Sunday, June 07, 2009


Sometimes an idea just needs the right context.

I've been thinking about Terry Riley's In C for a while now. It's a seminal piece, of course - it helped kick-start a huge sea change in musical style, the effects of which are still evident today. But the thing about it that's been lingering in my mind isn't a question of style or compositional technique - it's its social significance.

This is where it departs from so-called classical music most importantly, I think. The way you approach it as a musician is quite different to how you'd approach, say, a symphony by Brahms or Mahler. For one thing, it doesn't ask for any specific scoring. Whatever instruments are available play. There's therefore no hierarchy . Everyone plays the same notes, in whatever register suits their on instrument (or voice). Immediately Riley has removed a social structure. There are no issues of being first or second fiddle, no "extras" who get paid differently, no joking about the competence of certain instruments, because they're playing the same as you. Everyone comes to the table as an equal.

Connected this is the responsibility that every player carries. It's not simply a matter of counting the bars rest until the conductor brings you in. There's no conductor at all, in fact (although there may be someone pounding out repeated Cs to help everyone keep time). How the piece goes depends on what you do, in a way more fundamental than in traditional orchestral music. If you don't do what you're old to do in a symphony then you're wrong. There's no "wrong" as such in In C. But that's not to say it doesn't matter what you play. It matters a great deal - it's just that you have to decide for yourself how you play, when you play, and must consider carefully the consequences of what you play on everyone else.

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