INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Pitchfork FEBRUARY 6, 2015 - by Joe Tangari
AFRICA EXPRESS PRESENTS... TERRY RILEY'S IN C MALI
Terry Riley's minimalist landmark In C turned fifty 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 basic structure of In C is simple: Someone plays a simple, droning pulse on the note C, usually on a piano or marimba, and the other performers, whose number and instrumentation Riley did not specify, have fifty-three melodic phrases from which to choose. The musicians select the phrases they want to play and decide how long to play them. The effect is that the phrases overlap in unpredictable ways, creating shifts in harmony, evolving polyrhythms, tonal and timbral changes and the sense that nothing is constant, even though the same note repeats insistently under the whole performance at the exact same tempo.
There are dozens of recordings, starting with Riley's own from 1968. Some are kinetic and exciting, others never seem to come together, but the piece is so dramatically different from performance to performance that it never grows old. Damon Albarn's Africa Express project, which over the years has fostered collaborations between a huge number of Western and West African musicians puts a decidedly unique spin on In C. With an ensemble of seventeen musicians - including Albarn on melodica, Brian Eno, Bijou and Olugbenga on vocals, Jeff Wootton and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner on guitar, Cheick Diallo on flute, Badou Mbaye, Alou Coulibaly and Mouse on Mars' Andi Toma on percussion, Modibo Diawara and Defily Sako on kora, Guindo Sala on imzad, Kalifa Koné and Mémé Koné on balafon, Adama Koita on kamel n'goni, and André de Ridder on several instruments and conducting - they have an earthy collective sound, and their dynamic interplay is quite distinct from any other version of In C I've heard.
For one thing, the non-tonal percussion included in the ensemble layers a dance vibe under the piece's usual trance vibe. Diallo's flute in particular is so dissimilar from every other sound on the recording that he stands out and shifts the emphasis briefly to melody, while the three voices lend it an ethereal quality. The mellow tone of the koras, kalimbas, and balafons, meanwhile, have a strange effect during the period cooldowns over the course of the piece; they lend it an odd, cool darkness that I usually don't hear in In C. These passages lend it a suite-like feel where the piece most often is structured as a giant crescendo followed by a long diminuendo. The most bold decision here comes just past the halfway mark, though, when the ensemble goes nearly silent, including the pulse, leaving just guitars and koras playing the slowest melodic phrases in a strange kind of canon, and then we're treated to a brief spoken word passage (not in English) before the larger ensemble dives back in with even more rhythmic insistence than before.
This willingness to play with the form and shape of an iconic piece of music is one of the things that most fully sets this recording of In C apart from most others. It's unexpected and enlivens the music just as much as the djembe that lends the evolving beat its weight. The overall form of the piece may be more premeditated than Riley originally intended, rather than the independently reached and unforeshadowed consensus of a large group of musicians, but this mostly serves to make it an engaging performance and worthy interpretation of a piece of music that's so eternal it could literally be played eternally if someone was able to get musicians to keep showing up to play it. Africa Express keeps it to a bite-sized forty-one minutes, and every one of them includes something to savour.