Fanfare for bare action

First Night: American Pioneers, Barbican Centre, London
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The Independent Online
AMONG THE many delights of the Barbican Centre's American Pioneers season, which began last night, are performances from all the founding fathers of musical minimalism. In addition to Reich and Glass, La Monte Young, whose contribution is still insufficiently realised, and who has never performed in Britain before, will conclude the proceedings on 1 December.

What better way to open a box of such varied, and in several cases rare, delights than to mount a performance of Terry Riley's In C?

And who better to play it - and sing it too - than a motley bunch of musicians from many different walks of musical life, including Jarvis Cocker and members of the group Pulp?

If any single piece can be said to have made minimalism the familiar phenomenon it is today, In C is it. Its composer may have done a thing or two in the 34 years since its premiere. But with its glorious mixing of musical traditions, Eastern as well as Western, the work remains a very special statement of the potential inherent in the breaking down of conventional barriers between different types of music which the Barbican's festival celebrates.

The original San Francisco performances of In C evolved, Riley says, "by consensus, almost", without any written instructions for performing the 53 modules on which this open-ended improvisation is based. The composer has himself done much over the ensuing years to encourage interpretations to be conceived more as contributions to an ongoing exploration of the piece's possibilities than as merely a faithful reproduction of the score; Riley is, first and foremost, an improviser, after all.

Beginning with a controlled fanfare, this was a performance of clearly etched gestures, deploying very few modules at a time, with an unusual amount of dislocation as well as unison playing. Crescendi and diminuendi rose and fell in quick succession.

Despite the size of the ensemble - a group of 23 musicians (too dominated by saxophone and brass instruments), Riley himself playing piano and singing - oddly little happened at any one time.

The keyboard players of Pulp themselves - Cocker also singing - made little impact. Over its hour's length it was often curiously subdued. Interesting, yes; but scarcely among the more stimulating or imaginative performances I have heard.

In the first half, a sequence of later pieces, performed by the composer himself and the Smith Quartet, demonstrated a few of the sometimes imaginative and surprising ways in which Riley has embedded his trademark modal repetitions within a wide range of musical styles. These included the recent MissiGono, a doleful death chant leavened though in a rather protracted and fragmented manner by jazz-inflected rhythms and the old familiar pattern-making. Here Riley - as ever a captivating performer - was both pianist and, eventually, singer too.

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