One of the great qualities of Terry Riley’s In C, a foundational work of modern music, is that it can be played by any number of people using any kind of instruments for as long as they choose to make its sequence of 53 motifs last. Since the appearance of the original album in 1968 it has been recorded by a wide variety of ensembles, including the Shanghai Film Orchestra, Acid Mothers Temple, the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble, Adrian Utley’s Guitar Orchestra, and Africa Express with Damon Albarn and Brian Eno. The original album version lasted 42 minutes, but it can be made to go on much longer. (I haven’t heard of an attempt to compress it into the length of a 45rpm single, but I’ll bet someone’s had a go.)
The fact of its remarkable flexibility, however, does not mean that every performance is guaranteed to be successful. Last night the composer himself, looking wonderfully spry for his 81 years, took his place at a prepared piano amid the London Contemporary Orchestra on stage in the Barbican Hall. Just over 70 minutes later the final chord was greeted with an ovation from a full house. I left feeling flat and disappointed.
In its best performances, In C seems to float not just on its famous eighth-note ostinato (suggested to Riley by Steve Reich, and originally the top two Cs of the piano keyboard) but on the moiré patterns created by the combination of instruments, which could be the brass, reeds and tuned percussion of the original ensemble or the kora, balafon, melodica and calabash of Africa Express. It’s a magical thing — but not an inevitable product of the score.
Last night’s ensemble of 20 musicians, under the direction of Robert Ames, featured bassoon, clarinet, alto saxophone, flute, two guitars (one of them played by Riley’s son, Gyan), flute, violin, viola, cello, viola da gamba, double bass, chamber organ, celeste, and three singers, with a drummer and two percussionists who reproduced the ostinato in a variety of ways, using various implements. This was not far off the 1968 line-up, in which a group of 11 musicians augmented themselves via overdubbing: 10 instruments at the first pass, seven at the second, giving a maximum aggregate of three trumpets, three saxophones, three trombones, three flutes, three oboes, three violas, three vibraphones, two marimbas, two bassoons, two clarinets and piano, a total of 28.
Sheer weight of numbers, then, could not have been the reason I found the Barbican performance so earthbound. For all the panoply of resources, the only element of variety in use seemed to be that of volume. There were soft passages and louder passages, but the rest of it sounded curiously like a big band riffing rather than an ensemble layering and juxtaposing the short motifs provided by the composer. It was all rather prosaic and — despite the composer’s active, if discreet, presence and the ensemble’s evident enthusiasm — hardly true to the spirit of the piece. There was also a rather imprecise attempt at a bravura ending, signalled by the director, which seemed completely inappropriate.
The first half of the evening had consisted of duets by the Rileys, father and son, mostly for piano and electric guitar, although Terry also sang in a deceptively artless voice and played a plaintive-sounding melodica while the nimble-fingered, quick-witted Gyan switched briefly from his Telecaster to an acoustic instrument. Beginning with a loose-limbed piece based on a raga, the set included a song with a strange fantastical lyric which ended with a line about rolling a joint, and which the elder Riley described, to appreciative laughter, as “the national anthem of California”. Cutting through the hippieish mood from time to time were lightning-fast unisons and slashing chordal passages.
At the time Riley conceived In C, in 1964, he was working as a ragtime pianist in the Gold Street Saloon, a waterfront bar in San Francisco, and in his solo passages last night there were frequent echoes and occasional direct hints of blues, stride, boogie-woogie and other vernacular forms. One piece swayed to an elegant habanera rhythm, and contained some lovely filigreed piano/guitar interplay that exposed the substance beneath the charming surface.
The album titled Live that they released a few years ago on Riley’s own Sri Moonshine Music label, featuring duets recorded between 2004 and 2010 in Drogheda, Nantes, Berkeley and Petaluma, is highly recommended. Those interested in looking further into Riley’s vocal music are directed to Atlantis Nath (2002), another self-distributed album, full of fascinating chants and songs with accompaniments including electronics and a string quartet.
* Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Duplan / Light Motiv