Terry Riley and Taylor Swift

I don’t have much of a relationship to… what should we call it? Modern classical music? That’s the term commonly used by ignoramuses like me, but it’s a silly one, contradictory on its face. The practitioners themselves call it “new music,” which is even worse, since it implies that all that other music out there that’s new is not really music. Steve Reich has the best term: notated music. It’s accurate and non-judgmental, and it encompasses the vast range of styles currently being explored by composers. Anyway, I don’t have much of a relationship to notated music. Terry Riley is a name that people in my circle throw around, but I hadn’t listened closely to him until I read an amazing New Music Box post about him. More on that below.

Terry Riley’s most salient influence on my musical life comes from A Rainbow In Curved Air. Fans of The Who will immediately recognize it as the template for the intro to “Baba O’Riley.”

Riley’s pattern-sequenced organ also inspired a ton of prog rock and ambient electronica. However, this post is not about A Rainbow In Curved Air. It’s about the piece that cemented Riley’s place in the High Culture Canon: In C.

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Who cares if you listen?

I pride myself on having big ears, on listening to everything I can and trying to find the beauty in it. I’ve learned to enjoy some aspect of just about every kind of music. Every kind except one: high modernist twentieth century classical music. I just can not deal with it, at all. But I’m in music school now, and am having to confront modernism, listen to it, write about it, and produce it. So I’m trying to figure out whether I’m missing something, or whether the whole musical academic elite is out of its collective mind. Spoiler alert: I lean toward the latter.

The title of this post refers to an infamous essay by Milton Babbitt. He says that modern classical will never have an audience beyond its practitioners, and that it shouldn’t even bother to try.

I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music.

I do not like the terms “serious” and “advanced” when self-applied by classical composers.

The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in [the contemporary composer’s] music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow ‘professionals’. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.

My question is this. Are we all missing out on something important because we’re unwilling to do the work? Or are we rightly shunning the music because it’s unbearable?

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