mon 29/05/2017

In C, London Sinfonietta, Kings Place | reviews, news & interviews

In C, London Sinfonietta, Kings Place

In C, London Sinfonietta, Kings Place

Terry Riley's minimalist masterpiece sweeps all before it in this memorable concert

Really, we had the best of both worlds: group momentum, personal polish, sun plus shade, refinement plus joy
Terry Riley: a force and a beard to be reckoned with Chris Felver/Getty Images

There’s nothing like Terry Riley’s In C to reawaken a past epoch. Of variable length, built from 53 melodic fragments, this minimalist construct of 1964 was almost designed to be performed and experienced lying on cushions in a marijuana haze – though a state somewhat ruptured by the home listener’s need to stir and turn over the vinyl LP in order to hear the other side. There was also the problem, at least in Britain, of the original LP’s inner sleeve, incongruously plastered with ads for the honeyed voice of easy-listening balladeer Andy Williams. As if…

At Kings Place last night, I smelt no herbal cigarettes. For 45 minutes we sat rigid in seats. But we were still transported by the blissful sounds rolling over us as the London Sinfonietta navigated a piece that fully deserves its claim to be minimalist music’s first masterpiece. Kings Place’s new Minimalism Unwrapped season couldn’t have existed without it. Since Riley in his Californian wisdom gave performers freedom to choose the instrumentation, the number of times the fragments are heard, and whether some are heard at all, no performance is ever a carbon copy of another. And once past the opening’s tempo-setting quavers forever locked into high C, it didn’t take long for the Sinfonietta’s terrific account to take on its special colour.

It sounded as if Rimbaud was hearing In C from his mother’s womb, floating in amniotic fluid

Delivered by ten Sinfonietta performers (piano, percussion, winds, three strings) plus American visitor Elliott Sharp on electric guitar, this was a performance dappled into extra beauty by a crack team of sophisticated virtuosi. The distinction of their approach jumped out most audibly in the tight control of dynamics, subtly graded to complement the polyphony’s natural ebb and flow. Motifs bubbled up and faded away, constantly flecked by changing colour. I might have been surfing the sparkling waves at Big Sur, or watching a window’s stained glass kaleidoscope shift in the rays of the sun.

For all the music’s hypnotic flow, individual contributions still stood out. Wind players’ phrasings sported a touch of classical poise, though nothing could ever be prissy with Sharp’s guitar in the background, throbbing and clucking: the perfect funky bass line. Really, we had the best of both worlds: group momentum, personal polish, sun plus shade, refinement plus joy. And always, more or less, in C.

The other items in the concert (captured by BBC microphones and now available on BBC iPlayer) inevitably stood in Riley’s shade. But that was partly by design. Here was Michael Nyman’s In C Interlude of 2005 – grade B Nyman, I’d say, with a lolloping unison melody circling round and round until expanding into a contrapuntal fuzz lacking the punch needed. A diminutive quality also clung to Na’ama Zisser’s Drowned in C, a Sinfonietta commission that mulled over Riley’s masterwork only to generate sounds smudged and unmemorable.

Better things came in the second commission, Unsleeping, from composer and sound artist Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner, who performed it live on the stage from a laptop and electronic tricks. Born in the year In C was written, Rimbaud chose to imagine Riley’s creation coursing by elsewhere in the world as he lay sleeping in London in his cot. Actually it sounded as if Rimbaud was hearing In C from his mother’s womb, floating in amniotic fluid. Pulses throbbed, harmonies shifted, beeps beeped: all engaging and almost restful. But for glistening calm nothing could top Eine kleine Klangfarben Gigue of 1976, by this concert’s amiable host and animateur Stephen Montague. The first four bars of a Bach gigue were gently expanded over 11 minutes with instrumental contributions benign, twinkling, and euphonious. Lovely stuff, though not a patch on the maximal pleasures of the beard man's minimalist In C.

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