Read This Book! Terry Riley’s In C, by Robert Carl

Terry Riley’s In C, by composer Robert Carl, is a fascinating read.  I’m not plugging it because of my good experience with Dr. Carl in composition lessons, but rather due to the merit of this book alone.

This book is part of a series of “Studies in Musical Genesis, Structure, and Interpretation” published by the Oxford University Press, and so naturally one would assume it would be detailed, thoughtful, thorough, and “academic”.  It is truly the former three qualities, but I wouldn’t call it “academic”.  While I did have to reference a few times, it is written in a manner that allows one to understand Terry Riley, his environment, and the piece to the level any academic paper could bring, but its language isn’t esoteric, and its writing style not cloistered or heady.  It is truly the work of an accomplished artistic mind with skill in presenting material clearly–Dr. Carl has mastered the art of precise and thorough, albeit clear, presentation.

The content of the book is fascinating.  It presents Terry Riley biographically, artistically, and socially, beginning with descriptions of Mr. Riley’s life and work prior to In C.  One soon knows that In C isn’t some randomly generated work by an unskilled hippie; rather, Mr. Riley is a well-educated, musically gifted man whose influences and tendencies were very modernist, and he is a well thought-out and respected musician in both academic and more vernacular circles.  Through interviews, discoveries, and pictures we gain a clearer sense of the man behind In C.

We then are lead closer to the path of In C, with a description of works prior to it and a revealing discussion of its premiere.  Here Dr. Carl puts on his many hats, discussing history, a little analysis, and playing the roles of musical anthropologist and aesthetician.

We then get two types of analysis that delve deep into the piece and expose its merit on many levels.  The first type is what the author terms “endogenous“–analysis “in the score”, outside of the implications of real-time performance.  This reveals a highly developmental piece with modal centers and important shapes and arcs, but I won’t spoil further details for you.  Since In C is much different in real time than just as a score, the “exogeneous“, or real-time analysis, is quite illuminating as well.  It reveals a piece that is mutable but stable, changing its form but still being the same entity.  Diagrams and musical terminology assist these two forms of analysis quite well, and add much to the content.

The legacy of In C is discussed, with input from many interview including Steve Reich, Morton Subotnick, Kyle Gann, Robert Black, and Ingram Marshall, to name a few of the many insightful interviewees (including Terry Riley himself).  This helps the reader place In C in the many contexts to which it applies.  Also importantly are the discussion of the dualities it in encompasses (eg. Western v. Eastern music, Classical v. Jazz, East v. West Coast, Improvised v. Notated, etc.), and the sense of hope it brings.  It shows how education, intuition, musicians working together for a common goal, and sincere care about the music can have a lasting effect in the world, and impact our society beneficially.  It gave me more hope about the future of music and the directions we have available for the taking.

Finally, the appendix lists 14 recordings of In C and their defining characteristics, which is also interesting because it displays a myriad of approaches to the piece, all of which are still In C.  This also shows how the fact that there can’t be a “definitive” performance of the piece isn’t negative, but rather a point of opportunity.

If you decide to read this book, I have a few suggestions to help you get the most out of it:

  • If you’re not familiar with In C, listen to it somehow, whether it’s live, on CD, or online.
  • Read the foreward and preface.
  • Take a good look at the score on page 2.
  • Read the endnotes–they are often small stories in themselves worthy of your time invested in them.
  • Take good look at the diagrams, figures, and pictures.
  • Read the appendix detailing the most reputable recordings, especially if you’re interested in performing In C.

It’s a fairly quick read, and the chapters are focused and strategically placed.

Happy reading (and thanks for reading this post)!


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