Hypnotic. Complex. Simple. Beautiful. Emotional. With these words and others that follow I will try to convey to you the experience of listening to “In C” live. For those who don’t know, “In C” is a minimalist classical piece by Terry Riley. It celebrated its 50th birthday with a performance in Memorial Chapel by students and faculty, led by Stuart Dempster, a trombonist who participated in its first performance half a century ago.
“In C” is a special kind of piece. It is composed of 53 musical phrases of various lengths. Each musician can play each one any number of times as long as they play them in order. The musician can move on to the next cell whenever they feel like it. So while one instrument may be on the third cell, another may be on the fourth cell. The individual can play them randomly, as they see — or hear — fit. Because of this, different instruments lock into different grooves and can interact freely. It changes each performance, making each concert a unique treat.
This piece isn’t just important because of its composition or flexibility—as any ensemble of any instruments can play it and it can be any length—but because it is a piece that forces the listener to listen in different ways. Everyone was invited to walk around Memorial Chapel—even on the stage—to gain new perspectives and ways of listening.
Being able to hear the piece from about 15 places over the course of a little over an hour was overwhelming in a satisfying way. From each new place, you could hear the piece differently. Sometimes different instruments were more noticeable, some frequencies were lost, some were brought out and sometimes the overall feeling of the piece drastically changed. Sometimes it was a combination of all of the above.
This really made me appreciate my opportunity to experience live music. If I were listening to a recording of this in my dorm so much of the purpose of the music would be lost. It doesn’t matter how good my speakers are or how clear the recording is; if it wasn’t live, “In C” wouldn’t be the same.
As much as I loved the ability to walk around—not only could I hear differently, but it also took down the barriers between the audience and performers—it saddened me to think of all the other concerts I’ve attended where this wasn’t allowed. There were so many missed experiences. This only made me cherish the concert even more.
This concert was not just incredible in the musical sense. I found it to be quite meditative. During it, I practiced a bit of the techniques from meditation, which were also reflected in the piece. A major part of meditating is when you have a thought, you let it pass through your mind to disappear. The goal is to keep your mind clear.
It was easy to meditate to this music because my mind synced up with it. Certain sounds would stick out to me, like thoughts, and after acknowledging them, I let them go until a new part stuck out. I didn’t do this the whole time, but it helped to do it a bit. No matter how much or how little thought you gave to this piece, it gave back.
Anyone can appreciate “In C” at least a little bit. That was the beauty of it. It wasn’t exclusive nor did it make itself difficult to listen to. It was there, and the listener could interact and hear as much as they wanted to. I decided to interact and hear as much as I possibly could. Obviously, this cannot be measured, but it was quite a lot.
I lent my mind to the music for that hour and 20 minutes. I recalled a line of a reading from a service at my synagogue. It was about appreciating the present, and what is currently there. It went something like this: “One who goes to a concert and thinks about the next day hears, but does not really hear.” I let go of all other things to hear.
I know it may seem like I had one of the best musical experiences of my life, maybe even a spiritual or religious one. That is because I did. No words that I wrote in this article can do what I heard, felt and experienced justice. It helped me develop how to listen and how to perceive music greatly, and I am extremely thankful for that.
If you ever see that a performance of “In C” will be near you, please go. Those are the only instructions I can give. The experience differs from person to person, but the important thing is for you to experience it.