Riley: In C

COMPOSERS: Riley
LABELS: Ars Nova
ALBUM TITLE: Riley
WORKS: In C
PERFORMER: ARS Nova Copenhagen; Percurama Percussion Ensemble/Paul Hillier
CATALOGUE NO: 8.226049
Dubbed Minimalism’s most seminal work, In C might more accurately be credited with kick-starting interest in repetitive minimalism/trance music. Intriguingly, its now-celebrated insistently-pulsing high C was absent from Riley’s original conception: Steve Reich says it was his idea.

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Riley provides 53 melodic cells which performers begin and end at their own discretion, creating dense, hypnotic polyphony. Riley stipulates the order in which cells are used, but performers determine the number of repetitions, so overall durations vary greatly. The Buffalo Ensemble’s premiere recording, made shortly after the piece was written in early 1964, was limited to 43 minutes to fit on an LP. A 1990 performance involving Riley (on New Albion) and celebrating the 25th anniversary of that release ran to 76 minutes.

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Riley left the instrumentation open, so the piece has been performed by anything from computers to a full-scale orchestra. An archetypically assertive New Yorkian performance by Bang on a Can (on Canteloupe) featured electric guitars and drums. Most versions reflect the original Californian hippy/meditational feel. Hillier’s is different again, deliberately smudging the lines of the familiar tuned-percussion realisations, relaxing the pulse occasionally, and giving the main roles to voices that drift around each other. Riley provided ‘sacred syllables’ for the singers, and suggested planning some transitions rather than relying solely on the spontaneous blendings that usually occur. The result is the most seductive of all the recorded interpretations. Barry Witherden