May 28, 2008
Featured on the front page of the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times for Tuesday, May 27, 2008 is a remarkable picture of the pipes of the organ at the Walt Disney Concert Hall (facetiously referred to as the “French fries”), bathed in otherworldly deep rose and purple light. This striking photograph accompanies a review by LA Times Music Critic Mark Swed of the previous Sunday evening’s organ recital by hypnotic California composer Terry Riley. Riley, who considers the pipes’ gastronomical nickname “inelegant” (he has dubbed them the “radiant columns of Orfeo“—the organ itself he refers to as “Hurricane Mama”), was a pivotal figure in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Minimalist Jukebox” festival of two years ago. At that time, he was commissioned to create a new work, “Universal Bridge,” which Riley premiered after intermission in Sunday’s concert. For the first half of his program, he revised two classic pieces, first updating Persian Surgery Dervishes and then rearranging themes from his epic five-string-quartet cycle Salome Dances for Peace, which was selected as the Classical Album of the Year by USA Today and nominated for a Grammy Award in 1985.
Swed’s review is positive and appreciative; in fact, he states that, although his expectations for Sunday’s concert “were impossibly high, they were [nonetheless] exceeded.” Swed concedes that he has been a long-time fan of Riley’s music; he has attended his concerts since the 1960s and with other students, he waited in line for a Berkeley record store to open, to buy the first recording of “In C” on the day it was released. In C was written in 1964 and is an aleatoric piece of indeterminate duration that is based on interlocking repetitive musical patterns. It can be performed by “any number of people, although ‘a group of about 35 is desired if possible.’” The piece is often cited as the first minimalist composition; its influence can be heard not only in works of prominent composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, but in the music of a number of rock and new age groups as well. An 8 ½ -minute sample of “In C” can be heard here.
I first heard an excerpt of Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air in 1969 in a compilation of “New Music” that also included works of Lasry-Baschet, Harry Partch, Luciano Berio, Steve Reich, and Conlon Nancarrow. My curiosity and interest were sufficiently piqued to explore further not only these composers, but also Mort Subotnick, Edgard Varèse, Gyorgy Ligeti, George Antheil, Olivier Messiaen, and others.
So, who is Terry Riley anyway, and why should we be featuring him here in The Stream? Well, whether or not it was his intent, Riley launched what is now known as the Minimalist Movement in classical music. Swed calls him a “musical accumulator.” He is a virtuosic pianist and organist who began as a jazz musician and, at the age of 72, remains an inspired improviser of jazz music, appearing with saxophonist George Brooks, guitarist Gyan Riley, violist Tracy Silverman, and especially with virtuoso Italian bassist, Stefano Scodanibbio. But Terry Riley has also been an intuitive and discriminating listener to Asian influences and the music of Morocco and India, and he became convinced of the spiritual power of this music. In 1970, he began studying in India; he became a disciple of the North Indian Raga Vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, with whom he appeared frequently in concert as tempura, tabla and vocal accompanist until Pran Nath’s death in 1996. He continues to appear in duo concerts with Indian sitarist Krishna Bhatt, and he regularly performs solo piano concerts of his works from the past 30 years.
Riley’s multi-layered, polymetric, brightly orchestrated, Eastern-flavored improvisations and compositions have provided the basis for interest in The New Tonality today. While teaching at Mills College in Oakland, California in the 1970’s, Riley met David Harrington, founder and leader of the eclectic Kronos Quartet. That meeting began a long association that has so far produced 13 string quartets, a quintet, Crows Rosary and a concerto for string quartet, “The Sands,” which was the Salzburg Festival’s first ever new music commission, and the 2003 “Sun Rings,” a multimedia piece for choir, visuals and space sounds, commissioned by NASA. Cadenza on the Night Plain was selected by both Time and Newsweek as one of the Ten Best Classical Albums of 2006. Most recently, Riley has completed The Cusp of Magic for string quartet and pipa, a plucked Chinese instrument similar to a lute that can sound like a pizzicato violin or banjo. All About Jazz has published a review of the CD The Cusp of Magic that you can read here.
Riley’s innovative first orchestral piece “Jade Palace” was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for its Centennial Celebration in 1990 and 1991. The composition was premiered there by Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony. “June Buddha’s,” for Chorus and Orchestra, based on Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation in 1991. Other performers and ensembles that have commissioned and performed Terry Riley’s works include the Rova Saxophone Quartet, the Arte Saxophone Quartet, Array Music, Zeitgeist, the Steven Scott Bowed Piano Ensemble, the California E.A.R. Unit, pianist Werner Bartschi, guitarist David Tanenbaum, the Assad Brothers. Cello Conjunto, the Abel Steinberg-Winant Trio, the Paul Dresher Ensemble, and the Amati Quartet.
In 1999 Riley was commissioned by the Norwich Festival to compose a new work, “What the River Said,” which toured the United Kingdom with the group Sounds Bazaar, featuring the great drupad vocalist Amelia Cuni. A commission from the Kanagawa Foundation in Yokohama followed, to create an evening length work for solo piano in a micro tonal tuning. “The Dream,” which received simultaneous premieres in Rome and in Yokohama, was performed by the composer.
Terry Riley is currently at work on a set of 24 pieces for guitar and guitar ensemble called “The Book of Abbeyozzud” and has recently completed a book of 5 pieces for piano, four hands.