‘In C’ in Concert: Terry Riley May 3, 1973

My only acquaintance with Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ has been through the Columbia recording, so I was looking forward to the live performance on April 25 at Washington Square Methodist Church. It turned out to be disappointing, mostly because of tuning difficulties between the piano and the pipe organ. The tempo also fluctuated quite a bit, and the 12-player performance in general was not very good, even though singer Meredith Monk, trombonist Garrett List and clarinettist Daniel Goode were all excellent.

But all was not lost. If nothing else, the concert did at least point out that there is a need for live performances of the piece, regardless of how many thousand copies of the record are in circulation. The structure of the piece, and the way its melodic fragments play against one another, are much clearer when one can watch the musicians, and it is nice not to have to listen to all the fancy mixing which gimmicked up and dehumanized the recorded version.

Moreover, since the orchestration of the piece is not specified by the composer, and since the many melodic fragments may be linked together in a variety of ways, the piece is an open invitation, and no one will ever be able to produce a definitive version. In a way, ‘In C’ is more like a raga than a piece, since its musical value depends almost completely on the sensitivity of the interpretation. Fifteen or 20 singers could turn it into a very different piece, and possibly a wonderful one. A string quartet version might be breathtaking. It is good to see creative performers explore the possibilities.