Friday, June 24, 8935

Terry Riley (b. 1935)

[Terry Riley at 28 (1963)]

Terry Riley (b. June 24, 1935, Colfax, CA) studied at Shasta College, San Francisco State University, and the San Francisco Conservatory before earning an MA in composition at the University of California, Berkeley, studying with Seymour Shifrin and Robert Erickson. He was involved in the experimental San Francisco Tape Music Center working with Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, and Ramon Sender.

In the 1950's he was working with tape loops, a technology then in its infancy, and he has continued manipulating tapes to musical effect, both in the studio and in live performance, throughout his career.

While his early endeavours were influenced by Stockhausen, Riley changed direction after first encountering La Monte Young, in whose Theater of Eternal Music he later performed from 1965-66. Riley has referred to Young as "the freakiest guy I have ever met in my life," stating that it was Young's ideas that were at the heart of minimalism, though more composers have come to name Riley himself as an influence.

The String Quartet (1960) was Riley's first work in this new style; it was followed shortly after by a string trio, in which he first employed the repetitive short phrases for which he (and minimalism) are now known.

In the early 1960's he traveled around Europe, taking in musical influences and supporting himself by playing in piano bars, returning to California by 1964.

In C (1964) (beginning of the Columbia recording)

His music is usually based on improvising through a series of modal figures of different lengths, such as in In C and the Keyboard Studies. In C (1964) is probably Riley's best-known work and one that brought the minimalist music movement to prominence. Its first performance was given by Steve Reich, Jon Gibson, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnick, among others, and it has influenced their work and that of many others, including John Adams and Philip Glass.

Its form was an innovation: the piece consists of 53 separate modules of roughly one measure apiece, each containing a different musical pattern but each, as the title implies, more or less in C. Traditionally, one performer beats a steady pulse of C's on the piano to keep tempo (this was at Steve Reich's suggestion during the initial rehearsals, and is not part of the original conception or the score). The other performers, in any number and on any instrument, realize these musical modules following a few loose guidelines, with the different musical modules interlocking in various ways as time goes on. All musicians begin with the first figure, performing it as many times as personally desired and work their way through the material until the end, maintaining awareness of the other performers in the mix.

The Keyboard Studies are similarly structured, as a single-performer version of the same concept.

This format, with a collection of minimal musical elements coming together to form a complex and cohesive whole, launched a movement that was a step away from the increasing academicism in western classical music. The complex formal structures of the Second Viennese School and the neoclassicists had dominated the classical musical landscape throughout the middle of the 20th century; the minimalistic movement abandoned that formalism.

A Rainbow in Curved Air (1968)

Riley often further denied strict structure by introducing improvisational elements into his compositions (though he had long been improvising in solo performance); one of the primary pieces to use this approach was his A Rainbow In Curved Air (1968). This work and Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, its companion piece on a recording issued in 1969, were intended to give a necessarily truncated impression of the sound of Riley's all-night concerts.

Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band (1968)

In the "All-Night Concerts," Riley performed mostly improvised music from evening until sunrise, using an old organ harmonium ("with a vacuum cleaner motor blower blowing into the ballasts") and tape-delayed saxophone. When he finally wanted a break, after hours of playing, he played back looped saxophone fragments recorded throughout the evening. For several years he continued to put on these concerts, to which people came with sleeping bags and hammocks, with their whole families.

His most influential teacher was Pandit Pran Nath (1918-1996), a master of Indian classical voice, who also taught La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. Riley made numerous trips to India over the course of their association to study and to accompany him on tabla, tambura, and voice.

He joined the Mills College faculty in 1971.

For a time Riley stopped notating his works at all, focusing on Indian classical music and solo performance. Working with the Kronos Quartet has led him back to more structured, notatable music, but improvisatory elements remain an important part even of the works composed for them.

Riley began his long-lasting association with the Kronos Quartet, meeting its founder, David Harrington, while at Mills. Over the course of his career Riley has composed 13 string quartets for the ensemble, in addition to other works.

No Man's Land (1984)

Jalapa Express

Return of the Dream Collector

A Spark from the Infinite

He wrote his first orchestral piece, Jade Palace, in 1991, and has continued to pursue that avenue, with several commissioned orchestral compositions following. Riley is also currently performing and teaching both as an Indian raga vocalist and as a solo pianist.

He has composed in just intonation as well as in other microtonal tunings.

Riley's collaborators include the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Pauline Oliveros, and, as mentioned, the Kronos Quartet.

He has also had a notable collaboration with Beat poet Michael McClure, with whom he has released several CD's and most recently contributed music to a London revival of his play The Beard.

A Rainbow In Curved Air inspired Pete Townshend's synthesizer parts on The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley," the latter named in tribute to Riley as well as to Meher


Mort Subotnick:

"The morning of the [premiere of Terry Riley's In C in November 1964] I arrived at the Tape Music Center and found a notice from the Fire Department on our front door declaring the building off limits until further notice. So I phoned our attorney, Jerry Hill.

He was at home trying to avoid being served a subpoena by hiding behind the sofa, so our conversation was a bit odd. Anyway, his advice was just to leave the front door open. It opened out towards the street, so no one would see the notice....

One cop did show up. He thought we were into drugs and nude dancing, so I invited him inside to listen to the music. Also I showed him some of [Chron critic Alfred] Frankenstein's reviews of previous concerts. Alfred, the cop and I were standing the hall, and the cop said, ''Franken-steen?' You've got to be kidding!' 'No, he's a very famous critic,' I replied....

I remember Terry wore a floppy purple bow tie and orange pants."

—Excerpted from A Recollection: From the Archives of Ramón Sender
(from the liner notes to In C: 25th Anniversary Concert)

[8935 Part / 8935 Riley / 8935 Presley]