The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble Performs Terry Riley’s “in C”

The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble

SLEE 001

One of the earliest examples of minimalism and process music, Terry Riley’s seminal 1964 composition in C is beautifully recast in the Salt Lake City Electric Ensemble’s 2010 recording, “The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble Perform Terry Riley’s in C”. SLEE’s version for “laptop orchestra” is dominated by the synthesized timbre of contemporary dance music, and garnishes Riley’s concept with the flavor of Ratatat and other mainstays of the electronic rock genre. Led by Matt Dixon, the 8-man group relies on overdubbing and sophisticated music software to produce a vibrant electro-acoustic aural tapestry weaving together a variety of percussion instruments and computerized elements.

The album’s liner notes contain a brief summary of the work’s performance instructions – the piece has 53 numbered phrases of differing lengths, the performers play through these in order but are free to repeat the phrases as many times as they wish. Above this explanation was a reflective and compelling quote from the composer, “Essentially my contribution was to introduce repetition into Western music as the main ingredient without any melody over it, without anything, just repeated patterns, musical patterns.” In many ways, in C is a picture-perfect representation of Riley’s mindset: given the simple melodic and harmonic elements he employs, phrase repetition is the most dramatic musical variable in each performance.

With this said, I was intrigued SLEE included these words from Terry Riley in the recording’s liner notes. To me, Riley’s mantra implies dissolving the traditional musical hierarchy, replacing a directional structure of melody and accompaniment with constant repetitions and an abstract form. The heterophonic texture that dominates SLEE’s interpretation of in C reflects the anarchy and freedom that undertone Riley’s philosophy; yet, the work has a clear direction. Bear in mind the performers are required to play through the 53 phrases in order. Much like Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns?, leadership in the performance is obscured by the fact that every player is moving at a different rate, nevertheless it is clear Terry Riley – and Feldman – imagined a firm structural gravity pulling the piece from its beginning to its end.

The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble’s recording of in C honors the work’s underlying momentum with changes in color and varying rhythmic backdrops in the acoustic percussion parts, which for most of the piece sound like rock drum beats. I am not sure how the unpitched percussion parts fit into the scheme behind in C, but I felt the style of the drum parts – in particular – was responsible for the hue of dance music I mentioned before. SLEE’s version of in C feels more like electronica than minimalism and highlights the conscious or accidental similarities between minimalism and many styles of popular music. The coloristic change from beginning to end is even more dramatic, insofar as the performers incorporate more and more computer white noise, the kind of sound I’ve heard from placing a contact microphone on a computer while it is processing data. Similar to the percussion parts, there is no mention of how these free sound elements are reconciled in Riley’s score; though, these elements are critical to the work’s formal clarity.

These characteristics seem like a fitting modern tribute to Riley’s spirit of indeterminacy and repetition. Although the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble’s performance of in C is not traditional, the work itself is meant to challenge tradition, at least the traditions of the time in which it was written. Ironically, with the large selection of recordings available, it seems in C is becoming canonized as it approaches 50 years of existence. The piece born to countermand the melodic traditions of Western music is gaining a reputation similar to the 19th-century masterpieces orchestras and soloist love to re-record and re-perform with the hopes of lending their own special fingerprints to the music. Consider this CD from the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble a wilder interpretation of a classic in the minimalist canon, displaying the longevity of Riley’s style alongside this unusual group’s broad spectrum of musical expression.

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