Terry Riley Meets Quantum Physics

In September of this year, the minimalist composer Terry Riley, now aged 81, performed his legendary composition of 1964, 'In C' at London's Barbican Centre. 'In C' can be performed by any number of musicians playing any sort of instrument or even singing. In this case there was roughly a 60 year age gap amongst the 19 musicians playing everything from a viol da gamba to an electric guitar, who all devoted themselves intensely to a composition which involves executing 53 disparate phrases in a prescribed order but for a random length of time.


Imagine a corps de ballet given 53 gestures as in a kind of tai chi. But unlike tai chi, each gesture can be repeated as many times as the dancer wishes or not at all. A gesture can even be omitted if the dancer feels he has fallen too far behind the general momentum. Unlike the choreographed movements of a classical ballet which charm us with their synchronisation, here we would be also charmed by the conversation between gestures. Depending on the number of performers it would, of course, be difficult to keep track of everyone's movements. So having followed for several minutes the young woman in blue endlessly reaching up to the ceiling next to the man in green touching his knees, we might be distracted by an older woman at the right of the stage kicking her right leg. Other dancers, we note are also reaching up to the ceiling, touching their knees, kicking their legs or performing one or two other gestures. But glancing back, we find that the woman in blue, at some unrecognised moment has ceased her reaching and is standing in expectancy watching the other performers while the man in green is now bending to the right with outstretched arm. Movement, synchronisation and interplay shift constantly but the shift always seems to elude us.

Initially, Riley had prescribed no particular tempo or pulse for his players. Each could play as quickly or slowly as he wished. However Steve Reich, Riley's contemporary and colleague suggested that a steady pulse throughout might draw the whole thing together. Riley, taking up the suggestion added a requirement for one of the musicians (“traditionally.. a beautiful girl” he remarks in notes in the score) to play the note C as a quaver pulse throughout. One particularly notable aspect of September's performance was how this pulse inhabited the body of each musician and how each was able to leave and reenter the music by riding on it.

Riley, who had studied composition at the University of California, Berkeley, sites as his most influential teacher, Pandit Pran Nath, a master of Indian classical voice. The Indian tradition is, of course, improvisatory, but based on a very exact structure of ragas, (raga means living soul), or musical modes. The musician may notate suggested groupings of notes from a particular raga and use these to create something new in the moment. The short phrases of melody are superimposed over a looping rhythm called a tala (a device which was also used in the 14th c isorhythmic motet as it happens!) This method of preparing short phrases of music to be manipulated and re-manipulated is very like the modus operandi of 'In C'.

But in considering Terry Riley's work I think it is also important to understand that the Indian musical master is as much a spiritual guru as an instructor of technique and tradition. The music he teaches his disciple to create and execute is not a diversion or entertainment but expresses the unspoken, the unknowable. Its quality is more mesmeric than invasive. At its heart is a spirituality which addresses the most fundamental questions a human being can ask: What is time? Is there a constant truth? What is consciousness or beingness? Is there a God and how might I know Him? Why am I here and what am I to do?

And these are the very same questions that modern physics attempts to address. Both the Indian meditation master and the professor of quantum theory would agree that any discussion or description which attempts to answer these questions will be at best, a very vague approximation and at worst, a severe distortion. For the type of knowing that would serve us as an answer is beyond words or description, is experiential. Perhaps that is what Riley learnt during his years with Pran Nath and perhaps that is what he is trying to address in his 'In C'. In a short film he made with La Monte Young about his teacher, he tells us that trying to imitate Pran Nath was like 'trying to grasp smoke'.


It is interesting that Riley chose the key of C for his 1964 composition. In the music which dominated Europe from medieval times, C major has been the archetypal key, the blue print key upon which other scales pattern themselves. It is not the easiest key for a guitarist or a clarinettist but psychologically, it is the scale to which everything else refers. So Riley is going back to basics.

The insistent pulse of 'In C' holds everything together. It is reminiscent of the inexorable rising of the sun in the morning, the moon's inevitable rising at night and the cycles that both the earth's passage and its satellite moon have made for millenia. The music fits the pulse and not the other way around. The ongoingness of the pulse suggests chronological time, a moving forward and into the distance of the future. And yet 'In C' also seems to suggest both circularity and multi-dimensionality. The first phrases which reiterate and confirm the key of C give way to phrases of more complexity which suggest a movement away from the key. But in the end all players come back to rest in the C pulse. On the way the intensity of the combination of phrases peaks and ebbs with mysterious buildings and decayings of volume and intricacy that always eludes our grasp. What is happening here will soon be happening over there. We have a sense of the multiple Universes that both modern physics and the Bhagavad Gita point to. And unlike Newton's explanation of the workings of space and time which supposes an objectivity and constancy to what surrounds us, we are more aware of the relativity modern physics describes; that time and space are subject to variation in relation to the observer. Certainly, 'In C' provides us with no fixity. The will – or whim – of the performers will vary enormously from one playing to the next. But similarly, the listener even in the course of a single performance will experience something very different to his neighbour, something that I think contains far more variation than 2 concurrent hearings of say, a Beethoven Sonata.

It seems that it is this element of controlled chance which intrigued Riley and which he was so successfully able to evoke. His composition is both controlled by him, by his 53 devised phrases, and at the same time completely dependent on the whim – and skill – of his community of performers. They, in turn are all dependent on oneanother and on 'the rules' of the piece but have huge latitude in what they contribute. Riley has created a perfect interplay of skill and chance rather like that in a game of cards or, in fact in the interplay we humans contend with in living our lives day by day. How interesting that the experiment of a 30 year old composer, a sort of potshot at fate informed by years of thought and study should have landed him at the age of 81, with some of the most celebrated instrumentalists of the new generation, on the stage of the Barbican Centre, performing to a sell-out audience eager to hear his now iconic conception.

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