulated set of procedures and a specified twelve-tone row, musicologists such as Wim Mertens have suggested that serialism can be regarded as having been in the vanguard of twentieth century minimalism, a quest in large part motivated by the epistemological search for each art form’s fundamental functions, materials, and working methods.

In the post-World War II world of American music, the decks were effectively cleared when experimentalist John Cage brought forth 4′ 33″ 4{sprime} 33{dprime} (Cage)[Four minutes thirty three seconds] (1952). In effect, by sitting a “musician” at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, Cage was posing the question, “What is music?”

For Riley and fellow minimalists Young, Reich, and Glass, the work of Cage and the serialists provoked great curiosity about the nature of music and, indeed, acoustic phenomena in general. This curiosity, in turn, led to an array of experiments by the minimalists and was directed to various but specific aspects of the musical event. For Riley, at least during the mid-1960’s, such experiments focused on the intertwining of repetition and improvisation, the hallmarks of Keyboard Studies No. 2 and the seminal In C.

In C became the cornerstone of a compositional approach that, in addition to acquiring the designation “minimalist,” has also been called “trance music,” “meditative music,” and “pattern music.” In particular, the repetitive echoes of In C can be discerned in the highly successful and widely disseminated works of Glass and Reich. Moreover, because In C can be regarded as a template for collective improvisation, the work has also provoked interest among jazz musicians seeking to explore territories beyond the bounds of mainstream jazz.

The repetitively pulsing qualities of In C that seem to evoke sensations of both stasis and movement have been taken up in the experimental rock music of Soft Machine, Brian Eno, John Cale, and Kraftwerk as well as in the work of such European composers of repetitive music as Michael Nyman in England, Peter Michael Hamel in Germany, and the group Urban Sax in France.

Riley and the minimalists also helped pave the way for the “new age” music phenomenon of the 1980’s. Although most new age music is greatly simplified in comparison to a work as nuanced as In C, its meditative nature is based largely on the use of repetition to create soothing, pulse-like mantras.

In 1989, the silver anniversary of In C was celebrated with performances around the world. A performance in the People’s Republic of China was recorded for release by the Celestial Harmonies label.

Musicologist Edward Strickland has laid stress on the “wildly imaginative” nature of much of Riley’s work, which, Strickland has noted, demonstrates “an abiding sense of wonder.” These, indeed, are the qualities that have helped make In C a continuing source of inspiration, and Riley a figure of enduring fascination. In C (Riley) Music;avant-garde[avant garde] Minimalism (music)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berg, Charles Merrell. “Philip Glass on Composing for Film and Other Forms: The Case of Koyaanisqatsi.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism (Fall, 1990): 301-322. Glass talks about the application of his minimalist compositional techniques to his collaborations with film director Godfrey Reggio, for whom he scored Koyaanisqatsi (1982).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mertens, Wim. “Terry Riley.” In American Minimal Music: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steven Reich, Philip Glass. Translated by J. Hauteklet. New York: Alexander Broude, 1983. Mertens offers particularly keen analyses of Keyboard Studies No. 2 and In C. Volume includes Michael Nyman’s preface, an incisive overview of the minimalist approach, and Mertens’s chapter on the movement’s historical background, with emphasis on serial composers Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, and Karlheinz Stockhausen and the avant-garde advocate of indeterminacy, John Cage. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nyman, Michael. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. New York: Schirmer Books, 1974. Nyman’s chapter on “Minimal Music, Determinacy and the New Tonality” contains an excellent discussion of Riley’s working methods and compositions, including In C. Includes a highly useful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parsons, Michael. “Terry Riley.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie. Vol. 16. Washington, D.C.: Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1980. A concise yet insightful overview of Riley’s career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Potter, Keith. Four Musical Minimalists. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Study of Riley and fellow minimalists La Monte Young, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. Places Riley’s work in the context of that of others, isolating its unique aspects from its characteristically minimalist aspects. Bibliographic references and discography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riley, Terry. “Terry Riley: Doctor of Improvised Surgery.” Interview by Robert Palmer. Down Beat 42 (November 20, 1975): 17-18, 41. An illuminating interview with Riley that also includes Palmer’s thoughtful discussion of In C.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strickland, Edward. American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Music critic Strickland’s volume includes a probing 1987 interview that examines Riley’s career, with frequent references to In C. Includes equally fascinating interviews with Riley collaborators La Monte Young and Steve Reich and fellow minimalist Philip Glass.

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