ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Legend has it that composer Terry Riley was sitting on a bus when the idea struck him for one of the most important pieces of music of the 20th century. It's called "In C." It premiered in 1964, and it launched the minimalist movement. The work influenced such musicians as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. It also influenced someone closer to home - Terry Riley's son, Gyan.

Reporter Jacob Ganz spoke with Riley and his son at an anniversary celebration of "In C" at Carnegie Hall.

JACOB GANZ: Composer Oswaldo Golijov has won his share of laurels, including Grammy Awards and a MacArthur Genius Grant, and here's what he has to say about Terry Riley's most famous work.

Mr. OSWALDO GOLIJOV (Composer): The greatness of "In C" is like the greatness of "The Rite of Spring," the greatness of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" by Picasso, you know, these are the first pieces. These are number one in history, and then constantly imitated. How can somebody be so radical and in one masterstroke include the future?

(Soundbite of song "In C")

GANZ: What "In C" isn't, really, is a score. It's a single page of melodic phrases or themes or modules. Anyway, each performer plays the same 53 phrases, but there's no - well, maybe I should just let Terry Riley himself explain.

Mr. TERRY RILEY (Composter, "In C"): "In C" is made up of 53 modules, and we progress from one to 53 as we're playing, and each player has to decide when he enters into the stream of the music and when he comes out.

Unidentified Man: Thirty-one.

(Soundbite of song "In C")

Mr. T. RILEY: So the more people you have, of course, the more complex web you're going to build up.

Unidentified Man: Forty-three.

(Soundbite of song "In C")

GANN: At Carnegie Hall, the number of people performing "In C" topped 60, so complex only begins to describe things. At the rehearsal, the music sometimes sounded eerie, like a distant echo, and sometimes swelled into a pulsing cacophony.

(Soundbite of song "In C")

Mr. T. RILEY: Now, if you're watching birds on a lake, and they suddenly take flight, and as they move through the air, they create different patterns, "In C" is very much a sonic image of that.

Mr. GYAN RILEY (Musician): The interesting thing about playing "In C" for me is that playing in it and listening to it as an audience member aren't really that different.

GANZ: During the rehearsal for "In C," Gyan Riley sat with his guitar directly in front of his father's keyboard and behind Kronos Quartet with a table of homemade instruments and a guzheng player to his left and a didgeridoo trio to his right.

Mr. G. RILEY: There's so much spontaneity and there's so much complexity that it's so much more important to just listen to all the other sounds happening around you and to just kind of be a part of it.

GANZ: Oswaldo Golijov was part of the "In C" ensemble at Carnegie Hall, where the original recording of the piece runs about 40 minutes and was met with some befuddlement by the establishment. The 45th anniversary performance ran closer to two hours and received a standing ovation that lasted over five minutes. That acceptance, Golijov says, suggests that time has finally caught up with the ideas that Terry Riley was exploring back in 1964.

Mr. GOLIJOV: "In C" is a radical experiment, but it's also so embracing and so joyous. It symbolizes what the spirit of California was at the time and how it reverberates up to today and across the world.

(Soundbite of song "In C")

GANZ: Gyan Riley has been listening to "In C" and other pieces by his father for his entire life. He's been playing in Terry Riley's ensembles as well as composing his own music, mostly on the classical guitar, for the past decade.

Mr. G. RILEY: Just having that in my ears from a small child, I think, is probably the biggest influence because that's the time when you're not even quite aware of the fact that something's influencing you.

GANZ: What becomes clear in talking with the Rileys is that they both thrive in the kind of environment where unexpected developments are allowed to blossom into major themes, and that's the case whether they're on stage with 60 other musicians or just the two of them.

Mr. T. RILEY: What I see with our duo work is this kind of intuitive collaboration, where nobody quite knows what's going to happen in the next moment.

GANZ: Even in those moments when they're forced to wing it entirely, which happened when the duo walked out on stage one night for what was supposed to be a very traditional, through-composed piece.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. G. RILEY: What happened is that he forgot the music backstage for that piece. So we got on stage, and he kind of motioned to me, you know, looks like I don't have my sheet music, and then he starts playing something I'd never heard before.

(Soundbite of music)

I thought, oh, this is going to be really interesting, and it was. Those are usually the best things, and sometimes they're accidents.

(Soundbite of music)

GANZ: Whether it's a psychic link or shared musical DNA or just the product of years of playing with and listening to each other, it's a relationship onstage that echoes the one off.

Mr. TERRY RILEY: We have complete trust in each other as far as what we're going to musically. You know that the other person's going to be there wherever you go.

GANN: For NPR News, I'm Jacob Ganz.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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