CAMBRIDGE - The wind in the local new-music scene often blows in decidedly uptown directions, but the 73d birthday of minimalist pioneer Terry Riley this week did not go completely unnoticed. The Boston-based art-rock band Birdsongs of the Mesozoic has been hosting a salon series at the postage-stamp-size Outpost 186. On Tuesday, by way of a Riley birthday tribute, Birdsongs invited some friends - Vessela Stoyanova and Valerie Thompson from Fluttr Effect, and composer Marti Epstein - to form a seven-piece band that took on Riley's roiling, iconic score "In C."
This landmark of modern art music, often cited as the true opening blast of minimalism, was written in 1964 and premiered at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. (Steve Reich was one of the performers.) Serialism had been the dominant force in contemporary music but Riley's work seemed to explode every one of its tenets like a Molotov cocktail.
This marvelously protean piece can be played by ensembles of any size and instrumentation. Its score consists of 53 distinct melodic cells that individual players are encouraged to repeat as many times as they wish before proceeding to the next. The music morphs slowly yet constantly as different patterns emerge, like a kaleidoscope for the ears. Performances can vary wildly in their length and approach, but the best ones convey something of the joyful spirit of liberation with which this music first came into the world.
Flashes of that spirit appeared on Tuesday night, though occasional rhythmic imprecision, dynamic uniformity, and a certain expressive tentativeness kept this performance from truly scaling the heights. Still, it was an invigorating pleasure to hear this work played live in such close quarters. Guitarist Michael Bierylo set things in motion by producing the work's pulse on a laptop, and much of this reading's distinctive quality came from the unusual blending of Ken Field's saxophone, Thompson's cello, and Stoyanova's marimba lumina. The dense web of sound was nothing if not a full-ensemble creation.
This performance clocked in at just about one-half hour (the night also included some group improvisation) and the audience was not much larger than the band on stage. Rather impressively, one man brought his baby, who was wide awake in the front row, taking it all in. Her father apparently places more faith in Riley than in Raffi, when it comes to expanding the mind.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.