Terry Riley and the SSO, caressing In C into existence.
  • Dave Segal
  • Terry Riley and the SSO, caressing In C into existence.

Seattle Art Museum closed off First Ave. at Union Sunday evening in order to unveil Doug Aitken’s new artwork, MIRROR, which will adorn SAM’s façade on its northwest side. But the big draw for me was Terry Riley conducting his pioneering minimalist composition, In C, with 20+ members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (including Stranger Genius Lori Goldston on cello)—on the street… for free. (We owe SAM big time for this one, citizens.) Local trombonist Stuart Dempster, who played on the piece’s 1964 debut, also performed. It lived up to my absurdly high expectations—and then some.

Before In C, though, we got a snappy run through Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, after which I always think the crowd should respond by playing music. Instead of the usual two clappers as dictated by Reich, SSO gave us eight. They slapped up one helluva a mesmerizing rhythm. It was a nice warm-up for the main event.

To witness Terry Riley’s In C conducted by the legend himself was, to put it lightly, the fulfillment of a long-deferred dream. Now 77 and sporting a scraggly beard of blinding whiteness, Riley donned a suit jacket that looked like something Pharoah Sanders would've worn to church circa 1969 and what can only be described as the most dignified-looking ballcap ever. He sat behind a large black square housing a keyboard of some kind. There he was 15 feet away from the front row, this man I rank among the top five musicians in the history of the world, this man whose music is peace beyond peace. My eyes teared up and my throat lumped from the first second of In C.

In C, as many of you know, is something of a Big Bang for minimalist music. It gives you the sense of something momentous happening, of many little wings beating relentlessly in a patient ascendance to the heavens, an industrious illumination, a feathery confluence of mini-ecstasies that you hate to see end. In C possesses wonderfully fluid, non-uptight guidelines for its technical parameters. From Wikipedia:

In C consists of 53 short, numbered musical phrases, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats; each phrase may be repeated an arbitrary number of times. Each musician has control over which phrase he or she plays: players are encouraged to play the phrases starting at different times, even if they are playing the same phrase. The performance directions state that the musical ensemble should try to stay within two to three phrases of each other. The phrases must be played in order, although some may be skipped. As detailed in some editions of the score, it is customary for one musician ("traditionally... a beautiful girl," Riley notes in the score) to play the note C in repeated eighth notes, typically on a piano or pitched-percussion instrument (e.g. marimba). This functions as a metronome and is referred to as "The Pulse".
In C has no set duration; performances can last as little as fifteen minutes or as long as several hours, although Riley indicates "performances normally average between 45 minutes and an hour and a half."

In C has been done by flute ensembles, by rock bands (Acid Mothers Temple, L’Infonie, Styrenes), and by musicians in many other configurations. The work is a wondrous gust of fresh air no matter how it’s rendered, and though it really came to prominence in 1968 when CBS issued it on LP, In C transcends its era. One can envision every generation tripping out to its hypnotic undulations till the electricity runs out.

To watch and hear a highly skilled orchestra manifest In C is to marvel at a multiplicity of minuscule musical gestures coalescing into a monumental mosaic of unspeakable beauty and simplicity. SSO’s violinists, cellists, trombonists, a trumpeter, marimba players, a guitarist, a French horn specialist, and a tuba player lasered in on their parts; they interlocked intricately to form the über-groove of sublime slinkiness that Riley conjured nearly 50 years ago out of grandiose generosity for humankind.

Near the end of In C, Riley rose from his seat and gestured for the orchestra to intensify the sound, then diminish it, then intensify, then mellow out, then cease abruptly. The crowd went wild, whooping and clapping for an exceedingly long time. This In C performance is destined to be the show of 2013—and all it cost was the feeling in my fingertips from the cold.