Tonight, at Carnegie Hall, David Harrington and The Kronos Quartet have assembled a wonderful cast of characters to play and celebrate the 45th anniversary of Terry Riley’s landmark work, In C. Today, as I sit on my porch in the beauty of the Berkshires in northwestern Massachussetts, writing music toward an upcoming deadline and unable to get down to New York, I feel intense gratitude for Terry Riley’s spirit and work, and the impact both the man and the music have had on my own musical life and journey, and thought I’d put some sentiments down on paper. er… screen.
This is the eighth year that Bang on a Can will host a summer festival and educational institute up here at Massachussetts Museum of Contemporary Art, (MassMoCA), and Terry has been our artist-in-residence several times. The first time was several years ago, and it was there that I first met him in person. The Bang on a Can All-Stars had already been traveling with him for a time, and needless to say, I was excited to meet him after so many years of enjoying and following his music. I remember Evan Ziporyn saying to me, ” You’ll love him, Todd. It’s sort of like he’s the father of us all.”
I’ve endeavored for years to travel to India to study, to learn, but this man is the one who actually did it, who spent years studying with Pandit Pran Nath and living there at times, thereby soaking up that wonderful culture alongside LaMonte Young. Of course, during Terry’s first tenure at the Festival, he taught Raga class which was inspirational, but even more precious was time I got to spend with the man himself, whose being is imbued with a calm life force borne of spiritual connection and practice.
A few more links:
Cantaloupe Music, ‘In C’, Bang on a Can
New Sounds Live, Terry Riley and David Harrington.
Grand Valley State University, ‘In C’ YouTube trailer
In C has served as a ritual beginning for each of our Bang on a Can Institutes for many years, and our recording of it on Cantaloupe remains a favorite. This piece is the quintessential community work, open to an undefined number of players, an undefined instrumentation, with an undefined time length, and the players involved use the score to create an absolutely unique performance every time, with an arc as organic as is possible in music. Each summer, on the first day after faculty and fellows arrive, in a welcoming, bonding gathering around In C, I find myself playing everything from violin to marimba and walking around the room participating both as listener and player, always a rapturous experience which sets the tone for our three subsequent weeks of making music together.
Terry Riley, with his kind face and flowing beard does have that sort of guru visage, and I’ve learned much from simply talking, playing, and being around him, and I’m pleased to call him my friend. It is no secret that my own performance and composing life has been greatly influenced by the Minimalists and my work with them, with constant pulses and drones and interlocking rhythms being a cornerstone of how I hear and write music, and from In C, I take more than a few cues. As a ‘post-minimalist’, however, it’s not the ‘minimalism’ which so much interests me. It’s not the groundbreaking use of tight, finite, small amounts of musical material, but rather the organic connection to time and humanity that those structures tend to create for me, as is so evident in this seminal work – the heartbeat, as it were.
Deep behind this music is ancient history and tradition. African music, Indian classical music, folk music, the singing voice, tribal and community sentiment are all evident here, where individuality, often celebrated as the bedrock of American culture, is offered up as a contribution to a larger whole.
It is that conversation that we can have musically, the ‘chamber music’ of it all, which is dependent on a willingness to jump on and ride the bus together to a transcendent experience; that is what I celebrate. It is what I enjoy so heartily, and believe in so deeply. There is something so fundamentally truthful, authentic, and foundational about this piece which makes it the landmark work that it is. And Terry Riley, well, there are aspects of his practice that I will always seek to emulate. The gentle giving up of total control, the releasing of the score as birds into the sky, the celebration of each human being’s individual contribution.
Many of my most celebrated and dearest colleagues will be part of tonight’s event, as well as original performers of the first recordings and performances of the work. In addition, members of the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble from Michigan have been included. Later this year they will release a version of In C on Innova records, complete with a number of remixed versions, my own humbly included.
Ironically, In C was written in the year of my birth, 1964, and that reminds me that this will be my own 45th year on the planet. Here’s hoping that our lives become as rich as this piece is, with as many incarnations and instrumentations, more and more performances, and perhaps an offering someday which contributes as much to global community as Terry has. May this Carnegie/Kronos curatorial effort be only the first of many which celebrate the man, the music, and most importantly the central position that collective music-making takes in all of our global cultures.