(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Recording review - Adrian Utley, In C (2013)

Minimally engaged, but unattached: a successful experiment

Terry Riley’s landmark 1964 composition, In C, is often credited with spawning the minimalist movement. It inspired Steven Reich and, by extension, Philip Glass, but it rippled out to affect more mainstream music as well; Pete Townshend titled his synth-driven “Baba O’Riley” as a tip of the hat to its influence. Riley’s piece broke ground by tying musical serialism to an indeterminate process. Indeterminacy dated back to experimental work by Charles Ives and later musicians like John Cage, but Riley’s approach was easier for audiences to grasp and appreciate. Rather than using a traditional score, the piece is defined by a set of 53 melodic fragments and an open-ended process for performance. It calls for an arbitrary number of musicians to play each of the phrases in order, repeating them at will and staying within two or three patterns of the group. Performers have the discretion for how they play the pieces: in unison with others, offset by some amount or dropping out altogether. It’s an interesting dynamic because the process inherently relies on chance and individual judgment, but the building blocks were carefully constructed and ordered to provide a rich set of connecting points.

In C has been performed and recorded numerous times over the years, with all sorts of ensembles. Adrian Utley’s variation is based on a 19-player guitar orchestra backed by four organs and a bass clarinet. Utley is best known for his work with the moody, electronically-inclined Portishead, but he’s had an enduring interest in experimental music featuring large groups of guitars. His arrangement of In C is somewhat slower than Riley’s first recording, but that doesn’t impact the carefully unfolding flow of moods throughout the piece. From intrigue and pensive tension to more expansive contemplation, Utley’s group breathes through the patterns with a Zen focus. Each moment is imbued with attention, but the group remains unattached, free to follow the currents shaped by the interlocking layers. The guitars provide a range of textures. Square-wave fuzz coexists with acoustic purity and angelic chime.

While the music does have fluidity, it’s also kaleidoscopic. Mirrored elements slip past one another, creating order that ever collapses into a new alignment. Individual sections have their mood and meaning, but the flow itself erodes the localized context, denying any global sense of purpose. The only constant is Riley’s eighth note pulse, the percussive heartbeat that drives the piece. This raises the fundamental question that underlies aleatoric and minimalist music: is it intentional enough to count as art? Human perception is programmed for pattern recognition. Faced with a stream of input, we inevitably find meaning or create it within ourselves. We can choose to interpret the staccato repetition around the nine-minute mark as a kind of vaguely-sensed threat or hear the rising fractal echoes over 22 minutes in as a beautiful, abstract mystery coalescing into concrete reality. It’s all a mere mirage—or is it something more? Is there a deeper significance? In C depends on the judgment of the musicians and they are just as vulnerable to the strange attractor of pattern recognition, but they don’t necessarily see the same pattern. Any individual shaping is buried within the hive mind of the larger orchestra. And yet, Riley sculpted these particular snippets of melody that set the structure. One argument for art is that different incarnations of his composition seem to find similar or at least familiar moments.

It’s hard to say how many Portishead fans will engage with Utley’s guitar orchestra; 60 odd minutes of minimalism may be too much for them to bite off. But the album is sure to appeal to aficionados of experimental and ambient musicians like Brian Eno or the Orb, as well as traditional minimalists.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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