You Call That Music?

This morning, Bob admonished me for having never listened to Terry Riley's IN C. If you've never heard of Terry Riley or IN C, don't feel bad: It's only, as Bob noted, "the single most famous and influential piece of minimalist music in the 20th century."








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All this came up because IN C is celebrating its 45th anniversary, and we ran a story about it on All Things Considered yesterday.

Sony Music is marking the occasion with a newly remastered version of the original recording of IN C; we have a copy of it, so I popped the CD in my computer and cranked it up. I got about 40 seconds into it before I couldn't take it anymore. It sounded like something you'd play to break down a prisoner — the audio equivalent of water dripping and splattering against your forehead over and over. I skipped ahead 12 minutes into the disc, then 23, then to nearly the end, and very little had changed. It's basically the same note being played over and over again for 41 minutes and 57 seconds. Here's the 40 seconds I got through:

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To me, this isn't music so much as math: One plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one, ad infinitum. It's music for the left (logical) brain, not the right (creative) side. It reminds me of incredibly gifted jazz artists who lose themselves, and the music, in their own talent, improvising complicated, freeform rhythms and sequences that only they and the few listeners experienced enough to make sense of it can understand. It's a little like a modern-art painting you might see where there's a huge canvas with a single dot in the middle of it. Is it high art?

NPR Music producer Tom Huizenga, a big fan of IN C, said he listened to a 70-minute version of the piece yesterday on headphones. "For me, the music is as listenable as it is ignorable," he says. "I could write and do other tasks while listening. But when I really listen, I find it fascinating. It's the musical equivalent of slow-motion photography of a flower gradually opening, with its petals one by one popping out, gently turning, revealing new colors and shapes underneath. The music is in constant motion, constant change. You just need to click into its wavelength, so to speak, and everything is revealed."

I'll have whatever Tom's having.

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