Lincoln Center Fest #2: Terry Riley Talks In C

Robert Moog, Pauline Oliveros, Jaron Lanier in first all-electronic version of minimalist masterpiece.

NEW YORK — Composer Terry Riley is no longer surprised by unconventional performances of his minimalist masterpiece In C.

"In C kind of has its own life now," he said from Sri Moonshine Ranch, his California home in the Sierra Nevada foothills. "And it gets performed in all sorts of bizarre contexts."

Just last month, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas opened the San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks festival with a BYOI — bring your own instrument — audience-participation performance of the seminal work.

Now, on the opposite coast, Lincoln Center Festival 2000 presents the first all-electronic performance of In C as part of a five-concert series devoted to electronic music.

In addition to In C, Thursday's (July 13) concert features Olivier Messiaen's Le Merle Noir ("The Blackbird"), Bohuslav Martinu's Fantasia, George Crumb's Black Angels ("Thirteen Images From the Dark Land"), and the world premiere of Scott Johnson's Worth Having.

Written in 1964, In C is a work of flexible length and instrumentation in which a piano strikes a uniform tempo — middle C — while an ensemble plays 53 short melodic phrases. Musicians move at their own pace, playing each phrase as many times as they wish, until everyone has reached the 53rd phrase.

The historic performance boasts an all-star cast of electronic musicians, from early pioneers Robert Moog, Pauline Oliveros and Don Buchla to more recent innovators such as Jaron Lanier and the X-ecutioners.

While In C was composed for acoustic instruments, Riley is excited about the possibilities an all-electronic performance of the work can offer. This one includes synthesizers, a Theremin, Ondes Martenot, turntables, e-tablas, samplers and other instrumental esoterica.

"With the sensibility of the people in the group," Riley said, "they should make a pretty interesting performance out of it. I told them not to hold back on the electronic possibilities, and not to treat it like an acoustic performance."

When asked why he thinks that, more than three decades after its initial impact, musicians continue to explore the instrumental and performance possibilities of In C, Riley offers a characteristically humble reply.

"It has a fairly basic construction," he said, "which allows people to experiment with other parameters of it, like using different instruments or sounds or different sized groups. In fact, someone recently e-mailed me who wants to do a version for three recorders. I think that it's kind of like a blueprint that lets everybody get into the act."

"I don't feel responsible for everything that goes on with it," Riley continued. "I've had my chance many times to do it the way I wanted to do it. So I think it's OK to let other people do it their way now. People seem to have fun with it in different ways."