With a little effort, the ambient can become the active. Think of the sounds in the world around you, the sort that fill those easy-listening nature soundtracks—a crackling campfire, waves washing onto the beach, a bustling café, an all-day rain broken by occasional thunder. They can serve as immersive mood music, sure, but if you listen closely, you may begin to register the slightest differences between waves or thunderclaps.
This is the kind of listening experience that In C, the iconic 1964 minimalist work of American composer Terry Riley, fosters. On Tuesday night in Raleigh, a ragtag group of 20 or so musicians—from symphony members to rockers and experimental improvisers—will gather to play In C, marking 50 years to the day since its premiere. Listen, and what may seem like mass madness reveals itself as two-dozen musicians making unscored, unpremeditated decisions.
If Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was the game-changing musical work of the first half of the 20th century, In C helped revolutionize the second half. Its tonal, rhythmic and procedural DNA can be traced through multiple genres of the last five decades. The piece's radical, decentralized composition—in which the musicians all play the same series of musical "cells" or fragments, but at a pace of their own choosing—inspired a generation of composers to loosen their grip on centuries-old, symphonic mores.
But history isn't why you should witness In C live: You should go for the sheer pleasure of an open listening experience, for the moment itself.
"Everybody has an epiphany every time they see it live," says David Menestres, Polyorchard leader, bassist and organizer of this performance. "The last time we played In C, I had a very clear epiphany. I understood the cosmos for about three minutes. It all made perfect sense. By the end of the piece, I'd forgotten it."
Saxophonist Will Robin, who's getting a doctorate in musicology at UNC-Chapel Hill, organized that 2013 performance at the experimental bastion Nightlight on a frigid, rainy night. He recognizes that moment, too.
"There are certain cells for me that, when I hit them, it's just really exciting to be playing them in the moment, if you get there first or if someone gets there before you," says Robin, an occasional INDY contributor. "In the moment, you get caught up in it, and you can assume that other people are getting caught up in it, too."
Every performance of In C is unique, and intentionally so. It's less a strict composition than a page of 53 discrete musical fragments and a set of performance instructions. Most cells are equivalent to a measure of music; Riley put only one note in some of them. There's no set instrumentation, either. Menestres has about 20 musicians coming Tuesday, but if someone's babysitter bails at the last minute, that's fine. The Kings stage will still be filled with reed and wind instruments, electronics and guitars, violas, cellos and basses, keyboards and percussion.
In C begins like a rainstorm. No conductor taps a baton on a music stand. No drummer counts off a beat. Instead, the musicians mingle onstage or nearby, talking with each other and tuning up. Then, one musician will step up to an instrument—usually a keyboard, marimba or xylophone—and begin "the Pulse," an unchanging series of eighth notes played on the two highest C keys on the keyboard. Once it begins, it does not stop until the very end of the piece. It's a call to worship and a benediction, the first and last sound you'll hear.
"Then, everybody comes in one at a time when they feel like it," Menestres says, "and play the 53 cells and listen to each other and try to construct the piece of music out of it. There's ebb and flow as people drop in and out, as people choose to play very dynamically for moments. The freedom that you have within the form is pretty remarkable."
There's no tune or musical line to the piece, but the Pulse keeps that pervasive C in your ear the whole way. Because the Pulse is so repetitive, it can be brutal on a musician. Try tapping your finger on a tabletop twice a second for almost an hour without losing the rhythm. Sometimes ensembles handle the conundrum electronically, with a tape loop or by placing a brick on a keyboard. Menestres wants a human to do it, although he has yet to anoint the lucky instrumentalist.
"I don't mind doing it electronically," he says, "but the piece is so organic that I want the Pulse to breathe. It doesn't breathe with electronics."
Riley's instructions state that, across the whole ensemble, musicians shouldn't be more than two or three cells apart from each other at any moment. While a clarinetist might be on cell 20, the cellist in the next chair should be on cell 18 or 22. And musicians can stop playing altogether, too, taking a break to sit in the sea of In C.
"When you stop playing for a minute or two and just listen, that's incredibly enjoyable," Robin says. "You have these musicians surrounding you, and then you decide, 'I'm going to come back in right here.' You kind of walk back into the groove. There's definitely some feeling of community onstage with the musicians around you that happens during this piece. It feels like a group of friends putting something together."
For Menestres, that feeling of being surrounded should translate to the audience, too. That immersive quality is what's made In C so beloved and influential. It's a radical, experimental composition that also sounds wonderful.
"The person listening isn't going to hear just me playing bass or just the person next to me playing keyboards—they're going to hear the full effect," Menestres says. "Part of any good show, regardless of genre, should be transporting your audience somewhere else. In C is designed to take you out of yourself. It should take you somewhere interesting. Unless we suck."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mass of cells"