Terry Riley

Written by Dan Schwartz

Which Terry Riley?

I first heard A Rainbow in Curved Air before I heard Steve Reich, but I didn’t identify the album as being a part of anything, except the great exploratory music of the time. It was only retroactively that I heard it that way. But Riley is very much a progenitor of both Reich and Glass — though he rarely stays in one place.

It’s so hard to pin Riley down that I would have chosen NOT to write about him, but for a sense of obligation to the form. Not that I don’t love his works —- I do. It’s just very hard to know what to say. You begin near the beginning and who knows where you end up? (And by now, you know whether what I’m writing about in these pieces on “minimalism” is for you or not.)

Riley is credited historically with the invention of this form of music on his famous album In C (CBS Masterworks MK-7178) in 1968. The form probably came out about simultaneously in a number of places, and the circles I hang out in correctly attribute it to La Monte Young, if to any one person. But “In C” (1964) was the first “popular” composition in the genre; its recording followed in ‘68[1].

The Wiki: “In C consists of 53 short, numbered musical phrases, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats; each phrase may be repeated an arbitrary number of times. Each musician has control over which phrase they play: players are encouraged to play the phrases starting at different times, even if they are playing the same phrase. In this way, although the melodic content of each part is predetermined, In C has elements of aleatoric music[2] to it. The performance directions state that the musical ensemble should try to stay within two to three phrases of each other. The phrases must be played in order, although some may be skipped. As detailed in some editions of the score, it is customary for one musician (“traditionally… a beautiful girl,” Riley notes in the score) to play the note C in repeated eighth notes, typically on a piano or pitched-percussion instrument (e.g. marimba). This functions as a metronome and is referred to as “The Pulse”[3]. Steve Reich introduced the idea of a rhythmic pulse to Riley, who accepted it, thus radically altering the original composition by Riley which had no rhythm.

It was worth reproducing that explanation in full because it’s hard to imagine now just how revolutionary “In C” would have been at the time. But Riley’s next CBS album was a near complete change of direction. A Rainbow in Curved Air / Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band is an album of two studio improvisations, using techniques and ideas found in the recordings of Bill Evans and in Hindustani music[4]. And you might like this music if you enjoy listening to north Indian music (or vice-versa). You also might not. It’s impossible to talk about improvisational music, so for a description of what’s here look at this Wikipedia article. 

I honestly can think of no way of conveying what’s on these recordings, except to say that they’re sumptuous; droning, but not; with frenetic elements, but also very still.

Rather than go through a number of albums individually, I want to leap decades into the future, and discuss his solo piano recordings a little. I saw him in an improvised solo recital in Philadelphia in 2008. This man can play — I mean really play. The closest comparison I can make is to McCoy Tyner; it’s not that the music is similar, but to watch someone have so much joy spilling out of their hands…

The Padova Concert[5], like The Harp of New Albion[6], presents improvisations on a piano tuned in just intonation — in the case of the Padova, a highly treated piano. But unlike other recordings, he uses accidentals all over the place. The result is highly strange — and for ME to say something is strange, well…

They take some adjusting to listen to; your ear has to be attuned to the new and the weird. But if you can make that aural leap, it pays off. (But be warned, they’re very different recordings, quality-wise. The Padua Concert is small and mono; The Harp of New Albion is sort of vast. Nonetheless, I think my preference is for the Padova record.)

Shortly after I saw Riley, my pal Henry Kaiser recommended The Lisbon Concert[7]. Now this is an album on the level of some of Keith Jarrett’s recordings, minus the gospel (and all on one tonic). It’s more closely miked than Jarrett’s, but it’s just as far ranging. It’s lyrical, it boogies, it pounds. Is this jazz? Is it new music? Do I care? No, it doesn’t sound like you’re in the audience, it sounds as if you’re living inside the piano. But, man, is it good.

Spend a little time with Riley, he goes so many places, there’s bound to be something that appeals.



[2] “Chance music”, or randomness

[3] Played on the CBS album by Jon Hassell’s first wife, Margaret. See how it all comes together?

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKg_R1W94G0

[5] https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLQVY1aiJEdS4_-DndUV-yJfxcZfEw9vJT

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmgWeioQoTU

[7]  https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLPOXq9rsiVPMenigOAjsHqC3Ip4lNzX7y  

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