In C Mali – Terry Riley and the theory of minimalism

Terry Rileys In C

Terry Rileys In C

With the release of Terry Riley’s In C Mali, Getintothis’ Jono Podmore considers Riley’s work and the importance of the minimalist movement. 

In C is a classical composition written by Terry Riley in 1964. It is unusual for lots of reasons and is considered by some to be the first minimalist piece, or at least the first masterpiece of the style. Now, with In C Mali, a recording from 2014, it has finally reached its potential.

Minimalism in classical music is a bit of a misleading term. Unlike in visual arts, minimalism in music can be applied to very complex, long, wide ranging, even lush pieces – up to and including the most excessive of all performance arts, classical opera.

Compare this…


…with this…

The term Minimalism comes initially from British composer Michael Nyman who coined it in 1968 (four years after In C) as something much nearer to the visual art idea, but it later came to define the music of a particular group of American composers: LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams.

What links their work is clear:

  • Regular rhythm
  • Diatonic (major/minor) harmony
  • Extra classical references including non-European music and popular music

…and, the defining idea – entire pieces developed from tiny fragments of material, leading to drones, obsessive rhythmic repetition, and phasing.

Phasing in this context refers to repeated phrases of different lengths gradually getting out of sync with each other only to match up again later. The two masterpieces of this technique are early tape pieces by Steve Reich: Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain.

Reich explored the phasing process by using two identical tape loops of a spoken phrase. When started simultaneously they sound as one voice but gradually due to tiny inaccuracies in the technology, they begin to get out of sync, producing new rhythms and combinations of sounds. Also the process is clear to the audience, which in itself forms a sort of narrative. This can be applied to musical phrases as much as tape loops, not unlike one aspect of the system of Raga and Tala in Indian music. The Raga and Tala (melody and rhythm) can be of differing lengths, leading to a similar systematic effect.

This process aspect of minimalism has lead some to refer to the style as Systems music, but that’s getting less common now – despite being more accurate. Also, repetition producing tiny variation has a hypnotic, trance-like quality, which resonated deeply with the beatniks and hippies of the 60s, despite its mechanical and logical function. Terry Riley himself is still, very proudly, a northern Californian grade a hippy, god love him, with freedom at the core of his worldview. Importantly for him “Minimalism was never a word we used for what we did… It was a tag from the art world someone stuck to us later. My heart sinks when I get emails from music students saying they are writing a ‘minimalist piece’. Once you become an ism, what you’re doing is dead.”

This all might seem pretty innocuous stuff to those of us brought up with popular music but to the classical music world of the early 60s this was a radical and revolutionary approach to composition. Since the war classical music was intellectually dominated, and still is to a degree, by what’s known as the second Viennese school, particularly Arnold Schoenberg’s great legacy of serialism. Serialism systematically rejected diatonic harmony and, extending the principles in to rhythm, lead to a complete abandonment of any regularity or repetition – let alone a groove. Also there was a complete rejection of any non-European influence. Indian, African and Far Eastern music were considered little more than folk artefacts. But as the 60’s took hold this was soon to be questioned….

Terry Riley studied classical composition at Berkeley and had worked with early electronic pioneer Morton Subotnik, but cites Indian classical singer Pandit Pran Nath as his most important teacher. The Indian master introduced this talented young Californian to concepts such as Raga and Tala and complex rhythmic patterning. Soon Riley was the master’s apprentice, travelling to India to accompany Nath’s vocal performances on Tanpura and Tablas.

This mixture of a need to move on from the restrictions of the classical establishment and their veneration of serialism; with an immersion in Indian music and the influences of popular culture, Pop art and drugs, all feed into the composition of In C.

On a fundamental level, In C departs from the structural control of the Viennese school. Firstly, It is scored for and unspecified ensemble: “a group of about 35 is desired if possible but smaller or larger groups will work“. It is not composed from beginning to end as a single score but instead the performers are presented with a set of short phrases


As this isn’t a traditional score, the 53 short patterns are accompanied by two pages of performing directions, which include: “Patterns are to be played consecutively with each performer having the freedom to determine how many times he or she will repeat each pattern before moving on to the next. There is no fixed rule as to the number of repetitions a pattern may have, however, since performances normally average between 45 minutes and an hour and a half, it can be assumed that one would repeat each pattern from somewhere between 45 seconds and a minute and a half or longer.

The key words here are freedom and no fixed rule.

Not only is the number of performers not fixed, but also the musicians are given an enormous role in determining how the piece is played, even how long it will last. Not only does In C depart from the classical tradition of the previous 300 years or so in terms of content, it even breaks from it in terms of social and political structure. The composer devolves rights to the musicians. There is no conductor. The entire hierarchical power structure of classical music is replaced by musicians listening and responding to each other, more like the methodology African-American Jazz or Indian music.

But all this freedom for the musicians gives us a problem: who those musicians are and the choices they make determine the actual content of any performance.

In C centres on a constant pulse “played on the high c’s of the piano or on a mallet instrument”, according to the performing directions. This simple device gives the other performers the orientation they need to play their patterns in time relative to each other. But this is where performances of In C often come unstuck. A pulse isn’t just a reference; a great musician will interpret a pulse. In the way a rock or funk drummer will play to a click track, a great player can push certain beats ahead or behind the pulse to create a certain expressive feel.

When everything seemed tired and stale, Getintothis’ Rick Leach discovered and was enthused by classical music. Read his personal journey here. 

All too often, In C is performed by musicians brought up exclusively in the western classical tradition, which places melodic expression as a much higher priority than rhythmic understanding or nuance, so the rhythm becomes stiff, or uncomfortable, or just downright inaccurate. Also, part of the method of classical music is for the performers to read from their printed part whilst keeping one eye on the conductor for fairly general rhythmic and expressive cues. As a consequence they tend to listen and respond less to each other than musicians from other cultures. Classical musicians don’t learn how to be rhythmically locked in with each other, or how to create a feel from a pulse or repeated rhythmic pattern – they are busy tackling other, equally complex issues.

The In C wikipedia page cites 34 different recordings of the piece by a wide range of different ensembles covering different cultures and styles, including the signature performance with Riley himself, recorded in 1968.

Some of these are very beautiful with the emphasis falling on different aspects of the piece depending on the performers. Adrian Utley’s Guitar Orchestra’s low tempo rocky flavoured version is worth a listen – reminiscent of Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth.

But for this writer, by far and away the best of these is the most recent, by Africa Express.

It was recorded in Bamako, the Malian capital in 2014, under the auspices of Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project, a platform for collaboration between first world and African musicians (you might spot old Brian Eno in the clip).

When Riley heard it he told André de Ridder, the German conductor and composer who co-ordinated the recordings, that he felt as if In C was now “taking flight with the soul of Africa”. That’s pretty much how I feel about it myself, although I would put it much more technically. This version, unlike so many of the previous versions, is created by musicians who understand the complexities and nuances of playing to a common pulse and listening to each other. Consequently In C Mali actually swings. You can’t help responding to the rhythm. This is not an effect of the African soul, spirit or some innate, mythical “sense of rhythm”, this comes from practice: hard bloody work within a musical culture with a different emphasis than that of the European tradition.

An afro-Cuban percussion specialist I know told me a lovely story about a soundcheck he witnessed for an African drum group playing a gig in Britain. The players set up their drums and the sound engineer dutifully put a microphone on each drum. Standard procedure is then for each instrument to be played individually, checked and balanced tonally. Once this is done then the whole group plays together to get the mix and then off you go. But this soundcheck ran differently. Every time one of the players hit his drum, all the others would immediately join in. It was impossible to get any one of them to play alone, because in their culture, the instruments were one instrument, the ensemble one entity. Nightmare for the engineer but apparently hilarious – the show was a cracker nonetheless.

There’s a sense of that unity in this recording too.

Part of making a rhythm work is to understand dynamics, which in musical terminology simply means loud and quiet and the movement between the two. To make a rhythm that really moves people, you need control not just of the relative volume of each of the parts but also the accents and dynamic envelope within each part. Not easy, but this is something the Malian musicians on In C Mali show real mastery of – and like all mastery it appears utterly effortless.

To give credit to Terry Riley, this potential is there in the composition, the structure of the pulse and the first few patterns sets up a groove that’s left up to the performers to breathe life into. Despite that groove being executed so expertly on In C Mali, one of the real high points of this version is a surprising departure from the score to drop the pulse completely. Around half way through the piece there’s a breakdown over which one of

the musicians speaks, telling the story of how he first came to play the kora, a West African instrument originating from the Mandinka people in Mali.

This breakdown serves a couple of functions: it introduces the musicality of the speaker’s language; and it works like the middle 8 in the classic pop song – it gives extra impetus and power to the groove when it comes back after two minutes. A classic trick in popular music, which, despite the origins of the piece, works a treat in this context. Riley loves this departure: “That blew my mind… I always welcome it when pieces change. The worst interpretations I’ve heard of In C mechanically try to copy the original performance.”

That attitude alone marks Riley out as an inclusive composer, someone who has moved on entirely from the restrictions and aesthetic of the European tradition, whose work has lead to a masterpiece derived a genuine interaction of European and African music