Terry Riley review – in the groove with the daddy of repetition

Barbican, London
The avant-garde composer led a leisurely survey of recent work, aided by son Gyan on guitar and the London Contemporary Orchestra, which built to the thrilling climax of his masterpiece, In C

Terry Riley was one of the more unlikely figures of the 1960s experimental music scene, shocking the avant-garde with his unapologetic tonality and relentless repetition. This appearance opened with some of his more recent music, in which the uncompromising ostinati of yore have mellowed into a more conventional jazz-inflected mode. Riley – sat bolt upright at the piano, beard plaited, rarely looking up – brought nimble melodies, spurts of rhythmic drive and occasional vocal melismas, while his son Gyan added filigree ornamentation on electric guitar. Despite Riley Jr’s clear attempts to launch a livelier musical dialogue, the set too often rambled at a pace dictated solely by his father.

The second half was another story: In C remains Riley’s best-known work – a piece whose series of melodic and harmonic mutations are specified but whose instrumentation and duration are left to the performers. The 20 musicians of the London Contemporary Orchestra (with Riley on piano) took a while to blend into the single, shapeshifting musical entity that the piece demands, and balance remained a challenge for an ensemble incorporating a viola da gamba and three underamplified vocalists alongside electric guitars and percussion.

But there were payoffs, too: thrilling moments of gear-change as individual instruments broke through to the surface, disrupting the established groove and setting in motion a new phase. And with chiaroscuro supplied by Dave Brown’s earthy double bass and Joel Garthwaite’s keening soprano saxophone, the LCO’s spread of instrumental timbres ultimately magnified the piece’s kaleidoscopic effect and its formidable, hard-won climax.

Flora Willson

The GuardianTramp

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