In C
by Terry Riley [playing time 50:10]

Terry Riley (1935-   )

Terry Riley is best known today for the work featured on this Web site: the essential minimalist work In C, composed in 1964. He has collaborated extensively with the renowned Kronos Quartet, his music has been performed in leading venues around the world, and major ensembles and orchestras have commissioned a number of works by him. He continues to pursue an active performance and concert career, and a tour of Russia in 2000 prompted the local press to compare him to Prokofiev as a composer and performer. You can read a more complete biography at the composer's Web site.

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This work is copyright © 1964 by Terry Riley. My realization appears here with permission, and the right to transmit the audio extends to this Web site only. You may listen using the stream above, but you may not copy or rip the audio to your computer, redistribute it, or retransmit it.

I hope you enjoy my version of this beautiful work. Comments and feedback welcome.

You may download the score of In C, made available by the composer under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license. Especially if you are unfamiliar with "minimalist" music, I recommend you download and study the score and performance instructions to maximize your enjoyment of the realization.

(Flash player image: MIDI sequence of the entire realization in Sonar track view.)



For those of you who have been listening to my MP3s of Bach et al., here's something completely different! This work launched the genre called minimalism, explored primarily between 1960 and the mid 1980s by such composers as John Adams, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. A familiar example in this genre is Glass's score for the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi.

In C comprises 53 motives ranging from half a beat to 32 beats. Any number and combination of instruments can play, and each instrument plays each motive in sequence, repeating it as many times as the performer desires, moving on to the next whenever he or she wishes. This makes In C a work of aleatoric, or "chance" music, and every performance of it will differ substantially. Impatient performers could get through it in ten minutes, or it could last for hours. In the sections below, I discuss my approach to the work.


I have scored this performance for a symphony orchestra plus pipe organ. The orchestra resembles a typical classical-era symphony: strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and basses), two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, and two horns. Other brass and percussion are omitted in favor of the organ. The organist employs various registrations using diapason, flute, and reed stops.

The orchestral patches are primarily from my Roland SRX-06 Complete Orchestra module, and the organ is built from a mix of patches from my Yamaha and Edirol/Roland synths.

Creating the Realization

Before starting any of the MIDI sequences, I imagined my virtual players sitting in the practice room, developing a very general plan for how the music would ebb and flow. As a result, there are moments throughout where the sections and/or conductor are clearly communicating, as if nodding to one another to initiate a change of motive or texture.

Within this plan, I played the takes freely, entering and dropping out when the time seemed right, playing in unison or in canon as the music suggested, and without thinking beforehand about how many repetitions the instrument would play. Prior to audio capture, I corrected a number of timing errors and wrong notes, and edited the MIDI velocities on a number of clips where my keyboard playing didn't (or couldn't) accurately replicate the attacks and sound the intended instrument would make.

Obviously I couldn't play all the parts at once; typically I played several motives for a particular instrument, and then overdubbed the others one by one. Since the instruments enter and exit at varying times, and occasionally play or rest for lengthy intervals, the "front edge" of the 21-track MIDI sequence crept forward through the patterns, sometimes with the winds ahead, sometimes the strings. There were a few places where I knew from the planning stage how I wanted things to go: how the organ would enter, the contrasting roles of the strings and winds in motives 22-26, how the transition from motives 34 to 35 would happen, and the general manner in which the instruments would play and drop out on motive 53 to end the performance, but beyond that, I tried to keep things as un-premeditated as possible. The harmonies and patterns therefore emerged in a quite different manner than they would if played live by a group of performers, but it certainly was a good way to heed Riley's admonition for players to consider their entrances and exits carefully in terms of the overall flow of the music.

Performance guidelines

While the work gives considerable latitude to the performers, there are a number of restrictions. The first is how the motives may be played: Riley allows transposition up or down at the octave, augmentation, and canon, and these techniques permeate the realization. You will not hear inversion, diminution, canons at intervals other than octave or unison, or rhythmic or harmonic variations.

Riley stipulates that the performers should remain within two to three motives of one another. Usually they do, though occasionally they spread out to four or even five, often at the climaxes (e.g., motives 10-14), before drawing back to the typical 2-3 motive spread. There is also a brief spread at the very start, to give the pipe organ a delayed entrance; its arrival is hard to miss as the violins hit the sustained C of motive 6, and it then catches up quickly. The organist also takes a slight liberty in bringing in motive 6 out of sequence in a double pedal statement, but I couldn't resist old Bach's favorite low C thundering in when it does to shake the foundations of the auditorium -- and the soul!

Riley also instructs the players to occasionally converge on a single motive, so there are places, particularly at transitions between "movements," where they do just that (motives 21 and 34 being prominent examples). I use these moments in a manner reminiscent of Steve Reich's use of the vibraphone in Music for a Large Ensemble to signal transitions.

The instructions also exhort players to drop out and listen from time to time. This is not only prudent, but essential. First of all, one imagines the wind players passed out in a heap if they didn't take some breaks! Second, with the sheer volume available from a symphony orchestra plus pipe organ, one could hardly stand everyone blasting through it nonstop. So, in general each instrument rests as much or more than it plays, and the "players" listen carefully and time their entrances and exits for best effect and to achieve varying textures. The amount of time an instrument spends on a given motive also varies greatly, from just a few repetitions to well over two minutes.

I omit the "pulse," a never-ending high C or percussion strike that binds the ensemble to the beat. Most performances do play the pulse explicitly, but Riley writes in his notes that the ensemble "can be aided" by the pulse, not "must be aided," and I take him at his word, preferring to let the harmonies speak for themselves. Imagine that a conductor supplies the pulse with a baton.

Program Notes

Since this performance is played by a symphony orchestra, the work is structured into four "movements" that my first perusal of the score suggested to me. Any resemblance to the detailed structure of a classical symphony ends there, and in keeping with the performance instructions, there are no breaks between movements, just shifts of texture.

First movement [motives 1-21, 0:00-17:12]. The general harmonic motion is C-G7-G-e, and the movement is essentially three long crescendos culminating at motives 6, 12-13, and 20-21. Some of the bass instruments employ 2X and 4X augmentation at the second climax, and an interesting effect happens: the organist accents motive 11 throughout as if it were two triplets, but when the augmented bass starts thumping along on motive 10, suddenly you hear the organ in 4/4, precipitating a delightful brain scramble as the accent seems to slowly shift around.

Second movement [motives 22-26, 17:12-25:13]. The strings set up a steady pulse while the winds bat the motives back and forth in various duets. The movement is solidly planted in E minor, rising from an emphasis on the tonic to the dominant. (If you're wondering where the organ went, the pedal is doubling the basses.) This was one of several places where some of the "fantastic shapes" appeared that Riley mentions in his instructions, and hearing them slowly emerge as I overdubbed the takes was an enthralling exercise.

Third movement [motives 27-34, 25:13-32:29]. This movement grows seamlessly out of the second, launching the piece into its moment of unease. The opening E minor acquires a sixth degree which never quite returns to C, since subsequent motives only suggest a C major seventh and finally modulate back to G7. The entire movement has an ominous feeling, and the playing is subdued throughout.

Fourth movement [motives 35-53, 32:29-50:10]. The finale opens with the instruments trading off the lengthy motive 35 in twos and threes, which I decided was the clearest way to bring out the canon in various guises. This leads to a perfect cadence -- that takes six minutes to complete! This long V-I section begins as motive 35 gradually subsides. Motives 36-41 form a furious G7 perpetuum mobile, with augmented motives returning in the bass instruments; this modulates to the climax of the whole work, a torrential flow of C major energy in motives 42-44. Things subside a little as the music slides back into G, and finally motive 48 arrives to put on the brakes and usher in the G minor coda. Over an increasingly augmented pulse in the bass, In C winds inexorably down to a hushed, shimmering conclusion.


Humph, says the skeptic. What kind of silliness is this, when it could go for ten minutes or ten hours and relies so heavily on chance? Well, every performance of music relies on chance, or at least on personal preference. Some recordings zip through the fourth movement of Beethoven's Symphony #7 in about seven minutes, while the Bernstein reading (which I much prefer) is more than nine. This obviously happens because a notated score is merely a representation of music, in just the way a MIDI sequence is. And just as a MIDI sequence can produce wildly different audio results depending on the patches and effects applied during playback, so a live performance will be different every time. (All the more reason to support your local symphony!)

Humph again, says the skeptic. Anybody can write 53 snippets of notes and call it music. Well, yes, in a very narrow sense. Just like anybody could write a little bar tune (also, perchance, in C), repeat it ad nauseum, gradually adding every instrument on the stage, and finish with a dissonant blast of chords and the bass drum player swinging away for all he's worth and call that music, too. If you did, you'd get Bolero. Could I do that? Maybe, but I certainly wouldn't match Ravel's exquisite sense for orchestration, nor have the genius to switch to eight bars of E major near the end. But that misses the point, which is: without Ravel having lived to have the idea behind Bolero for me, would I have thought of it, and having thought of it, executed it adequately?

The objections above are not unreasonable to raise, though I do think they can be countered. Ears used to the pace of harmonic shifts in Mozart may initially find In C an intolerably slow experience, in the way that eyes attuned to MTV might miss what the long takes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 have to offer. One of the most valuable aspects of In C is its demand that the listener approach the music from a very different perspective than he or she is likely accustomed to, which is invariably an enriching experience. So, adopt that perspective and enjoy this unusual and -- if you let yourself simply sit back and be enveloped by the slowly changing cloud of sound -- luminously beautiful work.

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