Poster Cellist Maya Beiser
Cellist Maya Beiser has reimagined Terry Riley's pioneering work In C, which helped launch the style of music called minimalism.
Boyang Hu/Courtesy of the artist

Cellist Maya Beiser's variation on a minimalist manifesto

Listen to the Story

Sixty years ago — Nov. 4, 1964, to be exact — Terry Riley's pioneering composition In C premiered in San Francisco. The event helped launch the style of music that would come to be known as minimalism. Four years later, a major-label recording enshrined the work in history. Many recordings of In C have followed, performed by groups of varying professional levels, ranging from symphony orchestras to ensembles of traditional Chinese and West African instruments.

The adventurous cellist Maya Beiser has now taken on In C, armed with just her instrument, a looping machine and a pair of percussionists, Shane Shanahan and Matt Kilmer. On an album titled Maya Beiser x Terry Riley: In C, Beiser puts her own stamp on the piece that is both mesmerizing and graceful, especially satisfying in passages where she unspools long, flowing cello lines above thrumming beats.

A word on how In C is built: Its blueprint is a single page containing no specified instrumentation, just 53 musical "riffs" — little modules that performers may play at their discretion, but in order. While the roughly hourlong piece is usually performed by at least a dozen or many more musicians, Beiser does the heavy lifting on this album with stacks of cello loops and her trusty drummers, who establish the all-important opening pulse of 120 beats per minute.

It's easy to cherry-pick little samples on this album, but that's not the best way to listen — rather, it's far more rewarding to surrender to large swaths of the music. That way, you can either zone out in a meditative state or zoom in, as if gazing at an Escher drawing or a Persian rug to discover fresh, hidden patterns. In the work's final section, you can hear one that morphs right before your ears, shifting like an audio Rorschach image.

The foundation for Beiser's version of In C is the droning low C-string of her cello. The metallic twang of the string careens off of drum beats in the second section, one of the album's many danceable moments. A third of the way through the recording, something surprising emerges: a human voice, proof that there is a person behind all of the loopy electronics. Beiser's husky chuffs intertwine with each other and the cello to create a hiccup effect called hocketing that dates back to medieval times.

Maya Beiser's new album is her personal take on Terry Riley's In C.
Islandia Music Records

Overall, less turns out to be more for Beiser. By limiting the instrumentation to cello loops and drums, she increases its transparency. The result leaves room for supremely exhilarating, interlocking grooves, something many performances of In C don't offer. Those polyrhythmic lines are strong enough to fuel an all-night drive on a lonely highway.

This album is a musical journey for mind and body — both a stimulant and a sedative. It offers many engaging stopovers, from an oasis of calm where the pulse evaporates, to Led Zeppelin-like headbanging reminiscent of "Kashmir," to moments where the cello loops interleave with the sweet delicacy of Vivaldi. If you have a spare hour to let this singular, hypnotic music wash over you, the world might just seem a little brighter.

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