A Stoned Mozart? Terry Riley and David Harrington Discuss In C

Classic Arts Features   A Stoned Mozart? Terry Riley and David Harrington Discuss In C
Forty-five years after its premiere, Terry Riley's minimalist masterpiece In C arrived at Carnegie Hall April 24. This one-time-only event featured the talents of Riley, the Kronos Quartet and 60 artists from all musical disciplines.

Jason Victor Serinus had a chance to speak to Riley in this interview, conducted prior to the concert date.


Before the walls of this venerable institution begin to melt and reform anew, here's what Riley and Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington say about the minimalist musical be-in that altered the course of music history.

Jason Victor Serinus: As I recall the origins of In C, Terry, you were playing honky tonk at the Gold Street Saloon in San Francisco, and you were stoned ...

Terry Riley: Properly stoned ...

JVS: ... riding the bus to your gig in May of '64, when ...

TR: ... I heard the opening of In C. I was sitting there and thinking, "This is an amazing sound: it would be a great idea for a piece." The patterns started unfolding, maybe the first two or three lines, before I had to get off the bus. But I wasn't able to solve the problem until the idea for In C came along as a package. The next day, I got up and wrote down all 53 repetitive patterns. It was funny because it seemed like at the end of the page, I was done. I didn't think to start page two; it seemed like that was the conclusion of it.

David Harrington: That's faster than Mozart, isn't it?

TR: It was more simple-minded than Mozart.

JVS: It was Mozart stoned.

TR: Consistently and always. Eternally.

JVS: Did it take you a while to figure out what to do with the patterns?

TR: I didn't have a game plan. The music sat on the shelf until Ramon Sender, who was directing the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Morton Subotnick, said that he'd like to do a show at 321 Divisadero Street. People like Phil Lesh and even Janis Joplin were dropping in to 321 Divisadero. It was on the circuit of hip places to check out. Their light shows with music were a preview of the rock light shows that were yet to happen at the Fillmore and other places.

JVS: That was before the Summer of Love.

TR: It was the beginning of the psychedelic movement, just before the big psychedelic Trips Festival at the Longshoreman's Auditorium with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. I had to get friends to play for free in the first performance. I didn't ask them what instrument they played. It didn't matter. We had recorders; Steve Reich had a melodica [a combination between an accordion and a harmonica].

JVS: Who else was in the premiere besides Steve Reich?

TR: There were about 20 people. I keep finding posters for the first concert with everyone's names, but I can't remember all of them.

JVS: And in Carnegie Hall ...

DH: We're looking at around 60. [to Riley] Did you have voices for the premiere?

TR: We didn't have voices. But we had the Chamberlin organ, which plays tape loops. Ramon pushed on a key, and you could have chickens or voices or any sound.

JVS: Did you have chickens?

TR: I think they came in once in a while, yeah.

JVS: Did you learn early on never to question why? If you'd started questioning why the patterns came to you and what to do, you'd never have ended up here.

TR: I've always felt that the most important thing about an artist is that you somehow are connected to some kind of universal mind. Nothing originates with you. So if you hear something come through, that means it's something given to you. Try to get it down right away and not question it.

DH: One of the great things about In C is no matter what instruments or voices are playing the piece, you always recognize it. The concept and feel is so strong and so boldly stated that it casts a very large aura ... or rainbow over the future of music.

JVS: How do you envision this upcoming In C at Carnegie Hall to take form?

DH: One of the things I'm looking to accomplish is binding this multi-generational community of musicians together to have a joyous time, because there's something about this music that's so joyous.

TR: As we've been doing In C over the years, it has changed a lot. I feel In C should grow in the 21st century. For my own part, I'd urge as much experimenting as we can do to allow all the great talent from different generations to be heard. I'm looking forward to discussing with the group what unusual things we can do to build a two hour performance.

DH: For me, In C is a ritual. It's a piece that invites the performers to listen in a new way and contribute when it feels like the right moment. As I've noticed with other pieces by Terry, it creates a community around it. That's one of the beautiful things about it.

JVS: How has In C changed over the years?

TR: Originally I wrote a set of performance directions, which people took very seriously. Then I'd start performing with people and they'd say, "That's not in the directions." So a long time ago I decided that those directions are only guidelines for people who haven't played the piece before.

JVS: So it's always created in the moment.

TR: For me, the most important thing about music is that it grows with the time. After 45 years of In C, I sort of say, "Okay son. You're a big man now. You go out and do it yourself." I haven't kissed it goodbye, but I feel I don't have to tell people too much about it anymore. It has a life of its own.


Terry Riley's In C will be performed at Carnegie Hall on Friday, April 24 at 8 PM. Curated by the Kronos Quartet for the 45th anniversary of the premiere of the work, this one-time-only event will feature the talents of Riley, the Kronos Quartet and original In C performers Stuart Dempster, Jon Gibson, Katrina Krimsky, and Morton Subotnick.

Participating musicians include Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan, Sidney Chen, Dennis Russell Davies, Loren Kiyoshi Dempster, Bryce Dessner, Dave Douglas, Trevor Dunn, Jacob Garchik, Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Harrison, Michael Hearst, Scott Johnson, Joan La Barbara, Saskia Lane, Alfred Shabda Owens, Elena Moon Park, Lenny Pickett, Gyan Riley, Aaron Shaw, Judith Sherman, Mark Stewart, Kathleen Supov_, Margaret Leng Tan, Jeanne Velonis, Wu Man, Yang Yi, Dan Zanes, Evan Ziporyn, the Koto Vortex, Quartet New Generation, So Percussion, members of the GVSU New Music Ensemble and members of the Young People's Chorus of New York City.

A special reissue of the original In C recording is also available as part of the Carnegie Hall Presents series, in collaboration with Sony Masterworks.

For tickets, priced $21-$72, visit Carnegie Hall.

Jason Victor Serinus writes for Opera News, Stereophile, American Record Guide, and Muso.

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