Release Date: Jan 26, 2015
Record label: Transgressive
Genre(s): Folk, International
Terry Riley’s minimalist landmark In C turned 50 years old in 2014. In that time, it’s become one of the most well-known and oft-performed minimalist compositions, and the reasons for this seem clear enough: The piece’s heterophonic structure is harmonically unusual, but uniformly consonant, and the piece’s insistent rhythm and devotion to melody, however fragmentary, give it a sense of unstoppable motion. It is friendly music, and a lot of music that challenges compositional traditions is not.
The famously bare score for Terry Riley’s minimalist masterpiece contains just one page with 53 short melodic fragments, which vary from a single note to a brief phase. These can be played by any number or type of instruments at any tempo, making it a versatile piece that’s inspired numerous interpretations over the years, from the gamelan-informed original performance to the clanging Chinese percussion of the Shanghai Film Orchestra’s 1989 recording and the rock’n’roll energy of Bang On A Can’s 2001 effort. Fifty years on from its first performance this latest reboot finds Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project reimagining it as an extended West African jam.
It is 50 years since Terry Riley composed his conceptual masterpiece In C, whose insistent, kaleidoscopic rhythms fed into both classical and rock. This update, the first African version of the piece, unites a group of Malian musicians with Brian Eno and Damon Albarn. Wisely, they don’t ape the original, choosing instead to retain its core components while adding snatches of flutes and strings.
Originally conceived on a stoned bus ride in San Francisco in 1964, composer Terry Riley's groundbreaking In C drew on John Cage, modal jazz and the repetitive structures of African music. It went on to become a minimalist touchstone whose influence stretches from the Who's "Baba O'Riley" to Berlin techno. Now In C travels to Africa itself, with an ensemble of 12 West African musicians (plus special guests Damon Albarn, Brian Eno and Nick Zinner) putting an ebullient spin on the old rhythms.
Terry Riley’s In C might not have been the first minimalist composition when it was first written and performed in 1964 (La Monte Young might dispute this honour) but its enduring legacy means that is where we return to when we think of how a collection of composers based around New York City responded to Schonberg’s joyless, mathematical serialist approach to classical music. It’s also because of the choice of the C note; the most common note in western music, it’s instantly recognisable and comforting, but it also brings joy. Listen to any version of In C and you’ll hear that major C note rushing into your ears and lifting your heart.