Terry RILEY (b. 1935)
In C (1964) [65:56]
Salt Lake Electric Ensemble
Matt Dixon: Laptop, Vibraphone, Glockenspiel, Piano, Recording, Mixing
Charlie Lewis: Percussion, Marimba, Vibraphone, Piano
Oliver Lewis: Laptop, Marimba, Vibraphone, Piano, Recording, Mixing
Greg Midgley: Laptop
Patrick Munger: Laptop, Video
Brian Patterson: Laptop, DVD Mastering
Scott Selfridge: Audio Mastering
Dan Thomas: Percussion, Marimba, Vibraphone, Piano, Mixing
Ben Warden: Laptop
rec. 3 February 2010 (laptops), other instruments February/March 2010

Terry Riley’s In C is a seminal work for Western music, and one which has proved to be something of a minimalist milestone in the 20th century. The score consists of a number of musical ‘cells’ or bars which stand freely in relationship to each other, the idea being that each one is repeated freely; the work developing as each player moves from one cell to the next at their own pace, but within given parameters. This Salt Lake Electric Ensemble version of the work takes the basic material but runs with it in an entirely different way to what you might expect to hear with conventional instruments. The premise is a ‘reinterpretation’ of the score, creating in effect a brand new piece. For instance, In C normally begins with a constant ostinato beat from the high notes of a piano or percussion instrument which runs for the duration of the work, but the pulse here is maintained and kept steady without this extra layer, the ‘metronome’ is silent in the first hour, although dropped in for special effect in the climactic final five minutes.
Terry Riley’s original recording now on the Sony label is gloriously of its time and pretty rough around the edges if we’re honest, and there have been countless performances and numerous recordings of greater or lesser merit since. The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble looks at the piece from a different angle, and since its sounds are generated largely in the electronic domain one encounters whole new collection of associations. There are for instance a few sections in which the spectre of Kraftwerk is hard to ignore, and the mixture of instruments and sense of forward motion is traded in for one of more subtle nuances and relatively ambient textures. This works very well indeed for the most part, although for the perverse of mind some of the simpler melodic phrases thus isolated will make it hard for many people on the European continent to think of anything other than, for instance, the ‘dormez vous?’ section of Frère Jacques early on in the recording. These are the risks with exposing the bare bones of a piece whose bare bones were never really intended to be heard bare. Those little repeated notes from 5 through into the 6 minute mark put me in mind of David Bowie’s ‘Miracle Goodnight’. None of these remarks are meant as criticism, but the ‘reinterpretation’ does indeed go further than a mere performance of In C through computers, and listeners will no doubt find themselves thinking of entirely different connections. Comparisons have to be made with pioneering artists such as Brian Eno and possibly Alvin Curran when getting to grips with describing a recording like this, and the question only remains how far the listener is prepared to go to accept this as a valid version of In C.
I would dare to suggest that this in fact is no longer In C, at least, not as originally conceived and derived from the original score, and I believe the musicians who worked on it would agree with me. This is an In C world of discipline and control, without the little micro-shifts and infinite variation of context and combination you get from a well-performed instrumental performance. What we do have is some fascinating layering of sounds and textures, and the musical material formed into a convincing organic whole. The nice thing about this version is that it brings In C a good deal closer to subsequent works by Terry Riley such as A Rainbow in Curved Air and Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, so with this recording one can imagine this is perhaps what might have arisen had he delayed the work’s release and applied something akin to 1970s synthesiser technology to its production.
Most of the results here are intriguing at the very least, and at their very best inspiring. Where I have some mild concerns is in cases where one sound dominates the texture to the detriment of the rest. I know these things are a source of contrast, but the drums coming in around 4 minutes in on are a tad unsubtle and ‘too soon’ to my ears, the ‘gopping’ bass around the 52 minute mark and the distortive effects in the last few minutes more aversive than impressively effective. Such a climax should have us gasping in amazement, not grasping the volume control until the storm passes. Where this performance works best is in its subtler passages: for instance where the electronics take on the feeling of breathing instruments such as the rising figure at around 28 minutes, which to my ears sound like a distant and ethereal harmonium. I love those juxtapositions where reality and surrealism mix and nothing sounds quite like it should, or quite like one would expect. These kinds of moments are where your ear is fed fascinating newness in an aural environment you would want to inhabit for a minor eternity.
This is a self-released recording which, due to the wonderful Dutch postal system I first encountered as a download. This is a perfectly good way of acquiring this piece as the CD, though acceptably presented in a cardboard foldout sleeve, is not really a super-deluxe item. Take a look at the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble website, and it might give you the impression that the ensemble is a bit of a one trick pony. This is not the case however, and while founder of the ensemble Matt Dixon was director of the In C project the ensemble is in fact organised like a collective, which means that creative input from all members is part of the substance of the group, and that generating new repertoire is an ongoing process. We can therefore hope to see further releases from this source in the not too distant future, something I for one look forward to with considerable interest.
Dominy Clements
Fascinating and successful project.