Terry Riley's Music at its Most Sensational Terry Riley on In C

In 2002, I conducted a lengthy interview with Terry Riley for andante.com (footnote 1). The following dialog reveals the drug-induced genesis of In C:

Jason Victor Serinus: Let's set the context for In C. May I assume that you were very conscious of making a statement?

Terry Riley: In C was kind of a gift to me. I wasn't trying to write a piece; it just came to me one night on a bus when I was riding to work.

JVS: And you weren't stoned at the time?

TR: I was [laughter]. My Rainbow In Curved Air and all my recordings for CBS were done when I was stoned. In the early days, I rarely did music without being stoned.

I could function very well on marijuana, but I wouldn't try to write music in LSD. In fact, I found no reason to. I remember one time playing a trill on the piano when I was on LSD, and the trill became the fastest trill I'd ever heard in my life. Maybe I was hearing it in a different dimension; I probably wasn't playing it any faster. It became like there wasn't any other music to play. I think on LSD that's kind of the way music is heard.

JVS: Coming back down to In C, you said you were on a bus?

TR: I used to play ragtime piano at the Gold Street Saloon in San Francisco's North Beach. I worked there while I was getting my Masters, and then afterwards, and again when I came back from Europe. I always had a job there whenever I wanted it.

I was pretty good at playing sing-along, ragtime, and rinky-dink. It was a good earning for me. I wasn't interested in academia. I didn't want to teach; I wanted to be free from that.

Anyway, I was riding a bus to work, and feeling kind of good, when suddenly the In C began ringing in my head. It never happens to me. Music does come to me in my head, but not this kind of overwhelming, compulsive way that it did. I was very excited. It sounded like trumpets from heaven or something opening up. So as I got home from work, I wrote it all down the same as it has lasted since 1964.

JVS: What exactly is In C?

TR: It's 53 patterns, and they all fit on one page. There's a whole set of instructions that developed that didn't come with the original inspiration; we had to figure out how to play it to make it work. Over the years, we've codified a certain way to perform it.

Generally, everybody performs the sequences in order from 1 to 53, but how they relate to each other is left to the performers' discretion.

JVS: Of course, other composers were writing chance music and music in sequence at the time.

TR: Right. The thing that allowed In C to happen for me was that I was familiar with this music of John Cage and a lot of European composers, such as Silvano Bussotti and Cornelius Cardew who were writing pieces down as instructions. I knew of Cage—we met sometime after In C was written—and was very impressed with what he was doing. Although musically we didn't share the same aesthetic, I really respected him for what he opened up in music.

JVS: How did In C get out to the world?

TR: It made quite an impression at its premiere performance in San Francisco. There was a really wonderful crowd of counter culture poets, and Ronnie Davis who ran the San Francisco Mime Troupe. And it got a wonderful review in the San Francisco Chronicle from Alfred Frankenstein, who called it "music like none other on earth," which reverberated a bit.

I moved to New York in 1965. The first year I played in La Monte Young's band, The Theater of Eternal Music; then I branched off on my own. I started playing around, and got on a tour with the Arts Council. I did loft concerts, and in general got around.

What really made it happen was the CBS recording. I was friends with Richard Maxfield, an editor at CBS and a great pioneer electronics composer. At the time, John McClure, head of CBS Masterworks, was really interested in New Music—he recorded Harry Partch and Stravinsky. Lots of great things were coming out on Masterworks. John hired a young composer named David Behrman, and David told John to come to my Steinway Hall concert in New York. John heard me and signed me up.

For CBS, I recorded In C, then Rainbow In Curved Air, which made quite an impression. It affected a lot of people in the pop world, like Pete Townshend of The Who. Then, because John McClure wanted to bridge the classical and the pop worlds, I made a rock record with John Cale, one of the founding members of The Velvet Underground. It was called The Church of Anthrax. It's a wonder we haven't been arrested for it. It was an underground cult record for a while, and is still available.

Footnote 1: Andante.com closed its doors in 2006. See http://articles.latimes.com/2006/feb/03/entertainment/et-andante3.

jporter's picture

This is new to me and I love it. Sounds just amazing with good headphones. Almost disorienting. Thanks...

bmoura's picture

It's even more fascinating in DSD Surround Sound than in DSD Stereo.

The album was recorded by Jared Sacks of Channel Classics with the musicians in a circle and the recording session microphones in the middle with the Surround Sound edition recreating the performance in a truly immersive sound field. The music is mind bending and full of unexpected Surround Sound moments. Highly Recommended.

Sacks describes the recording process on a blog post at http://blog.nativedsd.com/full-multichannel-dsd/

jporter's picture

I will definitely check that out...Thanks.

cgh's picture

... a tour with his son, Gyan. Gyan is an awesome musician and a great guy.

Anon2's picture

For those interested in Channel Classics and their top-rate recording technique, try the instrumental recordings of harpist Lavinia Meijer. She has released two recordings on Channel Classics. These two recordings are among the finest that I have ever purchased.

I hope we can get some BIS, Berlin Classics, Capriccio and Pentatone Classics reviews to complement the well-deserved recordings from Channel Classics in these pages.

canyelles's picture

after 48 years, not 38

AaronGarrett's picture

This is probably the best In C I've ever heard. Thanks!