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Uncharted Territories 

Trailblazing composer Terry Riley still seeks out new sources for improvisation

Wednesday, Feb 24 1999
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Terry Riley isn't an easy person to track down. At least his albums aren't: I was in a record store recently looking for the Lisbon Concert, his brilliant 1995 recording of his own solo piano music, recorded on the final stop of his 60th-birthday tour. I found a handful of Riley CDs in the classical section, but Lisbon wasn't among them. I asked the salesperson if the store carried it; after a quick search on the computer, he said, "Oh -- that one's in the jazz section."

One of the greatest American composers of the 20th century, Terry Riley has been called the "Godfather of Minimalism" and the "Progenitor of New Age." His work has influenced everyone from Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams to Soft Machine, Tangerine Dream, and Curved Air, which named itself after Riley's early masterpiece, A Rainbow in Curved Air. Pete Townshend wrote "Baba O'Riley" in his honor. The London Sunday Times listed Riley as one of its "1000 Makers of the 20th Century."

If none of that has translated into popular appeal, it's not for lack of recordings. Riley has made dozens of albums over the course of his 35-year career, many of which have received their share of critical attention. But knowing exactly where to find his music is another matter. Go to Tower Records or CDnow online: While several of Riley's CDs are listed under "Classical," others can be found under "Jazz," "World," and "New Age."

Then again, Riley has been transcending categories ever since he took the avant-garde scene by storm in 1964 with his revolutionary minimalist work In C, described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "music like none other on earth." His original compositions are a combination of Eastern and Western musical styles, fusing repetitive, minimalist patterns with ragtime, jazz, impressionism, North African music, and Indian raga.

Yet Riley's music isn't derivative; nor is it postmodern pastiche. Through intricate and delicate pattern-weaving, the composer takes seemingly disparate languages and blends them into cohesive compositions. The unifying element, the idiomatic glue, is improvisation, which Riley seamlessly threads throughout his written works.

"It's my general, deep interest in improvisational forms that attracted me to these styles of music. I knew about jazz first," explains Riley, speaking from his ranch in the Sierra Foothills. "After jazz I became interested in the music of North Africa, and then India. But I think that all the forms of music which involve improvisation have interested me."

Riley began his career playing ragtime piano in North Beach, frequenting local clubs to hear the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. So it's no surprise that the composer hasn't prepared much for his piano recital at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall this Sunday. "Because there's going to be a lot of improvisation, a lot will depend on what kind of musical vantage point I have at that moment. To me, music is all about being in the moment," he says.

Born in 1935 in Colfax, Riley studied music at SF State and then Berkeley, where he received a masters in composition. "I was having a problem with my memory when trying to perform classical music," he says, "and I just felt like the pressures of always having to play the same piece perfectly the same way every time was too much. I thought the only way out of this was to compose my own music, and if I forgot something, I could make it up. And that," Riley concludes, "started me on my long career of crime."

Riley met the perfect accomplice at Berkeley: conceptual composer La Monte Young. "We drove the music department crazy," he recalls. "We would put on very radical concerts based on dada and the work of John Cage, and the university didn't approve of this. We became outlaws."

In addition to his work with Young, Riley performed all-night solo concerts at which he'd improvise on an old organ harmonium to a background of saxophone tape loops. "I would take things like Junior Walker and the All-Stars and cut it up and play it backwards." After school, Riley took his tape-loop experiments to Europe. "The last project I did over there was with Chet Baker and a theater group," Riley remembers. "I had Baker record pieces and then I'd cut them up into loops of little fragments of these melodies he was playing, and I'd make a composition out of them and have him play against them."

That experiment inspired In C. "After I got back to San Francisco, I was trying to create another piece like that -- a jazz piece based on loops that a group could play live," says Riley. "Sometimes when your mind is working in these ways, something very different will arise spontaneously. And that's what happened with In C."

Described in the Wall Street Journal as "as much a watershed as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was in its day," In C is a work of flexible length and instrumentation in which a piano strikes a uniform tempo -- the middle C key -- while an ensemble plays 53 separate figures. Each musician moves at his or her own pace until every player has reached figure 53.

When it was recorded in 1968, In C became an immediate success, even rivaling some rock albums in sales. Riley followed it up in 1969 with A Rainbow in Curved Air -- an improvisational, polymetric work that helped pave the way for the New Age movement that appeared a decade later.

But Riley was already seeking out new territories. In 1970, La Monte Young introduced him to North Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath. "I was hooked," explains Riley, who was immediately drawn to the repetitive and improvisational aspects of Indian raga. "I went back to India with him and spent six months studying intensely. And from that time, until he died in 1996, I studied with him every chance I got a moment." For the next decade, Riley devoted his time to Indian classical music, traveling to India and appearing with Nath as both a vocal and tamboura accompanist.

Perversely, just when he'd become popular, Riley seemed to have dropped out of the Western avant-garde scene altogether. "Fame wasn't that attractive to me," he says. "Music was what I was really crazy about, and Indian music held the keys to a lot of answers I was searching for.

"I always try to follow what I consider to be the best route for the development of the music," he adds. "Just to popularize doesn't work -- I have to be moved myself by what I'm doing. And usually that means that not everybody's going to get it."

One person who did get it was David Harrington, founder and first violinist of the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet. In the late '70s, Kronos was an ensemble-in-residence at Oakland's Mills College, where Riley was teaching raga and composition. "One day we were rehearsing in the concert hall," recalls Harrington, "and he came in to listen. After meeting him, the thing that was so clear was the warmth of his personality. And I just thought that a composer with this type of personality has got to write a quartet piece."

Riley had never written a string quartet before, but at last count, his fruitful association with Kronos has produced 13 compositions, including the acclaimed 1985 Cadenza on the Night Plain and 1989's Grammy-nominated Salome Dances for Peace.

"Cadenza on the Night Plain is so beautiful," says Harrington. "And Salome Dances for Peace is one of the major pieces of music that's been written for string quartet. There are moments in Salome that are amazing in their rhythmic complexity and sonic imagination. There's a movement called 'The Gift,' which is slow, like a raga. And there's a place where you hear the sound of the bow on the strings and it's a very high sound, and the intervals are half-tones, and the intonation makes the bows jump off the strings -- the instruments are so excited. It's astonishing to play. There's nothing like that in quartet music."

Riley's most recent compositions for Kronos, the Requiem Quartets, were completed last fall. Written in memory of violist Hank Dutt's partner, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud's baby, and David Harrington's son, the three quartets are a testament to the intimate friendship that composer and ensemble share. "The fact that Terry wanted to write these pieces means a great deal to us," says Harrington. "These kinds of relationships don't happen very often. And we should celebrate when they do."

Over the last few years, Riley has once again turned his attention to solo piano performance. "I have two kinds of work in piano," Riley explains. "One is where I retune the piano and play it more in the style of Indian music, and the other is based more on the traditional jazz harmonic language, and the language of the impressionists. And so as I go along and do more writing, I'm always looking for new harmonic relationships in piano music."

A calm and concentrated performer, sporting a bushy white beard drawn into a small braid under his chin, Riley appears more like an egoless Eastern practitioner than a cerebral contemporary composer. Music flows out of him in an eloquent, expressive blending of harmonies suggestive of everyone from Debussy to Coltrane, the written notes on the page wholly indistinguishable from the improvised.

"Improvisation is telling a story," says Riley, "and it depends on your being deeply in the moment all the time, so that you're listening as an audience would be listening for the next event that's coming."

Not that Riley's sure what he'll be doing next. "I really enjoy what I'm doing right now," he says. "Starting each work usually involves a lot of mystery for me anyway, in terms of where it's going to go."

Terry Riley performs Sunday, Feb. 28, at 3 p.m. at Hertz Hall, College & Bancroft, UC Berkeley campus. Tickets are $16; call (510) 642-9988.

About The Author

Stacey Kors

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