“Rules are not as important as results.” – Terry Riley (from an interview here)
If you happened to be knowledgeable about the rhythmic riches of African musics and also happened to attend one of the early performances of Terry Riley’s pioneering minimalist piece “In C” in 1964, you might have noticed that something was up. You might have noticed that Riley’s piece is in some ways designed like the music of an African dance drumming ensemble. “In C” is open-ended in its length; it has a bell-like timeline pattern that acts as a timing/metrical grid within which the other parts fit (its inclusion allegedly suggested by the composer Steve Reich who performed it in the piece’s premiere on a Wurlitzer organ); its fifty-three melo-rhythmic patterns (lasting from half a beat to 32 beats) that each musician plays through interlock and interweave in syncopated polyrhythmic ways to create a wall of sound; it doesn’t require a conductor or leader; and finally, the piece has a steady groove and forward propulsion that is more danceable than sit still and listenable.
If you noticed something African in Riley’s original version of “In C” you might be delighted to hear a recent version by Africa Express, a collaborative project launched by the English musician Damon Albarn to bring African and Western musicians together. Albarn’s previous work based on his music making in West Africa has had its beautiful moments (which I have written about here). Orchestrated and led by conductor Andre de Ridder, Terry Riley’s In C Mali is a recording that features musicians from Mali singing and playing instruments including balafon, djembe and talking drums, shakers, flute, ngoni, and kora. Added to this are violins, electric guitar, kalimbas, and melodica to round out the mix.
Sonically what is interesting about this Africa Express version of “In C” is how it seems equal parts found musical object, remix, homage, dissection, cultural biodegradation, and even a kind of reclaiming. The musicians take liberties with Riley’s original score (which never specified instruments), adding drums and shakers and fitting in all kinds of little variations and solos and feature spots (including a spoken word section). It’s as if minimalism finally got a chance to give thanks to some of its African roots as musicians from the continent have their way with a musical approach that was appropriated and then, finally, got a chance to go home.
(One of my favorite moments in the recording is around 12:04-14:00.)
Here is a video of the ensemble performing live: