Composer Terry Riley turns 80 Wednesday. He’s been called the father of minimalism for his groundbreaking 1964 work In C. But his influence has spread far beyond, sparking the imaginations of many artists, from cutting-edge electronic musicians to rock gods.
Riley’s musical footprints have been followed by generations of musicians. Compare his A Rainbow in Curved Air, for example, with The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” named partly in honor of the composer.
Popular music was Riley’s first inspiration. “Well, you know, I grew up in the age of radio,” he says, “so I liked the people that I heard on the radio, like Bing Crosby. I found all music to have really powerful transmission, so whatever I was listening to sounded really great to me. I was learning all the time. At the same time, I was trying to pick out these tunes on the piano because I didn’t have any formal training, so I was learning to play by ear.”
In C was Riley’s breakthrough. The sheet music is just one page long — plus two pages of open-ended instructions — but its possibilities are literally endless. Riley only specifies 53 short phrases, and leaves it up to the individual musicians to decide how many times they’ll play each one. In C helped usher in a momentous change in music, and created a bridge between improvised and composed music.
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