Originally published at TSB in May 2010
Long time readers of this site might know that I am an enthusiastic fan of Steve Riech, and that I wrote a piece for The Silent Ballet shortly after our launch on Reich@70, the 2006 celebration of the composer’s seventieth birthday. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble was also at that show, studying the man himself in a fabulous performance of Music for 18 Musicians. The next year, I learned of our crossed paths when the group released a fantastic version of Music for 18 of its own, garnering much deserved praise for its fresh interpretation.
The GVSU New Music Ensemble has returned, proving that it isn’t a one trick pony but rather a truly consistent and unique creative voice. Here it records a fantastic rendition of Terry Riley’s 1964 masterpiece In C. In contrast to the academic serialist music common at the time, notably Babbit, Boulez, Stockhausen, and so on, In C was a minimalist ray of sunshine in the bleak waters of dissonance. The piece can be played with varying numbers of performers and features fifty-three phrases which can be played for various numbers of repetitions, giving each performance a unique articulation. GVSU’s version is somewhat short, just over twenty minutes, and is the last recording on this double disc set. This is because the real emphasis here is on the eighteen remixes by a diverse cast of composers and musicians, many of whom fans of contemporary classical and experimental, genre-bending electronics will recognize. The semi-aleatory nature of the piece, and its wide reaching influence, makes it the perfect work for this sort of project, and I can say that it is without a doubt a success.
In bringing together these talented artists to reinterpret a classic of late twentieth century classical music, the ensemble has taken on a grander task: the often disastrous classical remix album. (See, for instance, many of the attempts to remix Music for 18.) A remix album is difficult enough to pull off in any genre, but classical music presents entirely unique obstacles. Surprisingly, the album works on multiple levels, and it even manages to flow from one track to the next when one listens to it straight through. Though the styles at times vary greatly, somehow the double disk manages to stay true to the spirit of the original work while simultaneously blazing with originality. That being said, some of my favorite mixes are, in the end, perhaps too out of place and distant from the tone of Terry Riley’s vision, which is made most clear when heard in context of the original. In C was a cheerful, uplifting response to the dissonance and cacophony of the era, and it seems somewhat wrong to inject those chaotic elements into the work. All things change, however, and executive producer Bill Ryan deserves credit for bringing together such a complementary cast of interpreters, some of whom (Zoë Keating, Glen Kotche, Paul D. Miller, Daniel Bernard Roumain) performed with the group.
As mentioned previously, the GVSU New Music Ensemble have included its somewhat short rendition of In C—one which deserves attention in and of itself. This recording also acts as the source material for the eighteen contributing remixers. Because of the scope of the project, it is not necessarily geared towards fans of classical music or minimalism, but also towards fans of other styles of music as well, those who have been inspired by Riley’s revolutionary work. The record features mixes from several genres and styles, establishing a genealogy of influence in places one might not think of. In the following, I will say a few words about each of the contributors, as it seems unfair to gloss over any of them.
The disc begins with a mix by Jack Dangers, the composer behind Meat Beat Manifesto. His treatment of the track is pretty; it’s moodier than the original but keeps with its open, uplifting spirit. It is triangle-heavy in setting the tempo, while later featuring crescendo-ing, swirling oohs ala Boards of Canada. Dangers is also one of the contributors who has more than one track, the second of which has a more kinetic beat, but it is generally in the same style.
Masonic, the stage name of Mason Bates, straddles a similar blend of classical composition and electronics, but his remix is more beat-driven, almost into glitch territory; it is slightly reminiscent of Kaishiwa Daisuke with its stuttering vocal lines. Through the aural distortion, cyclic instrumentation, and reverb-heavy firework synths, Reilly’s In C is here revealed as a theoretical justification for this sort of strophic electronic music.
Glenn Kotche, the drummer of Wilco as well as an accomplished solo artist and collaborator in his own right, creates a dark, almost distrusting take on In C. Reminiscent of Ben Frost, the electronic noise he adds builds and settles, always increasing the tension and transforming the piece. Its electronics and low-end gives it a muddiness that seems out of place.
Michael Lowenstern’s “Bints Mix” is high energy and electronic, but springy and upbeat. When the synth bass enters in spin cycle, it is offset by the already perky piano and shakers line. Lowenstern is a bass clarinetist, though his mix is not heavy on his own instrument; rather, he layers more and more parts, anchored by an ambient synth lead and guided by a somewhat fragmented beat, the result of being cut up and randomized, creating a never-repeating percussive line. The other instruments are on a loop, and therefore the programmed drums create the most unpredictability and drive. His second take on the piece, “Foster Grant Mix,” is more subdued, yet plays with the dynamic potential of the piece in interesting ways.
If the reader can only listen to one remix on this album, make it “ZINC” by Zoë Keating. A former member of the cello-driven Rasputina, Keating has garnered attention for her own work as a solo artist in recent years, creating beautiful cello pieces with a loop system. Her version begins with sparse, solo piano note, high notes anchored by low accompaniments as additional instrumentation slowly adds to the stream. After almost three-quarters of a minute, the cello makes its appearance, and the trickle of the music gradually builds to a torrent. This is quite simply the most beautiful execution of In C on the album.
Jad Abumrad is perhaps best known as co-host of NPR’s Radiolab, but he is also a composer. His remix incorporates material from the show, a recording of a mother teaching her young daughter to count, as well as recordings of Abumrad’s own recent familial addition. Viewing the piece through the eyes of a child learning to count, imposing a numeric lens for viewing the piece, results in an interesting and unique take on Riley’s masterpiece.
“In C With Canons & Bass” by Nico Muhly, a prodigious young composer and TSB-regular, is another standout mix. Though relatively conservative and closer to the original, Muhly maintains pulsing marimbas while exploring layering timbres of many different traditional instruments, with the oboe and bass clarinet standing out. Muhly manages to build tension and release brilliantly, and he demonstrates that the piece can still be interpreted uniquely without adding melodrama, modern dance beats, or electronic treatments.
DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, aka Paul D. Miller, is not a stranger to the art of remix, nor is he a stranger to the genre-bending of classics. (Just consult his recent output.) “In Sea of C” throws a breakbeat behind the GVSU material and surprisingly sounds pretty good. A bit of tension emerges between the steady beat and the shifting pulsations of the orchestra, but in the best way, and it is relived as the bass drops in.
Composer Phil Kline is best known for his Unsilent Night boombox compositions and his 2004 CD Zippo Songs. His remix relies very little on the raw material, working with little snippets, creating a dissident and sparse composition; bird noises in the background add to the sense of natural cycle.
Denis DeSantis’ mix is very glitch-centric and beautiful, giving the pulses a different groove. His wooshes and beeps also reveal eight note melodies, and his are the most dance-y and grooving tones of the bunch.
Daniel Bernard Roumain’s version draws on various styles and is perhaps the nexus of the set, acting as a good middle ground for the release. Roumain adds a beat and some dramatic elements, but keeps the vibe consistent. This is a powerful remix that manages to incorporate the original material while utterly transforming it.
Next up is “Xenoglossia” by NY-based sound collage duo Mikael Karlsson and Rob Stephenson. Their version starts off slowly, though a bit noisily, and it is the most fragmented of the bunch, without the groove or rhythm of the glitchier tracks or the outright dance breaks of the more techno tracks. Their mix is a bit of a departure, particularly because the groove is lost when listening to the release straight through; that being said, it is one of the most interesting mixes present and showcases the broad potential of Riley’s piece.
R. Luke DuBois’s take, “Is in C in F?”, plays with the melodic ambiguities of the piece and is in close competition with Keating for most beautiful rendition of the set. A sort of drowned marimba pulse acts as the metronome against which other instruments emerge and recede, giving the whole piece a blurry, surreal feeling.
Following this is a piece by a collaborator of DuBois, the composer and violinist Todd Reynolds, best known for his work with Bang on a Can. Another string performer who uses looping software to augment his compositional practice and live performance, Reynold’s remix also demonstrates the influence of such minimalist pieces on new compositional voices, making efficient use of repetitions of fragments. The piano riff towards the middle stands out for some reason. Surprisingly, the violin doesn’t play a prominent role, if any. The piece does build to a suitable climax, with increasingly exuberant percussion.
Kleerup’s remix is probably of the sort one might anticipate (and dread) from such a project, with a pop/hip-hop sounding dance beat, electronic synths, and claps. Though it may seem a bit contrived, this mix has grown on me, and is again proof that In C is not only versatile but influential across many genres.
The final remix before GVSU’s own interpretation is by David Lang, one of the founding members of the previously-mentioned Bang on a Can. Unsurprisingly, it sounds like a Lang piece. The various instruments seem to be crying out, their wails blending into one another. Its pace is plodding, particularly compared to the up-tempo mix that preceded it. I can’t question Lang’s artistry, but his version is so moody and dissonant that it hardly feels like In C at all. In fact, it is a bit of a downer, and luckily GVSU ends the disc with the best tribute to the composer, a concise and clear interpretation true to the original.
Forty-six years after its debut, In C is somehow both underappreciated and more influential than ever. Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble has done the piece justice, with not only a novel interpretation but by successfully engineering such exciting remixes, showcasing the broad influence of this mid-twentieth century masterpiece. The rare, successful classical remix album, In C Remixed, will likely be the new benchmark for such crossover attempts, and it comes highly recommended.
(Editor’s Note: If you enjoy GSVU New Music Ensemble’s treatment of In C, they also have recently pressed a (somewhat) more conventional sixty-five-minute-long performance of the piece, recorded live at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge.)