The Wire MARCH 2015 - by Julian Cowley


A new recording of In C made in West Africa explores the space, colour and communal ideas of Terry Riley's 1964 composition.

In C runs 4'33" close as a colourless title, unpromising in its stark descriptive literalness. Yet the impact and continuing influence of those two radical mid-century compositional departures is incalculable. 4'33" was predicated upon the pulsation of John Cage's own cardiovascular system, heard unexpectedly in an echo chamber, where he had anticipated silence. Terry Riley's epochal trance dance outwardly flaunts its own musical heartbeat, the insistent pulse of a C major octave hammered on a keyboard. Cage opened up a world of intimate listening. Riley issued a timely invitation to celebrate the physical joy and community of making music.

In 2013, at a time when chilling death threats were being issued by Islamic fundamentalist groups to musicians in Mali, conductor André de Ridder convened a recording session, under the aegis of the Africa Express collective, at the Maison des Jeunes youth club in Bamako, the country's capital city. His idea was to cast a West African light on In C, almost half a century after its conception in California. Brian Eno was on hand, adding his voice to those of local singers Bijou and Olubenga. But the main focus is on a stellar cast of local musicians including flautist Cheick Diallo, Adama Koita playing kamel n'goni harp, and Modibo Diawara and Defily Sako on kora. This realisation of the piece, craftily edited and enhanced in post-production by Andi Toma of Mouse On Mars, who helped de Ridder with the final mix for this release, shows just how well the crystalline prism of In C lends itself to patterned diffusion of non-Western instrumental colours.

The greatest strength of In C is that it was designed as a genuine ensemble piece. Riley wrote it in 1964, as he approached his thirtieth birthday. He was living on Potrero Hill, overlooking San Francisco Bay, and wanted to make a piece that all his friends would be able to play together, in company. The first performance took place at the start of the following November, at San Francisco's catalytic Tape Music Center, run by Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender. On that occasion the group included fellow composers Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Subotnick and sender, and saxophonists Jon Gibson and Sonny Lewis.

But In C is certainly not the preserve of experimental music specialists. Its ready accessibility appealed to Cornelius Cardew and other members of The Scratch Orchestra in the UK, who approved of its potential for social inclusiveness. Its fifty-three rhythmic and melodic riffs, of varying lengths, are easy enough to execute, yet out of that simplicity arises music that is unpredictably varied and complex. While the coordinating pulse and those fifty-three constituent motifs grant In C its identity, Riley left dynamics and tempo to the preference of performers. Duration is unfixed too. A mad rush through In C could be over in ten minutes, but in theory the piece might extend across an entire year, as Riley once speculated, if a week were allocated to each of the score's riffs.

In C lasts a little under forty-one minutes, slightly shorter than the best known version, the classic In C recorded in 1968 for the CBS Music Of Our Times series with an ensemble that included trumpeter Jon Hassell, trombonist Stuart Dempster and David Rosenboom on viola. Around forty minutes is a span that seems to work particularly well for concentrated listening to this music. The In C: 25th Anniversary Concert recording from 1990 exceeds an hour and a quarter in length, and its intensity slackens audibly at times.

Another version performed in 1989 by thirty-five members of the Shanghai Film Orchestra is over in less than twenty-nine minutes. But, unique and strangely beautiful though it is, the Shanghai version has a cramped, almost reluctant feel, as though the Chinese musicians involved were unwilling to take advantage of the latitude granted by the score, uneasy with their freedom to linger and modify the collective flow by asserting their own rate of progress through the figures.

In C Mali has a delightfully loose and relaxed feel by comparison. Unhampered by orchestral formality, instrumental voices mesh like threads running through a tapestry. The introductions of African timbres and textures revitalises Riley's patterns. He once noted that "you can get as far out as you want if you relate to a constant" and this version, circulating around the core pulse, takes on uplifting rhythmic life and swirling colours of its own. Around halfway through that driving pulse is actually suspended and one of the local musicians reflects quietly, in his own language, upon the experience of learning to play. Part of the magic of In C is that it can comfortably accomodate such unexpected moments, interruptions and shared pleasures while the pulse, once restored, seems to have been sampled from eternity.