Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A New Version of Riley's "In C," with Remixes

When Terry Riley's concert piece In C was first rather quietly unveiled in the later '60s (as a Columbia recording under the direction of the composer), it did not seem a likely candidate for 40 years of continued recognition. Yet that is the case as we look back today. It was rather experimental in nature and revolutionary in structure. Riley wrote a series of melodic cells, deceptively simple figures in the key of C, modulating into another key, then back again to the original C tonality. The piece was to be performed by any combination of instrumentalists and vocalists, a practice that hearkened back to the earlier music performance ways of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. There was a continual pulse played in octaves of C on the piano, and the instrumentalists were to repeat each music cell in sequence, going from one to the next as they saw fit, so that at any given point in the performance there were overlaps between the cells. The piece ended when all musicians had progressed to the last cell and played it a number of times.

Each performance could differ somewhat dramatically in its length, instrumental color and combinations of cells. A good performance involved keen listening from all participants, so that the patterns of overlapping cells remained interesting and varied.

In C proved to be enormously influential in the development of what later was dubbed minimalism. Its organically evolving patterns of repetition and the sound produced became blueprint guidelines for later composers in the idiom. The trance producing effect looked back to Africa and Indonesia while pointing forward to what became electronica. Progressive rockers and avant jazzmen were significantly influenced as well.

There have been around ten different recordings over the years, all different. Plus In C has been performed countless times all over the world. Its rather frequent presence on concert programs and audio disks gives credence to its continued relevancy for the modern listener.

And now we have the latest version, a 2-CD set (Innova) that includes a complete performance of the piece by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble under the direction of Bill Ryan, plus 16 remixes by, among others, Phil Kline, Todd Reynolds, David Lang and DJ Spooky.

First, a look at the Grand Valley performance of the piece. It is a pretty middle-of-the-road version, which is only to say that it captures the essence of the piece well. There is good spirit and a lively interplay between the musicians. The ensemble is a little light in the area of mallet instruments, which perhaps I have come to expect from listening repeatedly to the original version and those minimalist works (especially those of Steve Reich) that came after. Really though, this is only to say that the Grand Valley version is different, which is the point and part of the beauty of the composition.

The remixes cover much ground. Each one of them takes a number of aspects of the performance piece and filters, alters, and adds instrumental or electronically modified parts not originally elements of the piece. We end up with a set of variations on the themes (the cells) to be found in the score/performance. We come full circle in some ways on those remixes that do sound quite like electronica, but there are as many different sound worlds evoked as there are remixers.

This is a fascinating set of sound events. You get a respectable version of Riley's piece itself and some quite interesting remixes in one package. I think all interested should also hear Riley's original performance (if you can find it). That and this set give you a pretty keen insight into the work and it's open-ended possibilities. By all means listen if you have any interest in where music has been going, and where it might be in 100 years!

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