Album of the Week
Fifty years ago, in 1964, American composer Terry Riley debuted a piece of music titled, ‘In C’.
Often called the first minimalist composition – composer La Monte Young preceded Riley’s minimalism, but to a less influence – ‘In C’ consists of 53 short, numbered musical phrases, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats, with each phrase being repeated an undetermined number of times.
The piece is open to interpretation and variation. In C has no set duration, with performances as brief as fifteen minutes or as long as several hours. Generally, renditions last between 45 and 90 minutes. Each musician can choose their phrase and how to perform it, with encouragement to start at different times. The number of performers may also vary dramatically. The original recording of the piece was created by 11 musicians playing multiple overdubbed instruments. A 2006 performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall featured 124 musicians.
It is customary for one musician, “traditionally…a beautiful girl,” as Riley notes in the score, to play the note C in repeated eighth notes, typically on a piano or pitched-percussion instrument, such as a marimba. This metronomic rhythm, introduced and referred to as “The Pulse” by fellow minimalist Steve Reich, was accepted by Riley, thus fundamentally altering the original composition which had no rhythm.
Last year, in a guide the influential composer’s repertoire, The Guardian called ‘In C’ “the first masterpiece of minimalism,” while lauding Riley’s general legacy as a “visionary musician, improviser and creative-consciousness-expander.”
Just in time for In C’s golden anniversary, we have a new version to commemorate this groundbreaking piece of music.
Africa Express, the organization that brings together musicians from multiple cultures, which also released the excellent Maison Des Jeunes compilation earlier this year, has released an album featuring an inventive new version of the piece.
The 41-minute rendition was recorded at the Maison des Jeunes youth club in Bamako, Mali in 2013, led by contemporary conductor André de Ridder. The performance features several artists from Mali, along with Africa Express stalwarts including Brian Eno, Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs).
On 4th November 2014, exactly 50 years to the day after premiering the piece, Terry Riley said, “I am overwhelmed and delighted by this [recording]. I was not quite prepared for such an incredible journey, hearing the soul of Africa in joyous flight over those 53 patterns of ‘In C’. This ensemble feeds the piece with ancient threads of musical wisdom and humanity indicating to me that this work is a vessel ready to receive and be shaped by the spontaneous feelings and colours of the magician/musician. I could not ask for a greater gift for this daughter’s 50th birthday.”
Earlier this month, the same Africa Express players gathered once more to perform ‘In C’ at the Tate Modern in London. The event was recorded for a forthcoming interactive film linking minimalist visual art with minimalist music. The film, hosted by online art gallery The Space, will feature the live performance intercut with iconic minimalist works from the Tate Collection.
List of performers on Africa Express Presents Terry Riley’s In C Mali:
Adama Koita: Kamel N’goni
Alou Coulibaly: Calabash
Andi Toma: Additional Percussion, Kalimba
André de Ridder: Violin, Baritone-guitar, Kalimba
Badou Mbaye: Djembe, Percussion
Brian Eno, Bijou, Olugbenga: Vocals
Cheick Diallo: Flutes
Damon Albarn: Melodica
Defily Sako, Modibo Diawara : Kora
Guindo Sala: Imzad
Kalifa Koné, Mémé Koné: Balafon
Nick Zinner, Jeff Wootton: Guitar
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