Terry Riley's "In C"

In early 2015 I came across a piece of music that was unlike anything I'd ever heard before. It was called "Africa Express Presents: Terry Riley's In C Mali," which didn't ring any bells for me at the time, though it involved a number of musicians I like, including Brian Eno.

When I hit "play," I was surrounded by a cloud of music that seemed to contradict itself at every turn — as if it was in a state of suspended animation, but it kept changing all the time. It was filled with energy and forward motion, yet it was somehow calming. It was highly repetitive but organic. It was rhythmically intricate but it grooved. It was often hard to pin down, but it didn't seem very complicated.

A quick Google search brought me to the Wikipedia article about "In C," which had some phrases in it that really tickled my interest. It talked about the piece consisting of "53 short, numbered, musical phrases" with musicians having "control over which phrase they play" and that each phrase "may be repeated an arbitrary number of times." It sounded more like a description of a process than a description of a musical composition.

What I was to learn is that "In C" is a foundational and revered work of musical minimalism – a form of music where these kinds of open ended processes are front and center. These processes, designed by composer Terry Riley, have unfolded in different ways not only in this performance by the Africa Express project, but in the countless other performances of "In C" that have been given in the last 53 years all around the world.

In this article I'm going to share what I've learned about "In C" in the two years following my first encounter with it. We'll discuss the composition's origins in drones and tape loops designed to alter our perception of time. We'll discuss how its open architecture allows a unique piece of music to be generated for every single performance. We'll look at some of the manifold performances and experimental visual and software projects it has inspired in the five decades following its 1964 conception in the then 29-year old Riley's mind .