Composer Terry Riley is best known for his monumental work ‘In C’. Despite the often used term ‘minimalism’ it’s a term he dislikes, one adopted by the art world and media. He told The Guardian recently “Once you become an ism, what you’re doing is dead.” Despite his strong feelings the term has well and truly stuck.
He has influenced many artists including Robert Wyatt who in 1964 first met Riley as well as William Burroughs. This was the same year that Riley would compose his master piece. According to Marcus O’Dair’s recent biography of Wyatt they spent an afternoon together ‘jamming – music and poetry’.
Around this time Riley was already experimenting with tape loops inspired by Indian drone music. His interest in tape music dates back further to his Concert for Two Pianos and Five Taper Recorders (1960). It allowed him to expand his sonic horizon by creating a form of static or vertical music. He became fascinated by the sound of the tape recorders adding layers like an artist applying oil paint over oil paint creating new textures with the ghost of the original still present. It became a very personal and mystical experience to him. When listening, patterns and voices would enter his conscience from the music. Each listen was a new experience, determined by the depth of listener engagement. With In C he wanted to achieve the same effect with an orchestra.
In C debuted at the San Francisco Tape Music Center on November 4th 1964. The centre is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to the concept of promoting creative experiments in sound music. Riley was, and still is, a prominent member of the Bay Area music scene. In David W. Bernstein’s ‘The San Francisco Tape Music Centre – 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde’ American composer Pauline Oliveros recalled that the performers of In C “included myself on accordion, Steve Reich, clarinet, Morton Subotnick, Clarinet, Terry, flute, and several others.”
The performance was accompanied by light projections by Tony Martin, the inventor of the original light show and who went on to do the first light shows for The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and other groups, working at the Fillmore until 1966. He used modified projectors positioned amongst the performers so that shape and shadows of performers were projected outwards. It was one of the most significant events ever presented at the Tape Music Center. A reminder that the minimalist movement began on the West Coast, not in New York where it thrived in the 1970’s.
In C enjoyed its 50th Anniversary in November last year and to mark the occasion Africa Express released the first African version of the minimalist classic – recorded in Bamako, Mali in October 2013. Africa Express Presents…Terry Riley’s In C Mali was released on 26th January 2015 via Transgressive Records. The album features the cream of new artists from Bamako, among them Adama Koita, Bijou, Cheick Diallo and Modibo Diawara alongside Africa Express stalwarts Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Jeff Wootton and Nick Zinner.
The following film, directed by Roland Hamilton takes viewers on a journey through the streets of the Malian capital and into the makeshift studio at local youth club Maison Des Jeunes, offering glimpses of the creative process behind ‘Africa Express Presents… Terry Riley’s In C Mali’ with local and Western musicians plus musical director André de Ridder.
Talking about the release the Riley said “I am overwhelmed and delighted by this CD. I was not quite prepared for such an incredible journey, hearing the soul of Africa in joyous flight over those 53 patterns of In C. This ensemble feeds the piece with ancient threads of musical wisdom and humanity indicating to me that this work is a vessel ready to receive and be shaped by the spontaneous feelings and colours of the magician/musician. I could not ask for a greater gift for this daughters 50th birthday.”