In many ways, Terry Riley’s 1964 composition In C set the bar for musical minimalism. The single-page score collects 53 short melodic motifs, to be played in sequence, though not necessarily simultaneously, by any number of musicians with any variety of instruments. It is, in essence, a series of contradictions subject to the chemistry of whichever ensemble is performing it. “Minimalism began with this apotheosis. You couldn’t come up with something at once simpler and more sparkling than In C, or more relentlessly chugging yet so infinitely slow,” New York Magazine critic Justin Davidson wrote in 2009. “The piece should have led into an aesthetic cul-de-sac; instead it launched a movement.”
Davidson wrote to preview a Carnegie Hall performance of the piece by an ensemble led by Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington. The piece has also been performed by acts as disparate as the eclectic New York classical music troupe Bang On A Can and Japanese psych-rockers Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. The electronic music imprint Ghostly International released a recorded performance of In C in 2009, settling next to Com Truise and Matthew Dear in the label’s catalog.
Part of In C’s enduring appeal is, undoubtedly, its necessary spontaneity. Its open-ended instructions demand new treatments. “One of the joys of In C,” Riley wrote in his score, “is the interaction of the players in polyrhythmic combinations that spontaneously arise between patterns. Some quite fantastic shapes will arise and disintegrate as the group moves through the piece when it is properly played.”
Indeed, the piece can adapt a wide range of character. A performance last year at Central European University in Budapest adopts the symphonic grandeur of a John Williams score caught in a whirlwind. Bang On A Can’s sparser interpretation mutates the piece into a chain of nervous tension. There’s no telling how the landmark work of early minimalism will appear Thursday night when Will Robin & The Hep-Cats—an ensemble of 10—15 area musicians led by Robin, David Menestres and Shawn Galvin—tackle the piece at Nightlight in Chapel Hill. Menestres’ improvisational combo Polyorchard perform first.
Doors open at 9 p.m. with a $5 admission.