It is a rare classical concert that consists of the same substantial piece played twice, back to back. Terry Riley’s In C, the cornerstone of this year’s Transcender season, proved it could just about handle the task. In the same way that John Cage’s 4’33”, although traditionally not-played on a piano, can in fact be not-played by any instrument or combination thereof, so In C – probably the second-best-known aleatory classic – is less a score than a set of instructions. There are 53 sections, each a repeating phrase, but each musician decides how long to repeat each one for, so that they fall in and out of synchronisation, and no two performances are the same.
The Barbican offered two “remixes” of In C: the first from the chamber group stargaze, manipulated in real time by Matthew Herbert; the second from the Norwegian all-percussion group The Bell Laboratory with added electronic beats from Pantha du Prince, the nom de laptop of the German DJ Hendrik Weber.
Both performances were accompanied by a colossal light show – now, apparently, rebranded “ephemeral cinema” by 1960s veteran Joshua Wright (here joined by six confrères). The experience was overwhelming: sometimes overshadowing the music and in some cases for the better.
In C contains the seeds of much minimalist music – the endless reaching for a climax that never quite arrives might have inspired Philip Glass; the echoing horn phrases from the stargaze version, like a hunt distantly heard in a neighbouring valley, felt as if they foreshadowed John Adams’ Tromba Lontana. Most of all, it inspired Steve Reich, who indeed played in the work’s 1964 premiere. There was the shimmering eighth-note pulse, which would later drive Music for 18 Musicians; and the tension-and-release of shifts in and out of phase as the musicians dragged behind a phrase or shifted back can be heard in Reich’s phased compositions.
As stargaze played, Herbert sampled, folded and doubled back the sound, occasionally throwing in a disruptive blurt of sound. On the screen, lysergic imagery unfolded: string sharks turned into pterodactyls turned into angels; points of light and atoms and planets danced like bees; once, as the music climbed upwards in an endless spiral, a blue flower bloomed in ageless slow motion.
The Bell Laboratory started behind the screen in silhouette, striking hand instruments against a backdrop of inky growing trees, then emerged for an all-percussion version. For the first few minutes this worked perfectly – six men in sparklingly clean aprons playing a carillon, marimba, xylophone, occasionally shaking handbells: a metallic sparkling surface that, this time, recalled the Reich of Music for Mallet Instruments. But when du Prince’s contribution started, the sparkle was drowned out by a four-square beat that quickly grew monotonous; less a remix than an imposition. The Bell Laboratory spent more time in sync than their predecessors, and the result was wearying. The suspicion grew that the best version to be had would have been stargaze and The Bell Laboratory together, unadulterated by any mixing at all.