Terry Riley, high-priest of minimalist music, still going strong at 80

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 July, 2015, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 July, 2015, 10:52pm


Terry Riley turned 80 on June 24 and, not unexpectedly, the honours for the mastermind of musical minimalism have been hardly minimal. London, Amsterdam and Paris have been taking particular note of the milestone, and a New York radio station offered a 24-hour Riley marathon as a salute.

But the big birthday bash needed to be in Los Angeles, where Riley - who was born and who still lives in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California - went to school and premiered his groundbreaking In C in 1964. It is also where he formed his most significant musical associations.

The closest relationship is with the Kronos Quartet. He has written 27 string quartets for Kronos over the past 35 years, and the ensemble held a three-day Terry Riley Festival at SF Jazz that began the night after his birthday with a variety of tributes.

Among them was a certificate of honour from San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee praising the composer as an appropriate representative for "a global centre of innovation". The California Arts Council offered a birthday proclamation using similar language.

Sporting a shaved head, a long white beard and a snappy, formal full-length black Indian coat, Riley looked like a cross between a diplomat and beatific sage with a twinkle in his eye. "I don't know what I did to deserve all this," he told the audience at SF Jazz.

I could have told him. So could everyone else in the room.

So, too, could have Yoko Ono and Pete Townshend. Kronos premiered Ono's astral birthday present to Riley, To Match the Sky, along with a pulsating new string quartet arrangement of The Who's Baba O'Riley.

For the past half-century, Riley has been a presence like no other on the musical scene. His appeal crosses cultures and generations. Among those who participated in the Kronos festival or composed birthday pieces for Riley were drummer Greg Saunier of the rock band Deerhoof, postmodern dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin, veteran Beat poet Michael McClure, Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain and Chinese pipa star Wu Man.

Yet Riley's incredulity was understandable in one way. The language of those government proclamations, well meaning though they were, likened the composer to a start-up, as though he were a college dropout who'd come up with a great new idea that had untold marketing potential. Riley's greatness is precisely the opposite. He has always remained apart from the mainstream musical community, pursuing - and passing on to receptive listeners - his musical bliss.

However much the pulsing short fragments of In C proved a starting point for the first generation of minimalists, it served Riley as a vehicle for reclaiming traditional tonal harmony, a beat and tart melodic gestures. Despite his knack for getting lost in repetitive cycles, Riley has become our most devoted musical fundamentalist. The longstanding traditions of improvisation, bebop, northern Indian vocal music, Renaissance choral music, Bach and French Impressionism are all now employed as part of his vast musical universe.

Still, even Riley's open mind once had its limits. When Kronos' founder, violinist David Harrington, told Riley in 1979 that "I hear quartets in your music", the composer insisted he had left the world of formal composition and musical notation behind and had been concentrating on keyboard improvisation and raga singing for the past decade.

Riley, on the faculty at Mills College in Oakland, had helped the young ensemble obtain a residency, and Harrington kept cajoling Riley into writing a string quartet.

Convinced that Riley would eventually come round, Harrington announced a Kronos concert with a Riley premiere. "I didn't have any choice except to write something," he said, laughing on the second day of the Kronos festival.

Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector turned out to be wonderful. Riley based the score on his hit 1969 solo recording A Rainbow in Curved Air, and employed melodic modules, as he had with In C. He continued to gingerly approach the new medium in his second-string quartet based on a catchy tune he used for improvisation, and G Song proved another delight.

Like Beethoven and Bartok, Riley has used the medium to explore his deepest emotions

Quartets then started to flow out of Riley. Working closely with Kronos to mould the sound and structures he wanted during rehearsals, he felt he hadn't given up the oral musical traditions he had become attached to. Yet he still had to work things out on paper, and this use of left brain and right brain together was what turned him into a complete composer.

In the meantime, Kronos had to get used to a new way of playing that went beyond merely interpreting a score. Harrington said at the festival that Riley's dislike of vibrato in particular is what he credits with creating the Kronos sound.

Five years after Sunrise, Riley had become so engrossed in the string quartet that he'd begun work on a cycle of five quartets lasting two hours when performed. Originally intended as a dance score, Salome Dances for Peace is loosely narrative music following a scenario about the biblical princess who returns to earth in a quest for universal harmony.

Sunrise and Salome served as rapturous bookends for Kronos' festival. Sunrise, which is never the same twice because of its indefinite structure and can be extended as long as the performers like, was the climax of the birthday tribute and full of surprises. Hussain added a percussive beat with his tabla, and more than a dozen other special guests joined in on a range of instruments from the West and East.

At one point, Halprin, who turned 95 on Monday, came out and danced directly for Riley, as though a miraculous later-day Salome, and decades seemed to fall away from both her and the composer.

"After this, I don't think Kronos can ever perform Sunrise again," Harrington said after the concert about what had long been a staple of the group.

Salome, on the other hand, is so demanding that Kronos has played the complete version only a handful of times and had not attempted it in 20 years. The marathon performance that ended the festival was a revelation - the-then 50-year-old Riley had poured everything he knew into the exuberant, shamanistic score full of dazzling intricacies and trippy side jaunts.

The intense performance was also a rite of passage for cellist Sunny Yang, who joined Kronos two years ago and who, at less than half the age of the other members, has brought new life into the ensemble. Another Salome, Yang was an unflappable anchor, hardly seeming to break a sweat while Harrington, violinist John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt were clearly drained but had, at least until the final pages, maintained incredible intensity.

A three-day festival could offer only a hint of the developing relationship between Riley and Kronos over the next 30 years, one unique between composer and ensemble in music history. Like Beethoven and Bartok, Riley has used the medium to explore his deepest emotions. When Kronos went through a series of tragedies in the '90s (three members of the group lost children or a partner), Riley wrote profound quartet music in remembrance.

In 2002, he created what may be his most magical score, Sun Rings, an evening-long quartet that incorporates sounds from outer space. In 2004, he helped Kronos through the final stages of its healing process with The Cusp of Magic, a work for strings and pipa that takes delight in new life.

Riley's quartets have been fewer and smaller over the past decade but no less resourceful. Transylvanian Horn Courtship uses strange old Romanian string instruments to which a resonating horn is attached. Another Secret eQuation is for quartet and irresistible children's choir. During the middle concert, Kronos played Riley's latest work, Crazy World, for which the ensemble was joined by the composer's son, guitarist Gyan Riley, and during which the composer himself sang an anti-war song.

Many composers have done their own tributes to Riley. A week before the Kronos festival, pianist Sarah Cahill gave a recital in Oakland of works by such composers as Pauline Oliveros and Samuel Carl Adams that she'd commissioned in his honour. Kronos asked half a dozen composers to listen to as much Riley as they could and write brief responses. One was a heavenly minute by Joan Jeanrenaud, Kronos' cellist from 1978 to 1999.

Father and son, on keyboard and guitar, joined Kronos for the premiere of Gyan Riley's gently lyrical The First Pancake, dedicated to his mother, whose birthday was a few days before her husband's. But those were just the qualities I missed in an attempt to update A Rainbow in Curved Air by Kronos and the electric guitar-percussion duo The Living Earth Show.

There haven't been many new recordings. Nonesuch Records has just released an elegant five-CD box set that gathers all the Kronos/Riley recordings and includes a 10,000-word essay by Gregory Dubinsky. The birthday offering of the four-hand piano duo Zofo, guests of the Kronos festival, is a dazzling disc of arrangements of Riley works. Africa Express' In C Mali spreads joy by reimagining the classic with African musicians joined by a few Western stars, including Brian Eno and Damon Albarn.

But Riley's outsider status remains intact when it comes to his concertos (including one for Kronos and orchestra) and other recent orchestral works. Few are programmed this year; none has yet been recorded. What has he done to deserve that?

Los Angeles Times