Adrian Utley records Terry Riley's In C for electric guitars

Photo: Marc Bessant

In 1964 Terry Riley composed In C, hailed as one of the first minimalist compositions, comprising 53 short phrases of music to be played consecutively by a collection of musicians in any octave, at any speed, with any instruments. In performances, each phrase is repeated as many times as the individual performer wants, the only rule being that players must stay within two or three phrases of each other. The piece ends when all players reach the final 53rd phrase.

Riley's original recording was half an hour long, and was released on vinyl in 1964 (it faded out on side A, and back in for side B). In C is a perennial classic, recorded and released every couple of years, and seemingly always being performed somewhere in the world. Almost 50 years later Portishead's Adrian Utley has recorded his own version that's over an hour long, with a 19 strong orchestra of electric guitars (which includes John Parish, Portishead bass player Jim Barr, members of Thought Forms and others) backed up by four organs (played by Charles Hazlewood) and a bass clarinet.

Utley's version is slower than the original, more austere, and texturally it's very different due to the reduced palette of instruments, recorded in just five mics. "I wanted ours to be more linear, with all the same instruments," he says, audibly excited. Utley originally performed In C two years ago at St George's church in Bristol, and again in February this year, this time recorded, mixed and overdubbed with organ (Riley's original piece was double tracked, with everyone playing twice). "Once you start playing [In C], you're off, that's it," he says, "you've jumped off the top of the mountain and you're floating down."

Utley still feels there's potential in the sound of massed guitars, despite the enormous inroads made by Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham in the last few decades. Branca was the starting point: "I have been doing this because of Glenn Branca," he says. "John Parish [PJ Harvey's guitar player] played me Branca for the first time, and I was completely blown away. Like it was something I'd been waiting to hear for most of my life. I've always been interested in the sonic possibilities of the guitar that are outside traditional playing... so it was really exciting to me to know that there's a future in that – an orchestral attitude towards writing for it."

He talks about working with non-traditional tunings, and playing with objects: "If you get 20 people hitting their guitar with a piece of metal, or with a wooden stick," he says "It's a phenomenal noise, and with them all retuned it's brilliant. That's exciting to me."

But there's a doubt, certainly in my mind, around a new recording of such a well worn composition: In C has been recorded so many times before is there room, or requirement for another? "I had to let that thought go," says Utley. "Although I'm still worrying about it. It's the nature of the piece that it'll be different every time you play it, and I could forever worry that we hadn't done the new definitive version. But I'm happy with it, conceptually and sonically, and with the performance...for today anyway."

In C by Adrian Utley's Guitar Orchestra is released on Geoff Barrow's Invada Records on 30 September.

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