In C (Invado)
Portishead guitarist and all around event-garde music aficionado Adrian Utley is not the first figure from somewhere close to the popular music mainstream to have tackled Terry Riley’s 1964 photo-minimalist composition In C, nor is he the first to attempt it armed mainly with an arsenal of electric guitars. While it may not offer a strictly original approach, Utley and co’s take on In C is never less than engrossing and may well be the most texturally persuasive version of the piece yet committed to tape.
Riley’s hugely influential composition is based not on strict notation but on simple, endlessly interpretable rules – 53 basic musical phrases in the key of C, of no fixed duration – which means that no two performances, whatever the instrumentation, are ever exactly alike. Recorded ‘live’ at Bristol’s St George’s Hall, and featuring Utley, PJ Harvey sideman John Parish and 17 other guitarists, augmented by organ players and a sole clarinettist, the Guitar Orchestra invest Riley’s opus with a rare subtlety, which might be unexpected given the nominally ‘rock’ provenance of many of the participants, although less so when you examine the restrained palettes that Messrs Utley and Parish lend to their respective day job bands.
Evolving from a discreet, almost ambient initial mood to a more propulsive middle section, punctuated by swelling clouds of overlapping melody and, later, elongated passages of pulsing, chiming intensity, crucially, Utley’s reading always maintains the mesmerising, ethereal and, yes, Zen-like quality common to all the best readings of In C, without ever submitting to the obvious rock crutch of bludgeoning volume for volume’s sake. Beginning with what sounds like a repeated marimba note – the shape- shifting piece’s only genuine constant – the music also seems to move, ineffably, through distinctly di erent musical genres as it navigates its ever-evolving modal path. Thus, the opening section exhibits an almost Eno-like quietude and melodies which constantly threaten to tip into Penguin Cafe Orchestra territory. Much of the early-middle section has much the same human, ‘people playing in a room’ exuberance of Arthur Russell’s mid-’70s Instrumentals pieces, while the latter stages billow o into clouds of echoing, arpeggiating guitars, which sound like they might have been plucked from Vini Reilly’s The Return of the Durutti Column or one of Popol Vuh’s Werner Herzog soundtracks.
That such moving, hypnotic and texturally rich music can be fashioned merely from rigorous adherence to the notes of one solitary chord seems almost laughable when so much contemporary music, of whatever stylistic stripe, given free rein to essay as many chords as it likes, ends up sounding bland, shallow and monotonous.