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Terry Riley

Terry Riley Dances On

By James M. Keller

New recordings by Kronos Quartet and ZOFO draw welcome attention to the transcendent chamber works of one of contemporary music’s boldest innovators.

Minimalism has mostly come and gone, its traits long since absorbed into the ceaseless river of musical development. But when it arrived, now a half-century ago, it did so with the scintillating effect of a cold-water bath. It is surely true that contemporary concert music included diverse strands in the 1960s; but for the East Coast avant-garde establishment, the most exalted was serial or post-serial and, for most listeners, it was easier to respect than to love. To some extent, the minimalists came creeping in from the side door, entering not by way of blue-chip concert halls but rather through lofts and art galleries. Indeed, my first live encounter with high-end minimalism came in 1973, when I was in college. The concert featured the Philip Glass Ensemble playing that composer’s Music in Similar Motion and Music in Twelve Parts, and the event was funded and presented not by the school’s conservatory of music, which by then should have been knee-deep in that sort of thing, but rather by the college’s art department, which viewed it as relating to, say, Brice Marden, Larry Bell, or Donald Judd.

Kronos One Earth


By that time, minimalism was already well established as a musical force, having achieved its first enduring classic in 1964. That piece was In C, by Terry Riley, and it remains frequently performed to this day. In a concert world that had imposed tremendous control over its notes, In C was an act of liberation. It comprised 53 brief motifs that were to be repeated over a pulsation, with the number and spacing of those repetitions, and even the instrumentation involved, being left to the circumstances of each performance, and the whole of it firmly anchored on (though not limited to) the note C. We could perhaps claim it as a piece of chamber music in that each of the cells could be played by a single musician, although the composer did envision forces that exceed normal chamber proportions. “Any number of any kind of instruments can play,” reads his directive in the score. “A group of about 35 is desired if possible but smaller or larger groups will work.” William Duckworth, interviewing Riley for his invaluable 1995 book Talking Music, asked if the composer thought he was writing a minimalist piece. “No,” responded Riley. “The word didn’t even enter my mind during that period. I was thinking of some kind of mystical experience. Magic through music. … Magic in the sense of transcendence of this ordinary life into another realm.”

His compositions of the ensuing decade and a half didn’t usually play out the defining ideals of minimalism as much as In C had, even as that composition remained a foundational text of the movement. Instead, he proceeded along a highly personal path, one that emphasized the spiritual aspects—the magic and transcendence—to which he alluded. Translated into the culture of the 1960s and ’70s, that was very likely to have something to do with recreational pharmaceuticals. “I was never concerned with minimalism,” Riley told Duckworth, “but I was very concerned with psychedelia and the psychedelic movement of the sixties as an opening toward consciousness.”

During the 1970s Riley released a handful of pieces that were widely embraced as soundtracks to mind expansion by the illicit pharmaceutical crowd: Persian Surgery Dervishes (1972), Descending Moonshine Dervishes (1975), Shri Camel (1978). These were large-scale, unhurried, often hypnotic improvisations that the composer played on electronic organs tuned to just intonation (essentially the tuning system of Indian classical music). They unrolled according to the principles and techniques of raga, and yet one might view aspects of them as relating to minimalism, perhaps finding a point of contact with the near-infinite repetitions and comparisons of lightly traced line that make Agnes Martin’s paintings so fascinating. Riley performed these pieces in concert, never the same way twice; but most listeners encountered them through live or studio recordings—as electronic disseminations of electronic sounds, concretized versions of what had been inspirations of the moment. “I had gotten to the stage in the 1970s where I didn’t feel there was anything worth writing down, that it was enough just to play music,” Riley told Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker Smith, in an interview published in their book New Voices (1995).

That changed in 1980, when Riley became acquainted with the Kronos Quartet. The group, which was just at the beginning of its extraordinary career, was emerging out of the same California new-music scene in which Riley was pursuing his introverted explorations. “Right away, I felt Terry was a quartet composer,” writes David Harrington, one of the ensemble’s violinists, in the booklet accompanying Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector: Music of Terry Riley, one of two collections of the composer’s music released in 2015 by Nonesuch Records. “There’s something about his generosity of spirit that made me think, ‘I want this man’s music in our work.’” Riley’s initial compositions for the group had much in common with his organ improvisations. The CD’s title track, written in 1980, tingles with quiet energy, never modulating but dancing lightly along shifting segments of a scale founded on the note A. Another work from the same year, G Song, reaches back to a piece Riley had used in a film score in 1976, in this case melding his improvisational method with sounds reminiscent of jazz and late-Baroque music, which were among Riley’s musical passions.

By now, Kronos has commissioned 27 works from Riley, mostly for the standalone quartet but sometimes expanded with colleagues for larger ensembles. The group has recorded a number of these over the years, and admirers will find that Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector provides an inviting introduction to the oeuvre. Three of the six pieces in the collection are given here in first or new recordings. The title track represents the starting point of the Kronos collaboration, but here we encounter the group’s new take on it, captured in 2014. Lacrymosa—Remembering Kevin is an elegy from 1998, kindhearted, nostalgic, and infused with light, delicate jazz harmonies. One Earth, One People, One Love is drawn from Sun Rings, a staged, evening-long work from 2002 that combines the string quartet with taped voices, a choir, and various electronic “space sounds” as they make an interplanetary tour. The collection revisits some previously issued Riley-Kronos creations that have their own distinct sound-worlds: Cry of a Lady (1990), in which Nonesuch hooked up Kronos with another of the label’s draws, the Balkan singing group Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares; and Cadenza on the Night Plain (1983), which marked the deepening of Riley’s sensitivity to the potential of the string quartet as a medium, capitalizing on the sonic possibilities of the string instruments, the expressiveness of their bowing, and the shading of their pitches.

Riley was attracted to just intonation for the purity of its harmony, devoid of the quivering fluctuations of battling overtones to which our ears have grown accustomed through constant exposure to more equally tempered tunings. When combined with the somewhat nasal, unvarying tone of his electronic organs of the 1970s (quaint by today’s standards), the effect did indeed sound pure, but it could also be sonically dull. This deficiency was obviated when Kronos mastered the subtleties of Riley’s tuning system. Compared to the organ pieces, their sound seems vibrant and alive, even when they eschew the use of vibrato. The harmonic purity alters the vibration of not just the strings but of the instruments themselves. In the liner notes, violinist Harrington alerts listeners to a very audible example in Cadenza of the Night Plain: “In the first minute of the piece, there is a stunning double-stop, an open G string paired with the F a seventh above, tuned to the G string’s own natural F harmonic. This produced an F much lower than normal, and my instrument resonated in this totally new, ancient, and wholly unexpected way.”

The CD encompasses a broad variety of style. Riley has traveled far from his minimalist breakthroughs of the ’60s, and indeed from his improvisations of the ’70s. His work sounds always sincere and almost never gimmicky (although the Voix Bulgares collaboration may be an exception in the latter regard). Riley’s lofty goal of transcendence has held firm through the years. It was perhaps inevitable that the sunny ebullience of his youthful works has increasingly ceded to a more inward stance and, not infrequently, mournfulness. Nonetheless, his compositions characteristically exude sweetness, meaning not that they are saccharine, but rather that they project the spirit of a genuine, gentle soul.

Alongside Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, Nonesuch also released the far more extensive One Earth, One People, One Love: Kronos Plays Terry Riley. Both recordings were issued to mark the composer’s 80th birthday, in June of 2015, which did not receive quite the attention it deserved in the general press but was at least cheered by new-music aficionados on the Left Coast and elsewhere. The One Earth collection fills five CDs, and it includes everything on Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector as well as various other seminal Riley compositions. The most imposing of them is Salome Dances for Peace, a nearly two-hour cycle for string quartet that offers an encyclopedia of styles and moods. Noble sophistication inhabits these pages, in which the Biblical character of Salome is uprooted to make the rounds of a more modern world filled with social injustice. The entire 5-CD set will be a cherished compilation for devotees, but persons less experienced in the ways of Riley may find it advisable to stick their toe into the water through the single-CD release and wade into the larger collection if they feel so moved. Kronos performs spectacularly throughout, excavating each piece to find its special attributes rather than allowing a one-size-fits-all approach.

Kronos and Riley have worked hand in hand for decades, and one hopes they will continue to do so for a good long while. But Riley’s evolution in the realm of the string quartet extends beyond his work with Kronos. In December 2015, the Del Sol String Quartet, another intrepid foursome in the Bay Area, premiered his Dark Queen Mantra for quartet plus electric guitar; Riley’s son, Gyan, was the assisting guitarist. The premiere was intended to be the festive capstone of the elder Riley’s birthday year, but it assumed a memorial cast when the composer’s wife (the guitarist’s mother) died just a week earlier. Reviewing the concert for San Francisco Classical Voice, guitarist and critic Giacomo Fiore found that it conveyed an aesthetic “of hazy, brooding, and intoxicating atmospheres.” Del Sol has penciled the piece into its recording schedule, and a year from now listeners everywhere should be able to hear this most recent of Riley’s pieces with string quartet—unless another should appear in the meantime.

Terry Riley celebrates his 50th birthday with the Kronos Quartet in 1985. From left: David Harrington, John Sherba, Terry Riley, Hank Dutt, and Joan Jeanrenaud.

Terry Riley celebrates his 50th birthday with the Kronos Quartet in 1985.
From left: David Harrington, John Sherba, Terry Riley, Hank Dutt, and Joan Jeanrenaud.

Kronos was the catalyst for luring Riley into the arena of “traditional” composing back in 1980, but string players have not been the only beneficiaries. A small number of notated piano pieces—though fewer than one might imagine from a composer who was a keyboard soloist himself—make for fascinating contributions to that instrument’s chamber literature. The San Francisco-based piano duo Zofo (Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Kaisuke Nakagoshi) recorded a wide-ranging selection of nine Riley works, Zofo Plays Terry Riley, in thoroughly admirable interpretations. Released in 2015 on the Sono Luminus label, the package includes parallel discs in CD and Blu-ray formats, to cover diverse audio contingencies. The cornerstone in the playlist is The Heaven Ladder, Book 5, which consists of five movements for four-hands written in 1994. Riley revised two of them principally for this recording: “Etude from the Old Country” (in which jazz ideas and a tango-like ostinato yield a flavor redolent of Piazzolla) and “Jaztine” (where passages seem descended from Debussy). More of the Piazzolla spirit inhabits “Tango Doble Ladiado” and “Cinco de Mayo,” from the same suite, while “Waltz for Charismas,” my own favorite of the bunch, has a spiky character, perhaps a remnant of Riley’s interest in late-Baroque textures and counterpoint. Zofo’s playing is rapturous here, technically impressive and subtly shaded while also encompassing excitement and abandon.

Other tracks in the duo’s recital are four-hand arrangements of pieces previously cast for other forces. One misses the vibrancy of the original string quartet in G Song; more successful is a recasting of “Simone’s Lullaby,” originally a solo-piano movement from The Heaven Ladder, Book 7 (1994). This slow, six-minute piece suggests a music box that occasionally lets out a glassy cry of alarm, the whole proving haunting while maintaining the composer’s direction of “Very soft with tenderness.” Zimmermann relates in the notes, “We asked Terry to write a piece for us on kind of short notice, but we asked for only three minutes and he accepted happily.” We should be glad that they asked and that he accepted, since the result was Praying Mantis Rag, a delightful bit of merry-making that looks back to the ragtime era.. It actually exceeds the length requested by about 30 seconds, and it would make a foolproof encore for any four-hand ensemble.

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. His book Chamber Music: A Listener's Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback.

© 2017 Chamber Music Magazine