No two recordings of a classical piece are the same, owing to variations in recording technology and in the construction of the instruments themselves. Of course, the greatest variable is the human factor. There’s a world of difference between Pablo Casals’ Spanish Civil War era recording of Bach’s six suites for solo cello and Yo Yo Ma’s 1983 recording (we’re most inclined to prefer the former). The result is a frustrating formality, and loses listeners.
Mozart included an improvisation, often based on one of his own themes, in nearly every public performance — often audiences were more impressed by these than the music he’s written out. In one of the most legendary stories of Beethoven, he was challenged to an duel by Daniel Stiebelt, a famous pianist and minor composer. The weapons were not pistols, as they would be in a similar challenge issued by our Vice President just four years later, but pianos. Beethoven famously humiliated his rival.
We feel the loss of the human element in classical performance has been a tragedy brought on in large part by records. The early recording industry changed classical performance enormously, from the sometimes raucous atmosphere of concert hall performances in the nineteenth century to the often sterile environment we experience at our own Orchestra Hall today.
There was also an enormous loss in the variety of instruments as sounds became standardized. Early recording technology picked up certain makes better than others — where once an orchestra in Vienna would sound entirely different from one in New York, owning entirely to unique work of the tradespeople who made the instruments — soon those which could be captured more effectively in pre-electric recording were chosen.
This effect also changed performance. A nineteenth century violinist like Joseph Joachim played with little vibrato, but this produced a thin, almost reedy sound when reproduced on early 78s. Soon the style popularized by Fritz Kreisler, rich with vibrato, was what audiences wanted, not only in their living rooms but in the concert halls. Likewise, Enrico Caruso may have become the first million-seller not because he was the world’s best tenor, but because he had the stamina to project his voice well and over multiple takes.
Records established an expectation: this is what this sonata must sound like. Obviously, we still love them and we always will, but there’s something to be said for the magical spontaneity of live music. This same thing certainly happened in rock circles. Some folks go to see a band to hear their hits, and they want them to sound the same as they did on the record (only “awesomer”) only to be disappointed when that’s now how music works.
Anyways, all this is a long introduction to this record, which was recorded in 1968. When Terry Riley first composed In C, it seemed unlikely to be recorded based on his unspecific instructions for its performance. Scored for any number (Riley recommends thirty-five but writes that a larger or smaller group will do) its most significant part is for a performer to play a C in steady eighth note as a droning metronome. Over this the remaining musicians are to perform fifty-three short passages, each choosing their own moment to begin but attempting to stay within two or three phrases of each other.
In C is often regarded as one of the first minimalist compositions, although there are many examples from earlier ages. It has been widely performed but not so frequently recorded. The first recording, which Riley made for Columbia, featured eleven performers but used over-dubs to add additional instruments. There is really no standard for how long it should take to perform, so it could last a couple of hours. In the case of this album, it has to be split into two parts to accommodate the record.
If you have any instruments in your house, you and your friends could create your own In C. You wouldn’t even have to record it.