Terry Riley, born in 1935 in Colfax, in the northern portion of California's Gold Country between Sacramento and Reno, attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a master's degree in composition. Tellingly, he played ragtime piano at a San Francisco bar to earn money for college and then, after graduation, spent time in Europe, playing piano at a Paris nightclub and traveling through Scandanavia, where he played music and performed in street theater, among other endeavors. In other words, he and other post-World War II composers were finding interesting paths to "classical" composition, using experiences with other forms of music (including indigenous musics of various parts of the world, jazz, blues and others) and types of entertainment to influence their work.
What became known, typically misleadingly, as "minimalism" has often been described as exemplified by works such as Riley's In C, which was composed in San Francisco in 1964 and is often celebrated as the first work of minimal composition. The piece is partially operated by chance (an earlier post highlights John Cage and David Tudor's Indeterminacy, a work based on principles of chance occurrences relative to Cage's recitation of stories and anecdotes while Tudor employed electronics in a separate room out of earshot from his compatriot) in that there are 53 short figures covering from a half beat to 32 beats and moving between the notes of C, E, C again and then G. While these are played in order, performers can vary where they establish their downbeat and how long and for what duration are their rests, so the element of improvisation is central to the performance of the work. A key underpinning to In C is that there is an element not included in the score, which is a piano used to create a continuous pulse through the percussive playing of the top two Cs of the instrument on precise eighth notes, almost like a tamboura drone on Indian ragas. Moreover, the size of the ensemble can vary, so that performances can run anywhgere from about forty-five minutes to an 1 1/2 hours.
This album, the first of this composition, was recorded in 1968 for Columbia Records with Riley on saxophone and joined by musicians from Buffalo's New Music Center (a.k.a., Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo), including a trumpet, flute, trombone, clarinet, viola, oboe, vibraphone, marimbaphone, bassoon and the piano. Among the performers was trumpeter Jon Hassell, who met Riley in San Francisco and who has gone on to receive much praise for his body of work in modern music, and Hassell's then-wife, Margaret, now known as Katrina Krimsky, who played the pulse on piano and has had a long career as a pianist.
The 42-minute version is performed beautifully and was recorded in three segments. The first included the eleven ensemble members playing around the pulse established by Margaret Hassell. Two overdubs followed, one using ten musicians and the other seven. This created an effect of hearing three each of the vibes, sax, trombone, viola, flute, bassoon, oboe and trumpet and two each of the marimba and clarinet. Since this first recording, there have been many, ranging up to 76 minutes. One live performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles featured 124 musicians, which must have been, given the noted acoustics in that venue, a powerful and hypnotic experience, which is true enough of this original 1968 recording.
Riley had a great influence on many composers of his time and subsequently, among these being Steve Reich, whose early work will be the focus of a soon-to-be-coming post. His follow-up Columbia disc, A Rainbow in Curved Air, released in 1969, is another classic that will be discussed here at some point. The composer soon after began intensive studies in Indian music, which has had a vey prominent influence in his later works. By the mid-1980s, however, his former student, David Harrington of the great Kronos Quartet, convinced him to compose works for the string quartet and a series of excellent collaborations, including the tremendous Cadenza on a Night Plain, resulted. Anyone interested in modern "minimalist" "classical" music would be well advised to start with, or at least give an early listen, to In C, which stands as one of the great works of the genre.