Africa Express, Africa Express Presents…Terry Riley’s In C Mali

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 11.24.14 in Reviews

In this 50th-anniversary romp through Terry Riley‘s In C, a brilliant ensemble of Malian musicians (mostly playing traditional instruments) joins forces with Damon Albarn, the globetrotting frontman of Blur and Gorillaz; Brian Eno, the polymath musician and producer; Nick Zinner, guitarist/keyboardist from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; and conductor Andre De Ridder.

Colorful, surprising and, by the end, swinging.

It’s colorful, surprising and, by the end, swinging. It also comes perilously close to not being In C at all. The genius of Riley’s groundbreaking 1964 work, which ushered in the repeating, cellular, rhythmic style of music that came to be known as Minimalism, is in its simplicity. The work consists of 53 short musical motifs, which are played over a steady pulse by a deliberately unspecified ensemble, with each member proceeding from fragment 1 to fragment 53 at his or her own pace. That is what defines In C, whether it’s being played by an all-star lineup of contemporary classical musicians or an enterprising rock band. But here, the shimmering web of sound that characterizes In C gives way to…solos! A kora (the Malian harp) inserts little fills and runs; the njarka (a folk fiddle) follows suit; we get a talking drum solo over a bed of susurrating percussion. Hell, at the 22-minute mark, someone actually starts singing.

A bit more subtle but equally unusual are moments where it’s clear that several of the short patterns are being played simultaneously, moving the piece out of the world of heterophony and into genuine harmony. One such moment occurs about 34 minutes in, where the electric guitar plays a different repeating phrase from the traditional Malian strings beneath it.

If there were such a thing as an In C purist (god help us), the worst offense would be the disappearance of the pulse, exactly halfway through this performance. The piece fades away, only to come back with a bewitching combination of plucked strings and flute. The subsequent reappearance of the pulse is not unlike the moment of the big “bass drop” in the electronic dance world.

To be fair, there is a precedent for taking liberties with Riley’s classic score. The version by the Shanghai Film Orchestra (a recording Brian Eno also had some involvement in) blasted through the 53 fragments so quickly that they began to bring earlier fragments back, in a kind of rondo form. Riley loved it — and he apparently loves this. So, I don’t know exactly what Eno or Albarn do here; I don’t know which of Mali’s languages the brief song in the middle is sung in (maybe liner notes will provide these answers down the road). I don’t know whether this is really In C or a kind of acoustic remix of it. (Doubting liner notes will help there.) But it is consistently interesting and inventive, and for a 50-year-old piece, it’s sounding pretty spry.