Brendan Yandt

In C: Listening as Becoming


Terry Riley’s In C defies conventions of a complete or perfectible piece of music, its design ensuring that each version is a process of becoming. This paper presents an analysis of In C as a metastable system unique in music—where a continual emergent iteration across various scales can be viewed as an evolving collective entity. Informing the analysis are Gilbert Simondon’s theory of individuation as outlined in Genesis of the Individual, and composer Robert Carl’s musicological monograph on the work, Terry Riley’s In C. The composition and performance conditions of In C are outlined, as are Simondon’s theories, before both are engaged in a comparative analysis, supported by discussion of two example performances. Simondon’s concepts of metastability and transduction are found threaded throughout In C’s various dimensions, and the work is shown to individuate as a musical form of Simondon’s living being in a transindividual field of becoming. The analysis reveals that the transindividual metastable system of being stays active in the process of listening, in terms of both performance and appreciation, and is the essential field of the work’s continued becoming. It also redefines the terms of success for a performance of the work, as even those versions that might be said to fail become part of the transindividual In C. The approach developed in this paper offers an additional tool in the discussion of music and sound, providing a practical application of Simondon in music theory, and demonstrating the potential for his work to engage with musicological analysis.

In C

In music, composition and improvisation often remain discrete, whether in completely distinct works, or as separate segments of the same piece. A composition is formed prior to its realization, while improvisation forms as it is realized. Rarely are these musical forms active in concert and operating in a conditional dialogue where one is in continuous influence with the other. Terry Riley’s In C is one of these rare occasions. It possesses a “genuine interiority” [1] that serves as a resonant guide to its formation, while demanding a nebulous new emergence each time it is performed. In C embodies the essence of Gilbert Simondon’s theory of metastable individuation, and extends to a transindividuation involving performers, listeners, and the many performed versions of Riley’s masterwork. Using Simondon’s theories as outlined in Genesis of the Individual, the musicological analysis of composer Robert Carl, and a selection of recordings of the work, In C is here parsed as a metastable system unique in music: one that individuates as a living being in a transindividual field of becoming, activated through the act of listening. In turn, the concepts of metastability and transduction are here activated in a musical context, and initialized for further explication.

As a composition document, In C comprises a one-page score and a brief set of instructions. The score is a series of 53 phrases varying in length and notation. The phrases are disconnected on the page, breaking the sense of continuous flow of time often suggested by musical scores; each occupies its own module of musical time. They range from an eighth-beat to thirty beats in duration, and host anywhere from one to nine differently pitched notes, though notes may occur multiple times in a phrase. [2] All phrases are played in succession by the musicians that make up any given performance group.

With this score as its basis, In C then takes its greatest departure from conventional composition via its instructions. What is first remarkable is what is not prescribed: no set number of musicians, no exacting instrumentation, no set tempo: “any number of any kind of instruments can play”. [3] These elements arrange through choice and circumstance in any one performance of the work, setting a foundation of difference from those that preceded it—each version must at its origin establish its own conditions. A continually struck C note underpins each performance from beginning to end, the single structural reference: “a clear rhythmic anchor, always the same tempo, always the same pattern … a neutral ‘grid’ backdrop against which the far more sophisticated, complex, and shifting rhythmic relationships between the modules may unfold”. [4]

The difference such conditions enable is amplified by the primary drive of In C’s instructions: that each performer decide how many times they repeat each phrase before moving to the next. This simple charge, when put into action, sets the work into an emergent polyrhythmic tension, as neighbouring phrases enter and exit across various instruments, and form fleeting rhythmic and tonal relations as they cross each other in time. Riley’s composition of the patterns, a “radical restriction of pitch content”, [5] tangles and waves in a mass trajectory that can last anywhere from under 20 minutes to well over an hour before ultimately arriving at the one determinate unison on phrase 53.

From the first strike of the C note pulse to the final phrase arrival, each performance is an exercise in informed becoming, the program of the score and instruction liberated by the curvilinearity of phrase repetition. The potential of chaos is defied via the attendant agency of the musicians performing the piece. As the players navigate the score, each selects their repetitions and progressions in reference to the soundscape of phrases that surrounds them; the music they “read” is the sound of In C as played in time and space—the written score on the page serving only as reference. This system of player-listeners feeds back into itself over the duration of the performance, and in concert with the unique conditions of each version. It fosters the dynamic emergence of an ultimately unique and irreproducible instance of In C: a “living entity … both the agent and theatre of individuation”. [6]

An audience member or home listener of In C also experiences the uniqueness of the work across time. The piece by its very nature reveals itself through a process of listening— through hearing first an individual performance, and later successive playbacks or additional versions. First hearing In C is slightly bewildering—one struggles to parse sounds that have obvious tonal relations to one another, but initially sound chaotic as they slip and cascade around one another. Distinct instruments are difficult to focus on, as they seem to pull in and out of the soundscape. Overlapping phrases complicate a sense of direction, as any given phrase is surrounded by those that precede or follow it, creating illusionistic aural shifts. At times it seems more noise than signal, yet definite tonal thematics create a larger impression of cohesion. Upon repeated listening, particular phrases rise and begin to mark identities, which then transmit from one version to another. As one hears more, this listening continues to specialize, gaining both focus and flexibility. Listening to In C, one cannot help but generate a process of listening specific to the piece.

Riley’s composition incites an uncommon activation of performers and listeners, and resists any arrival at a definitive version or experience. It defies perfect resolution, and at no point can be said to have an ultimate identity—neither its score nor any one version can lay claim to being the essential In C. Still it has an undeniable character, one which compels a listener to engage its sonic process. While musicological analysis reveals many of the mechanics of how the work operates, Gilbert Simondon’s theory of individuation offers a lucid framework that will illustrate the wider dynamics of In C.

For Simondon, individuation is an active and multi-dimensional process of being-as-becoming, where internal properties react with latent potentials of preindividual conditions and an external milieu in an ever-engaged and continuous emergence of the individual. Two processes serve as the primary agents in this continuous emergence: metastability and transduction. Metastability involves a system that actively reorients a falling out of step with itself, progressively reacting to emerging difference. A metastable system has a much greater range of dynamic potentials, unlike a stable equilibrium, which has the lowest level of potential energy possible. [7] Transduction builds out from metastability as the extension of individuation beyond itself in an on-going outward formation of structures upon structures, where each extension is an amplification from and beyond the structures that preceded it. Transductive metastabilities operate in systems-within-systems, nested levels of individuation that result in a transindividuation that spans multiple magnitudes of being. The transindividual comprises any number of smaller systems, which may continue to individuate within in. This model stands in contrast to the genesis of an individual as either the random gathering of infinitesimal units that happen to result in a being, or as arising from the unification of matter and form. Simondon’s individuation is not the result of such a process; rather, a being processes: it becomes perpetually as the very essence of its being, its individuation propelled by a metastability. The dynamic inequilibrium of a metastable state progressively rights an extended difference of potential change, where “becoming exists as one of the dimensions of the being … it corresponds to a capacity beings possess of falling out of step with themselves, of resolving themselves by the very act of falling out of step”. [8] As individuation continues, it continuously forms an extended basis for successive change which further individuates, where “each region of the structure that is constituted … serves to constitute the next one to such an extent that at the very time this structuration is effected there is a progressive modification taking place in tandem with it”. [9] Transductive extension guides its structurations via two additional elements. First, a preindividual reality where latent factors exist prior to entering metastable potential. Second, an internal resonance that serves as the active reference of individuation’s metastability, the central limit from where metastability may rise and fall.

The metastable transduction of individuation occurs in physical processes, like waves of water reforming under and over their own hurling weight. Yet with living beings, it occurs across orders of magnitude as metastable systems individuate within larger systems, and scalar transductions form an aggregate transindividuation. These systems share latent potentials, which enable their collective nature: “individuation in its collective aspect makes a group individual, one that is associated with the group through the preindividual reality it carries within itself, conjoining to all other individuals; it individuates as a collective unit”. [10] The collective individuations give rise to an interconnected metastability with dynamic interiority, propelled from within, a force of life in the transindividual being.

In C is abound with metastabilities. Each performance, by the design of its very being, must individuate in time, becoming as a condition in process, yet informed by shared foundations. The preindividual reality of In C rests in its score, instructions, and past performances; elements that exist outside of the time of performance and form the basis of potentials and limits which resolve when engaged in metastable individuation. The potentials are further active via the larger communication between all versions, the knowledge of past performances that inform how musicians play. Once active in time, In C is guided by the internal resonance of the C note pulse—the 0th phrase—from which transduction stems. The pulse is the harmonic and temporal reference that all other phrases fall around: where they gain shape across time so that phrases may truly interrelate. In C’s transduction “begins at a center of the being and extends itself in various directions from this center, as if multiple dimensions of the being were expanding around the central point”. [11] In Riley’s composition, the central point is the first and foundational sound, the C note pulse.

Over the pulse, the various phrase progressions engage harmonically and rhythmically, but this engagement relies on the musicians. The range and tonal relations of those phrases are set by the composition and order of the score, but only when played in time do their interactions of potentials and their metastable resolution of those potentials truly engage. The musicians actively resolve their own playing and experience in relation to the sounds of the other players around them, where “they not only listen to their interaction with immediate neighbours but also hear the influence of their actions on the total work … one must listen out to the edges of the piece as one plays and adjust decision making to the amorphous but real will of the collective”. [12] It is this particular aspect of the metastability of In C that determines the success of a performance’s individuation, and what may allow it to be considered a transductive living being. For in Simondon’s theory, it is not the random association of potentials that allows individuation of a living being, but their interaction via a greater interiority. And so In C as a mere program is insufficient: if the phrases were deployed without this interior communication, even if done simultaneously, they would not comprise a living individuation. The ability of the performing musician to relate their instrument’s phrase repetitions and progressions with their collective condition is key to realizing the maximum tension and resolution of metastability, where “the interior plays a constitutive role … [and] is its own contemporary with regard to each one of its elements”. [13] Taking metastable interiority as the measure of success of an Individuation of In C, performances of the work can be compared as insight into how such success may or may not be achieved.

This can be illustrated with versions recorded by Bang On a Can All-Stars and Tigersushi All_Stars; performed in 1998 and 2015 respectively. The Tigersushi performance brought together twelve musicians on synthesizers and other electronic instruments. While it is riveting to hear Riley’s phrases played by such a contemporary arrangement of instruments, on close listening an over-reliance on unison can be identified, as the musicians regularly fall on the same phrase. In the instructions of In C unison is by no means prohibited, yet Riley writes that “one of the joys of In C is the interaction of the players in polyrhythmic combinations that spontaneously arise between patterns”. [14] Regular unison forgoes this dynamic of the betweenness of overlapping phrases. While by no means a failure or unenjoyable, the Tigersushi performance carries a weight of straight progression, where a disconnect of metastability leads to a heavy connection of phrases. This can be heard throughout the piece, such as at the transition to phrase 14, which occurs at the 11 minute mark of the 56 minute performance. Phrase 13 itself is played almost entirely in unison, and when one player switches to phrase 14, within 40 seconds the remaining players have again arrived in unison. This tendency limits the dynamic emergence of polyrhythms and tone relations that the work was designed to produce, and as such stands as less of an individuation, and more of a linear reproduction of the score.

In contrast, Bang On a Can’s ten-musician performance is exemplary in its extension of metastable tension. The recording maintains an intense clarity, made possible through the close attention of the players to their sonic surroundings. Their phrase instances are transductively extended out over time, creating the widest range of potentials and further transductive formation. Taking again the introduction of Phrase 14, occurring in this recording at the seven minute mark, an incredible phrase diversity is apparent. Throughout the presence of phrase 14, complex relations are introduced by the phrases that precede and follow it. This stretched tension pervades the recording; phrase 35, the longest in the score, takes only about 20 seconds to play once. Yet in the Bang On a Can recording, across various instruments it spans 9 minutes of the 45 minute duration of the performance, enabling very different tonal relations with phrases on either end. [15] Transduction is essential to these relationships, as any structuration is reliant on its immediate precedents. The importance of this aural connection to the larger work is echoed by Bang On a Can member Robert Black: “it’s more about listening than it is about playing, and anticipating; when you change patterns, how that affects the whole organism”. [16]

While versions may vary in metastability, they nevertheless become part of the larger transindividuation of In C, added to the greater collective. Various performances that individuate to any degree become agents in the larger theatre of individuation of the collective being of In C, whether carried forward in the musicians or the audience, on a recorded signal or existing only in memory. The individuations form a continuous communication where the “basis of the collective reality already forms a part of the individual in the form of the preindividual reality, which remains associated with the individual reality” [17] (Simondon, 1992).

The collective In C stays in a process of becoming across magnitudes, from a moment in a performance, to an entire piece, to an ever expanding transindividual of multiple versions that feeds back into the preindividual realities of performances to come. As a living entity, In C “represents a permanent individuation, or rather a series of approaches to individuation progressing from one state of metastability to another” [18] (Simondon, 1992). The transindividuation of the work across magnitudes forms a field of becoming, where its process being arises across informed networks of difference.

Carl (2009) positions In C as a breakthrough enabled by its inclusivity of opposites, and that “whatever dichotomy one chooses, it finds a meeting between opposites and realizes it in performance”. [19] He outlines a number of oppositions the work deals in: “improvised/notated … individual/group … structured/open … single/multiple … and on and on” (Carl, 2009). [20] In C is not just the juxtaposition of these poles, but the engagement of the metastable space in between. They transductively engage with more than their mere opposite—they inform and are informed by the dynamics of all constituent elements. Indeed, the work forgoes dichotomy, instead engaging such components in a field of metastable influence. This field extends further outward and inward as the collective In C carries on in time, and the multiple individuations continue to feed the fluctuation of potentials. The progressive transduction of In C “represents a discovery of dimensions that are made to communicate by the system for each of the terms such that the total reality of each of the areas’ terms can find a place in the newly discovered structures without loss or reduction.” [21] The field of In C is the process of generating newly discovered structures, upon the forms of structures already discovered.

If one could locate such a field, it would ultimately flow amongst the listeners. To listen to In C, as a performer or as an outside appreciator, is to participate in the generation of the transindividual reality of its becoming. Otherwise, it is simply a score with instruction, or the random emission of disconnected patterns. The triumph of In C is the transmission of active information amongst listeners, and their engagement in the field, from any point within the collective milieu. With continued listening of the work, one naturally gains some knowledge of its metastablities: tonal themes, phrase emergence, the flow and rise of certain sections. The very act of listening begins to fall in and out of step, as perceptive adjustments and associations arise when hearing each new version If one expands the knowledge available through association with the score itself, new metastabilities open up, as do dialogues between versions. The pieces communicate difference and collectivity in the mind of the listener. The listener individuates.

Again, this holds for all types of listeners. It is through listening that performers gain participatory agency in the creation of a given piece, and through the listening of past performances that they absorb a larger preindividual reality from which to draw new potentials, a “musical ecology, where a network of relations brings forth a continually evolving aesthetic product that has its own genetic blueprint but can never be predicted”. [22] The blueprint serves only as the preindividual reality—it is in the listening that the network of relations emerges, and the transindividual of In C rises. It incites listening-as-becoming, both of the listener and of the collective work. This transindividual field of listening is suggested only fleetingly in the instructions when Riley writes of the importance that “performers listen very carefully to one another”. [23] He of course understood the necessity for musicians playing the work to be actively listening as part of their playing, but could hardly predict the extension of the act far into the future, continually feeding back into his work. The ever emerging field of listeners expands far past the bounds of any one performance.

A performance of In C ends with the arrival of all players on phrase 53, an inevitable unified crescendo, where metastabilities subside and musicians make their final choice of the evening—when to stop playing. The living being here might be said to cease to live, if not for the larger transindividual implications of the performance. A cursory search for “terry riley in c” on Youtube returns thousands of results: pages and pages of recordings, performance videos, and phrase practice guides. Amateurs, students and professionals, groups and individuals, in concert halls and bedrooms. Some are postings of recordings decades old, many are of recent performances. A performance of In C does not end; it carries forward in the transindividual field, the ongoing collective piece ever in formation. The metastable individuation of In C is relentless, all extending from a three page composition written in 1964.  Its being lives on, listening in the field of its own becoming.


[1] Gilbert Simondon. “Genesis of the Individual” In Incorporations (296-319). ed. Jonathan Gary and Sanford Kwinter. (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 305.
[2] Robert Carl. Terry Riley’s In C. Oxford: (Oxford University Press, 2006), 61-63.
[3] Terry Riley. In C. (Tucson: Celestial Harmonies, 1964, 1989),
[4] Carl, Terry Riley’s In C, 58.
[5] Carl, Terry Riley’s In C, 61.
[6] Simondon, “Genesis of the Individual”, 307.
[7] Ibid., 302.
[8] Ibid., 301.
[9] Ibid., 313.
[10] Ibid., 307.
[11] Ibid., 313.
[12] Carl, Terry Riley’s In C, 7-8.
[13] Simondon, “Genesis of the Individual”, 305-306.
[14] Riley, In C, 2.
[15] Carl, Terry Riley’s In C, 118.
[16] Ibid., 103.
[17] Simondon, “Genesis of the Individual”, 307.
[18] Simondon, “Genesis of the Individual”, 307.
[19] Carl, Terry Riley’s In C, 108
[20] Ibid.
[21] Simondon, “Genesis of the Individual”, 315.
[22] Carl, Terry Riley’s In C, 7.
[23] Riley, In C, 2.


Carl, Robert. Terry Riley’s In C. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Riley, Terry. In C. Tucson: Celestial Harmonies, 1964, 1989.
Riley, Terry. In C. Recorded by Bang On a Can All-Stars. On Terry Riley: In C. Cantaloupe, 1964 , 1998.
Riley, Terry (1964). In C. Recorded by Tigersushi All_Stars. 1964, 2015.
Simondon, Gilbert. “Genesis of the Individual” In Incorporations (296-319). Editors Jonathan Gary and Sanford Kwinter. New York: Zone Books, 1992.

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