BIG EARS 2010: Terry Riley

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Minimalism was never quite the right thing to call Terry Riley’s music. His first major work, In C, written in 1964 and usually considered the starting point for minimalism, is anything but minimalist—it’s a gigantic ensemble piece made up of 53 short, repeating phrases that overlap and loop in and out of each over the course of a performance, which can last a few minutes or a few hours, depending on who’s playing it and how. Riley’s notes offer only a few guidelines for how each part is to be played. It’s a repetitive piece, but its effect comes from the layers of interlocking parts that get stacked on top of each other, often in unexpected and unpredictable ways, during the repetition. It’s a massive piece of music.

All of the major composers who have been called minimalists—Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich—have bristled at the term. But while Glass and Reich, enmeshed in New York’s downtown art scene in the 1970s, perfected a slick, sleek, urban model of composition that somewhat matched the label, Riley’s been the form’s wild-eyed hippie mystic guru. As minimalism moved east, he stayed in California. When Glass and Reich were composing dense, academic pieces, Riley was holding all-night concerts featuring harmonium, saxophone, and tape loops. His work immediately after In C, informed by John Coltrane and the music of Morocco, was on a grand scale: the 18-minute recording of his psychedelic synthesizer vamp A Rainbow in Curved Air, from 1967, and the gargantuan double-disc Persian Surgery Dervishes, two drastically contrasting performances of the same concert piece, from 1971 and ’72.

Riley’s key contribution to American music, more than the introduction of small, repeated phrases that were the building blocks of minimalism, is the spirit of openness and searching that fills his work. Riley’s first major influence was La Monte Young, whose interest in long tones, extended performances, and open-ended composition set the stage for minimalism in the early 1960s. Through Young, Riley met his second great influence, the Indian singer and teacher Pandit Pran Nath, with whom he had a profound relationship for more than 20 years. From both, Riley seemed to learn that technique is a tool, that composition and notation are only guides to performance, and that music’s ultimate ends lie somewhere between the instrument, the performer, and the audience.

“To me a musician really has a chance to create magic whenever he’s playing, and I find it really rare and inspiring to play for people,” he told the journalist Robert Palmer in a 1975 interview for Down Beat magazine. “Sure, I want to create a kind of hypnotic effect on the public. I want to create a kind of concentration on a musical idea so that people can go inside themselves and comfortably follow the development, until they slowly rise up and disappear into the clouds.”

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