Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Minimalism Unwrapped @ Kings Place, London

10 January 2014

Elliott Sharp(Photo: Merri Cyr)

Elliott Sharp
(Photo: Merri Cyr)

It would have been inconceivable for Kings Place not to feature Terry Riley’s In C in its Minimalism Unwrapped season. Now a classic of the genre, this 1964 work heralded the arrival of minimalism as an identifiable musical movement.

Of variable length (this performance by players of the London Sinfonietta lasted about 50 minutes) in C is built on 53 melodic modules constructed from the C major scale. It can be played by any kind of instrumental combination, and players may enter or exit as they please, alter tempi, repeat the melodic fragments as often as they wish, and improvise freely.

A total of ten performers (on piano, percussion, woodwind, brass and strings) plus guest player Elliott Sharp on electric guitar arranged themselves (mainly standing) in a semi-circle and allowed the audience to sit back, chill out and nod off if they felt like it. Not that many did. The rhythmic and melodic repetitions were never boring thanks to Riley’s sanctioned strays beyond C, and the players’ superbly aligned ensemble work, well-judged dynamics and technical precision. Several other elements stood out: the restrained brass gave warmth and suppleness to the repetitions; Sharp’s electronic strumming added a modern metallic edge to the traditional instrumental line-up; the wood players’ contrapuntal interjections recalled Bach and neo-classical Stravinsky.

The other works in the concert, occupying the first half of the programme, inevitably paled in comparison to Riley’s. Michael Nyman’s In C Interlude of 2005 was distinctly second class. A single melody (taken from his score for the 2004 film The Libertine) on a single instrument looped round and round, with extra players joining in until the full ensemble climax. Equally formulaic was Na’ma Zisser’s Drowned in C. Although the writing was undeniably complex, the aural result was a repetitive glut of sound.


Sounds of a more intriguing nature came from Unsleeping by composer Robin Rimbaud (who uses the nom de plume Scanner). His computer-based work re-imagined Riley’s In C as if heard by Rimbaud himself as a sleeping baby (he was born just six months before In C’s premier). Throbbing pulsations, hospital beeps and snatches of Riley’s work gave it a hypnotic, ironic air. Stephen Montague’s 1976 Eine kleine Klangfarben Gigue was more vintage minimalism. The composer was a genial on-stage host during the concert, but his piece has not worn well. The first four bars of a Bach gigue were overplayed for ten minutes, with instrumentalists eventually leaving the stage one by one, à la Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.

Further details of Kings Place concerts can be found at kingsplace.co.uk

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Minimalism Unwrapped @ Kings Place, London