The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble: In C

It's not always easy for radical new works to establish a firm and lasting foothold in the Western classical tradition, but Terry Riley's In C, one of the seminal early works of minimalism (also called process music and/or systems music) and written by the composer in San Francisco in 1964, not only managed to make an indelible mark when it first appeared but has continued to do so in the decades since (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams couldn't help but be influenced by the work, seeing as how it predated their own composing careers). That can be attributed to a number of things: its accessible character certainly is one key reason, but as important is the fact that new recordings of it have regularly appeared over the years, a development that has in turn given the work new life and purpose. An obvious example is this latest rendering by The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble (SLEE), who have hit upon what today might seem like the most perfectly natural treatment one could imagine, with the work essentially presented in an arrangement for laptop and acoustic percussion. And if anyone questions how rich a sound a laptop is capable of generating, consider that the group includes six of them (manned by leader Matt Dixon, Oliver Lewis, Greg Midgley, Patrick Munger, Brian Patterson, and Ben Warden) in addition to percussionists Charlie Lewis and Dan Thomas (Dixon and Oliver Lewis also contribute piano and percussion to the recording).

Certainly part of In C's staying power can be attributed to how amenable it is to varying performance scenarios. In truth, the work's brief is straightforward enough, as the info included on the inner sleeve makes clear: “The score to In C contains fifty-three musical phrases. These brief gestures are accompanied by equally sparse performance instructions, specifiying an ensemble of any size and instrumental combination. Each performer begins on the first phrase and works through each of the fifty-three in sequence, repeating each module as many times as they like before moving to the next.” It would be a deaf ear indeed that would prove immune to the charms of Riley's piece, especially when it flows so languidly at eighty-five BPM for its sixty-six-minute duration. Its aura of celestial uplift—especially in this version—also breaks down whatever resistance the less-than-receptive listener might have. It's interesting that Riley downplays altogether the work's melodic dimension—in his own words: “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”—as the piece overflows with melody, even if they amount to tiny phrases, even fragments.

Gently tinkling patterns (at times reminiscent of the bright melodic figures coursing through Kraftwerk's “Europe Endless”) invest the work with an ambient glow that situates the SLEE's version as much within the electronic as minimalism genre. The pristine and polished timbres produced by the laptops make one feel as if one is swimming in a radiant cosmic pool, and in a few sections glockenspiel accents add to the music's lustrous surface. Riley's pulsating patterns and harmonious phrases grow ever more entrancing the more they repeat (the ponderous nine-note pattern that pushes to the forefront at the twenty-minute mark is especially hypnotic), and the constant twists and turns hold one's attention despite the piece's long journey. The music slowly builds in density and volume, with the laptops' synthetic melodies joined in discrete passages by acoustic percussion enhancements. One such moment surfaces at the thirty-seven-minute mark when the percussionists' cymbal patterns bring a slightly funky swing to the vibrant proceedings.

The piece also challenges detractors of minimalism who argue that it's a too-static form that doesn't allow for sufficient development or drama to keep one engaged. On the contrary, the built-in flexibility of Riley's piece allows for all manner of dramatic changes to happen, including contrasts in volume that sometimes find the piece building to a feverish pitch. That happens during the piece's final third most of all when a surge of intensity (helped along by drums) occurs at the forty-four-minute mark—which turns out to be a false climax when the music soon scales down to a near-whisper before the true climax occurs. But even before it hits, things get interesting: the music cycles calmly in place as if gathering energy for the challenging climb ahead, and after the charge is initiated by the drummers, the music grows ever more aggressive (distorted even) during the cataclysmic close. Anyone still thinking laptop-generated music is incapable of mustering brute force will be otherwise enlightened.

Of course there is a trippy quality to the music, a dimension not unexpected from a work that emerged out of the hallucinogenic San Francisco scene of the ‘60s (it should be noted that, in keeping with that trippy spirit, the group also has produced a video treatment of the work; the music is the same in both cases, but the DVD accompanies it with endlessly mutating, kaleidoscopic patterns of multi-coloured form). But the players can be anything but tuned-out while executing it, as performing the piece demands utmost concentration from each of its participants, especially when the music's communal character means that no one voice dominates—harmolodically speaking, no one solos and everyone solos. In C captures the sound of The Salt Lake Electric Ensemble's ‘laptop orchestra' staking out its own patch of synthetic ground within the electronic territory, and consequently one comes away looking forward to the group's future projects, which apparently include minimalist and postminimalist works by Glass, Reich, as well as others by Riley.

September 2011