Terry Riley: Get What You Need

For two months, I'd been planning to attend Terry Riley's appearance at Seattle's 536-seat Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall. For two weeks, I'd been planning to watch a presidential-candidate debate on television. Only one problem: As it turned out, the two events were scheduled for the same night. Even after a decade of trying to master the muddle known as multitasking, it was impossible to do both.

The resolution to the conflict was less challenging than you might imagine. Hearing Terry, who turned 85 in June, perform live one more time meant the world to me. After I left the Bay Area, I despaired of ever again encountering the man whose seminal minimalist composition, In C (1964), inspired Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams. Released in 1969, Terry's third album, A Rainbow in Curved Air, had an equally profound impact on the music of Mike Oldfield, Pete Townshend, Soft Machine, and many others.

In short order, his music became a focal point for a generation raised on the confluence of Eastern spiritual teachings, cross-cultural exploration, and psychoactive substances—a mix that found expression in the music of The Beatles, acid rockers, the writings of Ram Dass, and the poetry of James Broughton. Others, too.

Terry's music continues to inspire the Kronos Quartet, whose recording of Sun Rings delivered the 2019 Grammy Award for "Best Engineered Album, Classical" to mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, recording engineer Leslie Ann Jones, and mixing engineers John Kilgore, Judith Sherman, and David Harrington. Harrington founded Kronos in late 1973, first encountered In C in the late '60s, and has described its impact as being as powerful as hearing Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring for the first time. The two men subsequently met at Mills College in 1978 and began a life-long friendship.

My history with Riley dates back 35 years to one of Anna Halprin's early Planetary Dance performance rituals, where I was asked to append my whistling to Riley's accompanying music. I've interviewed Riley several times, including in a joint interview with Harrington for Carnegie Hall. If I'd had my shit together, I would have whistled on the 25th anniversary recording of In C.

I first got an inkling of the experience to come when I entered the recital hall, which is small enough to allow energy to spread from the stage to the last row in an unbroken wave. As I walked to my seat, I noticed an audience that, far from being dominated by aging boomers as I had expected, held mostly people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

This was, I think, only partly because Terry, who moved between amplified grand piano and electric keyboard throughout the evening, was sharing the stage with his guitar-playing son, Gyan Riley, who is more than 42 years his junior. As my mind briefly returned to politics, I realized that I was about to receive an answer to a frequently asked question: "How are we going to convince young people to vote?" Just give them something that moves and engages them—that brings them joy and gives them hope—and they will come.

Soon we were immersed in the compositions and improvisations of the Rileys as the two musical polymaths blended the Indian classical harmonies and vocalizations of Pandit Pran Nath (1918–1996) with electronic New Age space music, minimalism, bebop, jazz, and in Gyan's case, 21st century experimentalism. It was an indefinable mix, albeit one with an echt Riley stamp, that began in the stratosphere with celestial tinkling and flashes of musical light and descended to the gut with irresistible beats and swells that left people cheering. It was music that kept moving while, paradoxically, invoking an inner stillness that spoke peace between the notes.

As, elsewhere, on many screens, six politicians were trying to kick each other's butts, Terry and Gyan Riley presented music that brought together two musicians, four instruments, bodies, minds, and hearts. The Rileys created, out of 538 independent souls, a unified spirit in which openness, wonder, and optimism reigned.

Didn't make the concert? No problem. For less than the price of a seat, and far less than that of a campaign ad, the Rileys' music is available to anyone who wants to hear it. Two recordings from 2018, the duo's Way Out Yonder and Gyan Riley's Sprig, were being sold at the concert. That music, along with Sun Rings, 27 other albums by Terry, and five by Gyan, are available for streaming on Tidal and/or Qobuz.

As for Terry's late-career music, I especially recommend Sun Rings, which blends an intergalactic collage of real space sounds with Kronos's four traditional instruments, the award-winning chorus Volti, and the voices of Neil Armstrong ("That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind") and Alice Walker. Put it on a high-end system, and you've got an immersive experience that, even in only two channels, may transport you to a place that transcends time, space, and words. If the system excels at reproducing the sounds of strings, you may find this beautifully engineered recording more satisfying than it sounded live—although, unless you have attended a live Kronos performance, where the quartet is always amplified, how can you know?

cookiemarenco's picture

He was a hero of mine since the 70's. Brilliant guy. Jon Hassell mentioned him in an article today as well.

Kudos, Jason!

Cookie Marenco
Blue Coast Records and Music

TNtransplant's picture

Thanks Jason. How about organizing an In C performance at the next audio show, when they can resume, hopefully soon? Practice your whistling in the meantime.

'Persian Surgery Dervishes' is perhaps my favorite Riley album. Also a wonderful 2015 performance by the Africa Express collective on the album 'In C Mali'

Thought you might appreciate recent NY Times article on 84th birthday celebration for La Monte Young ( https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/22/t-magazine/la-monte-young.html ) which included a piece he had written for Riley 60 years ago. Apologies in advance as I'm not trained in musical notation but it went something like this:

Piano Piece for Terry Riley #1

Push the piano up to a wall and put the flat side flush against it. Then continue pushing into the wall. Push as hard as you can. If the piano goes through the wall, keep pushing in the same direction regardless of new obstacles and continue to push as hard as you can whether the piano is stopped against an obstacle or moving. The piece is over when you are too exhaust-ed to push any longer.

La Monte Young
2:10 A.M.
November 8, 1960

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you. Do you know of Yvonne Rainer's infamous dance piece where she picked up a vacuum and proceeded to vacuum for minutes on end? I suppose it was the sonic antithesis of John Cage's 4'33.

BTW, pianist Sarah Cahill has recorded a bunch of Riley's works for piano on Eighty Trips Around the Sun: Music by and for Terry Riley (Irritable Records). I reviewed it here: https://www.stereophile.com/content/tripping-terry-riley.