The bare minimum

There are three pages to the score for Terry Riley‘s In C. Two of the pages are performance directions; the actual music all fits on a single page. It consists of 53 numbered phrases ranging in length from two sixteenth notes to 32 quarter notes. The performer plays each phrase in sequence, repeating it as many times as he wishes, before moving on to the next phrase. Riley suggests a group of about 35 musicians. Performances normally run between 45 and 90 minutes, according to Riley.

Although I’ve occasionally read about In C — it’s perhaps the first example of musical “minimalism” — and I’ve looked at the score, I’ve never actually heard it. A few days ago, I heard Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air for the first time in decades (not counting its use in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio program).1 It was more engaging than I remembered, and it occurred to be that I didn’t need to round up 35 musical friends to get an idea of what In C sounded like. I could just launch Logic and sequence as many voices as I wanted. Which I did.

This is a stripped-down, streamlined version. It’s a little over eleven minutes long, and there are only five voices — six, if you count the “pulse.” I didn’t plan it out beyond shifting loops nicely out of phase. It probably doesn’t truly represent what In C should be, but it might suggest how the music works. I likely will revise and expand this arrangement sometime soon. You can download the score here if you want to follow along or organize your own performances. There’s also a 50-minute orchestral “realization” of In C at the site — unfortunately, using what sounds like an undistinguished general midi soundset.

You can imagine Mikuru Asahina playing the repeated high C eighth notes if you wish. Or Zooey Deschanel.

Update: Uploaded a new version with additional voices and a few tweaks.


  1. Back in ancient times, you were likely to hear almost anything on “underground” or “progressive” radio, not just “Heroin” or “Call Any Vegetable” but also Robert Johnson, John Coltrane and Harry Partch.