Terry Riley, the patriarch of minimal music, is still counter-culture

Terry Riley performing at Oval Space, London, 2018.Image Redferns

Krrrppp-tsssjjj… In the Japanese countryside, the patriarch of minimal music fumbles with the audio wire from his computer. ‘hang on’, the voice of Terry Riley (87) cracks via Zoom. Although he is inside, he wears a yellow hat and a body warmer in gold. ‘… Yamanashi Province…’, it crackles, ‘…cold…’

58 years ago, Riley launched a revolutionary genre from sunny California. in C was called his groundbreaking piece. Except simple, the title was bullying. Because while European composers created complicated listening labyrinths, Riley presented easily manageable, repetition-based music in the everyday key of C major. Go listen in Rotterdam, where the renowned collective Bang On A Can All-Stars in C will play three times in the Submarine Wharf from Thursday 27 October. The German dance great Sasha Waltz provides a new choreography.

Sasha Waltz & Guests choreographed 'In C'.  Statue Jo Glinka

Sasha Waltz & Guests choreographed ‘In C’.Statue Jo Glinka

“So here I am,” Terry Riley says. ‘Japan, well, how did that go? When the coronavirus pandemic broke out in February 2020, I was here on tour. For now I’m fine. I compose and teach Indian raga. I don’t think about returning to the United States, where a bunch of morons threaten to squander democracy for a totalitarian state.’

The gray beard ends at chest height in a mischievous ponytail. Counterculture, still. The idea for in C attacked him during a bus ride. Riley’s love for the jazz of John Coltrane and Miles Davis played a part in it, as did the fun in improvising. He also hated the ‘military coercion’ of the classical sector and ran away with the rhythmic repeat structures of music from Africa.

On a simple A4 he noted 53 modules which musicians were allowed to play around with. Number of players: find out for yourself. Instruments and/or singers: come up with something. Sound strength and articulation: do whatever comes to mind. Repeat modules: as often as you want. If you don’t like a passage: feel free to skip it. The one constant of this resounding democracy was a tight pulse that held it all together from bar one.

Riley: ‘I wanted to write something that could appeal to both professionals and enthusiasts. You need for in C not to be a virtuoso. Although the music sounds at its best if you have the technique for a tight rhythm and a beautiful tone. And a performance only really blossoms when the musicians listen closely to each other and respond to each other’s impulses.’

After the premiere, one reviewer wrote: “Sometimes it seems like you’ve done nothing but listen to this piece all your life.” He found in C captivating, exciting, yes even moving. Yet the trance did not immediately spread to the general public. ‘That only happened after the record premiere in 1968,” says Riley. ‘The LP was released on the CBS label, which guaranteed wide distribution. Everyone could also play the piece, because I had the score printed on the cover.’

Since then sounded in C in thousands of forms, ranging in time from fifteen minutes to hours. The colorful CD stock counts a beautiful poetic with the Dutch Ragazze Quartet and an exciting one with a Malian slant. Terry Riley came to the in 2015 for that version World Minimal Music Festival in Amsterdam. ‘My memory is diminishing, but I believe it’s the last time I’ll touch in C participated.’

Why is the piece still popular? ‘I suspect because it gives a different view of music. Players experience a lot of freedom, and I hear from listeners that the piece makes them optimistic. By the way, it didn’t make me very rich, although in C made sure I never had to take jobs for the money.’

Terry Riley: in C. Bang On A Can All-Stars, Sasha Waltz and Guests. 27 to 29/10, Submarine Wharf, Rotterdam.