Terry Riley’s In C Mali
“Rules are not as important as results,” said composer Terry Riley in an interview with The Guardian. The rules to which he is referring are the instructions to his most famous piece, “In C,” from 1964, which uses 53 brief note-patterns and is driven by constant eighth notes playing the note C, often on a piano or marimba, serving as a metronome called “The Pulse,” to the delight of this alt-weekly.
Each performer plays each note-pattern in sequential order but is allowed to repeat it—with breaks according to the performer’s discretion—as often as desired before moving on to the next note-pattern. No two versions of “In C” are alike, and dozens of recordings of it exist, including string-only versions and even one performed with Chinese instruments.
The version at hand was recorded by the shifting ensemble Africa Express in the nation of Mali in 2013 with local performers along with a few western-world artists, including Brian Eno, Damon Albarn (of Blur) and Nick Zinner (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs).
The Pulse is performed on a kalimba (thumb piano), and a variety of other African instruments are used, including the kora (lute-harp), djembe (hand drum) and balafon (xylophone). Plucked strings meld and mingle with electric guitar lines, malleted percussion and wandering bowed strings, with the proceedings gradually loosen themselves from the constraints of the “In C” score, with gorgeous results.
The players often improvise outside the assigned note-patterns, which may upset compositional purists, who should be reminded that great composers such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were also considered great improvisers. It happens so subtly that it’s hard to notice, but the piece’s trademark feature—The Pulse—even drops out in the middle of the piece. Unexpected, at one point, a performer simply speaks about the time he learned to play the kora.
Terry Riley would agree that there’s plenty of room in the world for artistic rule-breaking, and this interpretation is one of the more satisfying and unique versions so far.
“After digging through my underground vaults, I found some more ill shit to smear in your ear,” says Spectre with a manipulated, pitch-lowered voice at the beginning of his 1998 hip-hop mixtape Ruff Kutz.
That’s not exactly the most welcoming and palatable image, but it’s an ample warning for the often dark, tense yet compelling hip-hop ahead, dubbed by some as the somewhat paradoxical “illbient,” the streetwise twice-removed cousin of ambient music that is simultaneously disquieting and atmospheric. Skiz Fernando is the overachiever behind Spectre (“The Ill Saint”) and the label Wordsound, and he’s also made films and even received praise in the culinary scene for his Sri Lankan cookbook.
Ruff Kutz is finding new life as a reissue on double-vinyl and as a digital download after its original 1998 run of 100 cassettes. After Spectre’s intro, the mixtape kicks off with “Crooked,” which lends its name to Fernando’s debut feature film; it has a heavy dub vibe with a deep, humid bass line, outdoor noises, echoing, understated drums and delay-treated samples of exotic plucked strings. “Sub Version” (also on the Macro Dub Infection Vol. 2 compilation) is a solemn hip-hop death march with a call-and-response between whimpering electronics and a swelling cymbal with samples ranging from horror to physics to barking dogs.
It’s not just a one-man show, with Ruff Kutz sporting pieces from other artists including rapper Sensational, Scotty Hard and Professor Shehab and even an appearance from the Jungle Brothers.
Lest we forget, affordable sampling technology in the ’90s really caused a lot of artists to go overboard with the appropriation of film and television dialogue (and numerous other sources), and by the end of the decade, it was no longer novel; in spite of this, Ruff Kutz has held up fairly well over the years, with its keen ability to set a mood, evoking the unease of walking alone at 3 a.m. in an unknown, foggy land.