Terry Riley

Born: June 24, 1935, in Colfax, CA

Early Studies                  Music From The Gift                    In C



Early Studies:

            On June 24, 1935, Terry Riley was born in Colfax, California.  A music lover from birth, his earliest exposure to music consisted of listening to popular jazz and Broadway standards on the radio.  He started playing the violin at age five or six, and later learned the piano as well.  After graduating high school he attended junior college before attending San Francisco State University.  He studied composition and considered a career as a pianist, but realized that his nerves and his late start to serious study would make that path an impossibility.  His earliest known piece, a Trio for violin, clarinet, and piano, came from this period (Potter, 93-95).

            After graduating from San Francisco, he attended Berkeley to get a degree in composition.  It was at Berkeley that he met La Monte Young, who was a student himself.  Up until this point, Riley’s compositions had reflected the influence of serialist Arnold Schoenberg, since that was the style his professors admired and taught.  However, Young’s approach to contemporary music paired with his experience as a jazz musician left a huge impression on Riley, and the two became fast friends. Through his work with Young, Riley found himself influenced by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, particularly by his method of having performers play at different tempi.  He began experimenting with performers playing at different speeds; a piece called Spectra in 1959 had two speeds performed simultaneously (Potter, 96).  He also started experimenting with continuous sound.  He described his fascination with constant, repetitive sound by saying, “I think I was noticing that things didn’t sound the same when you heard them more than once.  And the more you heard them, the more different they did sound.”  (Gann, 194).  In other words, as the emotional state of the audience changes, the experience of hearing the repetition changes also; new sounds are picked up because the audience is experiencing the sound differently.  He started recording natural sounds such as speech and laughter along with planned sounds, such as piano playing (Potter, 98).  These tapes were then used to repeat a particular noise that would proceed to echo and provide counterpoint against itself.  Some of these tapes were used for his 1960 piece Mescalin Mix, composed for dancer Anne Halprin.  Mescalin Mix is the earliest known piece of Riley’s to use tape loops, and that led to his next project in Europe (Gann, 194-195).


Music from The Gift:

            After graduation from Berkeley, he left America to live in France, supporting himself and his family by playing piano for dances and circus acts.  While in Paris, he met with a man named Ken Dewey, who was putting together a production of a play called The Gift.  Dewey hired Riley to be the play’s musical director and composer (Duckworth, Talking Music, 276).  For the performance, Riley used an innovative technique known as tape delay.  He started by selecting a subject for the tape loops:  the Miles Davis song “So What” as performed by the Chet Baker Band.  The selection was not random, since Chet Baker had been hired by Dewey as a performer.  Each part was recorded individually, and then split up, reassembled, doubled, and modified so that the tune was almost untraceable to Davis’s classic.  The music was performed during the play by having a tape in one machine both playing and also being recorded onto a second tape in another machine.  Then, the second machine played the music back, creating an echo effect caused by the distance between the two machines.  Music for the Gift worked extremely well, not just because of the innovation behind the use of tape loops, but also because the music happened to be well-chosen.  Miles Davis’s “So What” contains a harmonic shift from D Dorian in the main section to Eb Dorian in the bridge.  The way the tape loops were put together, the modulation happened gradually, and instead of a short key change became an entire switch to the new Dorian mode.  The effect was described by Riley as “…one of the most beautiful tonal effects I’ve ever heard.”  (Potter, 106-107). 


In C:

            After composing Music for “The Gift” and seeing its success in France, Riley wanted to attempt the effects of tape looping with live performers.  He left Europe and returned to San Francisco in 1964 with the hopes of writing a piece in this style for the Monterey Jazz Festival.  While hoping for an idea for a composition, he earned his living playing ragtime music at a saloon.  One evening, while he was riding the bus to work, he suddenly had an epiphany.  An entire piece, fully formed, came to him, and when he got home he wrote it all down.  He later said of the work, “…it was so simple that I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.” (Potter, 104-105).

The piece he conceived on that bus ride was a work called In C, and indeed, the theory behind the piece is stunning in its simplicity.  Riley composed 53 melodic phrases for the work, written for any number of instruments.  The performers start at the beginning with the first motif, repeating it as many times as they wish.  When a performer feels it is time, he/she then moves on to the next fragment, again repeating it until the desire to move ahead occurs.  There is no indication about how many repetitions are desirable, or even how much space to put between each motif.  These decisions are left entirely up to the performers (Gann, 195-196).  Since performers are not playing the fragments at the same time, and some move on while others stay on their motif, the resulting sound does resemble the tape loop echoes and delays.  There are also harmonic shifts similar to The Gift’s movement from D to Eb Dorian modes.  Riley arranged the 53 fragments of In C so that the tonal center shifted in the middle from C to E minor, then back to C again before ending in G minor (Duckworth, 20/20, 102-103). 

Although a basic description of In C make it sound like the musicians can do whatever they want, Riley did establish a few basic guidelines to keep the performances from losing their intensity or veering out of control.  Performers must not move too far ahead from the majority of the ensemble, and only three or four motives should be in play at any given time.  Riley also suggests that the ensemble should try to achieve a unison sound at least once in the piece, and that once the final fragment is reached, performers should keep playing until everyone has reached the end.  The result is that the musicians work closely together, tuned to what the rest of the group is doing, rather than make the piece entirely individualistic (Potter, 112). 

While rehearsing the work for the San Francisco Tape Center, Riley found that the musicians were frequently losing the piece’s pulse as they performed.  A new part, suggested by Steve Reich, was added to solve this problem.  This addition was the presence of a pianist hitting eighth notes on the piano’s two top Cs. (Gann, 196).  The premier performance occurred on November 4, 1964, with an ensemble of thirteen musicians (Potter, 108-109).  Riley described it as an underground affair, with much of the audience consisting of avant-garde musicians and local artists of all types (Duckworth, Talking Music, 271).  In addition to In C, other works such as Music from “The Gift,” and three of Riley’s tape compositions were performed, but In C left the largest impact on the audience (Potter, 108).

Terry Riley, knew even before the premiere that the piece was special; in an interview with William Duckworth, he describes showing it to various friends and seeing their shock at how radical a piece he had composed (Duckworth, Talking Music, 271).   After hearing the first performance, both the critics and the audience agreed with Riley’s assessment.  The next day’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle, written by critic Alfred Frankenstein, contained the headline, “Music Like None Other On Earth” and went on to say, “It is formidably repetitious, but harmonic changes are slowly introduced into it; there are melodic variations, and contrasts of rhythms within a framework of relentless continuity. . . At times you feel you have never done anything all your life but listen to this music and as if that is all there is or ever will be, but it is altogether absorbing, exciting, and moving too.”  Composer William Duckworth stated that In C, “…gave voice to the minimalist movement in America.  In some ways, it became its anthem”  (Duckworth, Talking Music, 266).  Bill Gann of The Village Voice agreed, saying that, “…it guaranteed American music a new starting point after the wartime arrival of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Hindemith on these shores suffocated the native experimental scene of the ‘30s” (Duckworth, 20/20, 106).  The piece remains Riley’s best known work, and led to the initiation of the minimalist movement.  Composer Steve Reich, who performed for the work’s premiere, has cited the piece as an influence on his early work with tape phasing, and when Reich served as a teacher to Philip Glass, Glass continued that trend (Duckworth, Talking Music, 281-282).  Riley's work, a natural extension of La Monte Young’s earliest hints at minimalism, helped the genre to grow and thrive, changing the landscape of American classical music. 



In C

Quite simply, this piece created minimalism.  Prior to this portion of the work, the piano has been hitting steady eighth note Cs while the other instruments have been playing the first two segments.  Now, the musicians begin branching out, and different segments can be heard on different instruments, depending on when the performer chooses to move to the next part.  This slight utilization of the chance method creates a cacophony that just barely avoids absolute chaos.  Riley's rule that no performer may stray too far behind or jump too far ahead of the others keeps the piece in check, and the incessant piano part gives each performer a common sense of time.