Terry Riley’s “In C,” performed by Grand Valley State University New Ensemble

Perhaps the most significant difference between classical music and popular is its greater capacity to offer pleasure on an academic and emotional level at once.

Resident Advisor

The work “In C” was composed by Terry Riley in 1964 and is a contemporary classical piece with quite a few quirks. The score consists of 53 phrases of various duration (from a half beat to 32 beats) which may be played by any number of musicians (32 is suggested) in the given order (though phrases may be repeated or skipped) and can last any amount of time (though 45-90 minutes is typical), all while a pianist (“traditionally… a beautiful girl” the score points out) pushes out a steady stream of eighth note C’s. Several groups have played and recorded the work in the decades since its birth, though the piece just came to my attention through a recently released recording by the Grand Valley State University New Ensemble and published by Ghostly International.

You can take a moment to listen to a lively sample of the track here. (And you can use the same link to buy it if you really like it.)

I’ve written before about the intersection of classical and pop works and how I really dig such meshings. Here is another great example. At its heart, this piece is really something like a complicated live DJ performance. Each musician plays a “sample” which is layered and repeated and changed and looped. Occasionally melodies appear, but more importantly there is a driving forward motion to the work that carries the listener along.  As I listened to this 60 minute track, I was reminded at times of the meandering, yet beautiful and descriptive soundscape created by the electronic duo The Knife for their Darwin opera “Tomorrow in a Year,” of the white noise and glitchy work of Christian Fennesz, and of the driving, jazz-laced mixes of Four Tet. Ghostly International and its sister label Spectral cover a wide range of genres including electronic-pop and dance, but the ambient and minimal tendencies of this work place it solidly alongside some of the label’s SMM acts like The Sight Below or 10:23.

This edition of “In C” is the first in a series of collaborations between Ghostly and Wordless Music to work on bridging the classical and pop gap. The mission statement of Wordless puts it fairly succinctly: “Wordless Music seeks to demonstrate that the various boundaries and genre distinctions segregating music today — popular and classical; uptown and downtown; high art and low — are artificial constructions in need of dismantling.” Here’s hoping for more pieces like “In C” to do just that.


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