“It sounds like the music of the future,” he said as he put the CD on. He was right. It was the Organ of Corti release of a Swedish high school orchestra and choir performing Terry Riley’s Olson III in 1967. They sing and play with an amateur ferocity – this may be partly due to the audience, where a riot has broken out. The musicians win, with their implacable chanting. The rhythm and intonation are all slightly out, giving everything an otherworldly quality that suggests a mashup of the soundtracks to 2001 and Chariots of the Gods. Like any glimpse of the future, it was awe-inspiring and a little frightening.
Riley is synonymous with In C, a piece which still holds the new music world in its thrall despite being half a century old. Olson III is a similar work – a common pool of short, repeating patterns through which each musician progresses at their own pace – with the addition of a choir singing a text, but the voices are not the critical difference. In C has patterns with varying lengths and rhythms, and typically needs someone playing a pulse to keep time. In Olson III the orchestra and chorus is the pulse: all the patterns have the same length and unvarying rhythm.
That Cortical CD came out 15 years ago. I’ve never heard anything by Riley that’s like it, nor anything which is such an overwhelming, almost exhausting experience. I’d often wondered how much of this was due to the composition, and how much to the recording – the schoolkids, the restless audience, the fraught circumstances, the struggle to keep time, the ageing, long-lost tape.
Last night’s Kammer Klang at Cafe Oto ended with the Klang players and Exaudi playing Olson III. It’s not just the tape. Heard fresh, clear and direct, the music combines Riley’s typically bright and lucid harmonies with an atypical, almost forbiddingly rigid and unornamented rhythmic pulse. This impersonal aspect is then subsumed by the trancelike effect that builds in the listener over time. A type of ecstatic experience.
This really was the music of the future. From one moment to the next it evoked the interlocking figures of Steve Reich’s ensemble music from the 1970s (10 years later), the gleaming lock-grooves of those hip, rock-influenced composers of the 1980s (20 years later), trance and rave culture (30 years later), new generations of Europeans and academics “rediscovering” principles of digital reproduction and incorporating it into the concert hall (so last year).
Olson III is one of Riley’s more obscure compositions. Fifty years ago there was one solid idea, an idea so strong that nobody can even agree on whether it’s time to let it go.