The magic of minimalism

The seminal ‘In C’ by Terry Riley is a beautiful, rich, complex composition – performed by up to 50 musicians over an hour or so – and it’s played from just a single sheet of score. Its a powerful manifesto for co-creation and offers up some wonderfully alluring ideas for learning.



That’s it. 53 fragments of a just a few notes. There’s a genius in its composition of course, but the magic lies in the accompanying page of directions.


The directions set out the creative constraints that govern the actions of the players.

For example, the 53 patterns must be played in order, but with, “each performer having the freedom to determine how many times he or she will repeat each pattern before moving on to the next.”


With these simple rules, and great musicianship, complex patterns emerge. Riley himself states in the directions, “One of the joys of IN C is the interaction of the

players in polyrhythmic combinations that spontaneously arise between patterns.

Some quite fantastic shapes will arise and disintegrate as the group moves through

the piece when it is properly played.”


See the directions here


There are hundreds of performances of In C, in very different styles. This is the one that totally hooked me in.

What does this mean for learning?

Possibly quite a lot. There are some potentially transferable lessons from the approach and the spirit of the piece, and there are also exciting experiments to be had in transposing the directions to a learning context.


Some broad lessons

· It’s a shared endeavour with a shared purpose, but an open-ended process. There is no way of knowing what will eventually emerge. And it is stronger for this.

· It’s a balance of intense focus and a letting go of control. In a world of targets, letting go a bit – and embracing some uncertainty for the greater good – feels important.

· It’s about exploration within boundaries. It is far from free form. The simple rules are what bring the piece to life.

· Co-creation takes trust and puts an emphasis on listening as much as playing. “It is very important that performers listen very carefully to one another and this means occasionally to drop out and listen.”

· Balancing going at your own pace, and in your own way, but never moving too far ahead of the group, or too far behind.

· Individuals have power to shape the outcomes, but not too much, and claiming too much power undermines the collective potential.

· The mindset, as Brian Eno puts it is “composers as gardeners”


In C as a learning experience

I’m also excited by the idea of a direct translation into learning. If we take it literally and imagine transposing the directions and score into a learning experience what might it look like?

What would be…

· The score / patterns? - Questions, knowledge, provocations, actions, drawing/displays…

· The performers? - Students, participants, educators, the public…

· The instruments? – Vocals… and…?

· And the ‘pulse’? – A guiding question perhaps?


So much to explore.


Listening to In C builds in me a sense of possibility, of collectively navigating an infinite landscape - of hope. In some way, isn’t that what great learning is all about?

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