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20th Century Americans - Terry Riley (Part 3)

Terry Riley

Article from Music Technology, March 1993

The life of (Terry) Riley

Like last month's 20th Century composer, Harold Budd, Terry Riley was born in California, but at fifty-eight years of age, he is to be regarded as more a contemporary of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Indeed, his composition In C is widely recognised as the springboard for the Minimalist movement - a movement associated with both these other composers. Written in 1964, and first available on record from 1968, the work consisted of repeated interlocking patterns, of indeterminate tempo, and set against a metronomic piano figure - a combination of fluidity and mesmerism which coincided with similar retreats from Western musical tradition in the hands of Reich, Glass, John Adams - and, of course, the legions of progressive rock groups such as The Soft Machine and Tangerine Dream whose audiences felt the wind of change flapping in their flares.

Riley soon turned his attention to solo works for electronic keyboards and soprano saxophone, and pioneered the use of tape delay in live performance - a technique which surfaced in a series of works whose recorded versions now form the backbone of any serious "new age' collection: A Rainbow In Curved Air, The Persian Surgery Dervishes and Shri Camel.

Various collaborations have proved enduringly fruitful. In 1970 he went to India to study raga with the renowned vocal master Pandit Pran Nath, who has frequently appeared in concert with Riley as vocal and tamboura accompanist. As a teacher of North Indian raga and composition during his years at Mills College in the 1970s, Riley met David Harrington, the founder and leader of the Kronos string quartet. This too led to a long association which to date has produced nine string quartets (including Cadenza On The Night Pain and the epic five-quartet cycle Salome Dances For Peace - selected as the number one classical album for 1989 by USA Today and a quintet, The Crow's Rosary.

A major orchestral work, The Jade Palace Orchestral Dances, was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for their centennial celebrations in 1990, and several compositions for small ensembles such as the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Zeitgeist and Stephen Scott's bowed piano group, complete the picture of a consistently innovative composer.

How do you work as a composer?

"I have a definite routine. I rise very early - I usually get up around 5.30 or 6 and start out with a cup of good Indian chai; this is jet fuel which gets the cobwebs out and gets me thinking about what I want to do. I always practise North Indian raga in the morning, I find it a very good way to tune up for any kind of work. So I always do that first thing for at least an hour. That's one reason why I moved up here into the country - I liked the quiet for practising raga. You can actually hear your own internal sounds which, if you've been in the city, are racing. I work pretty much throughout the day - I usually take an exercise period and ride my bike, take a long walk or work in the yard. The rest of the day I'm usually either writing or practising music or taking care of business."

Can you tell us about the use of just intonation?

"Well, it has a particular colouring in the intervals that you can't get in equal temperament. Once you've worked at it, it's very alluring, it's a very beautiful system. Not all musics work equally well in just intonation."

Is there more to it than the atmospheric sound of it: that the resonances create sympathetic resonances and moods within the body?

"There are a lot of theories like that and I think my experience with it would bear that out. Listening to these resonances slows everything down because they're very much in focus. If you threw up a bunch of slides on the wall that were out of focus, you'd tend to go through them very quickly. None of them would satisfy you. But, if you can get one that's really sharply focused you'd want to look at it longer just because it's peaceful, it's happening, you don't need to go on right away. That's the way these intervals are - they make you want to hear them more. So just intonation is very good for modal music in that it isn't modulating and moving all over the place, but is making a very static but deep statement."

How does your use of just intonation differ from La Monte Young's?

"Well, La Monte works exclusively in just intonation and I don't. I do use equal temperament occasionally. I consider it another kind of tuning: what it does, it does best. But there are many variations in tuning, it's a very big field that's often overlooked by musicians - they usually just take whatever tuning is given to them and work it without questioning it. After three or four hundred years of playing in equal temperament, our ears are used to it and we are a bit lazy about it. You didn't even see the synthesiser manufacturers creating possibilities for just intonation until recently. Now they're starting to produce synthesisers that are tunable. But of course, the keyboard has laid down a lot of limitations in tuning with just twelve keys. I think the voice, not the keyboard, is the best way to express just intonation because of its emotional quality and the possibility to sing any frequency within its range.

"The problem, of course, is that you can't take just intonation and play music designed for equal temperament. You suddenly find that these sounds require something else compositionally. So most people, when they get a keyboard that's tunable in just intonation say, 'well, I've got it but I don't know what to do with it'! You have to be tuned into a kind of music that works. I was lucky because in the '60s I worked with La Monte who was, by then, working in just intonation, and then I got involved in Indian classical music which is also in just intonation. So at least half my practice has always been in that tuning because of the kinds of music I play."

David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet recently suggested that working with you had brought them back to understanding the essence of sound and what it is to play music in a group. It seemed to touch on a principle of minimalising and I wondered if you could help us define it?

"The word itself doesn't inspire me to come up with a definition because it sounds too scientific and dry and cold. It isn't romantic enough for my nature; there's not enough intuition in it. It doesn't allow for the real freedom of human spirit. When I say, 'I'm a minimalist', that nails you down to doing something in a certain way. What I feel they're trying to say is that minimalism is about stripping music down to its essential, moving factors - what moves us in music. Minimalism is 'not playing anything you don't have to'. You can still get to the nerves and bones and fibres of what music is without great decoration. To me that's part of what it is."

"As ethnic musics come out and are assimilated into pop culture, they lose a lot of their initial impulse. When you first hear dijeridu or something it's very powerful, but then you listen to an aboriginal rock'n'roll group and you think, 'where did it go?'"

John Adams regards minimalism as a technique: small, repeated cells, rhythmic propulsion and tonality, yet this seems to rule out La Monte Young...

"Well, again, that's a technical explanation and I don't think it'll satisfy on its own. The repetition is certainly part of it, but repetition is a part of all sacred music, all gospel, rock music, North African music. Repetition is a very basic element. But if you're just talking about minimalism as being a definable field - to me it was more of a climate (at the time La Monte and I were starting to work), that didn't necessarily adhere to those technical principles. People were doing it in different ways. It had more to do with the climate at the time, just like impressionism, a climate that made people aesthetically feel something that they hadn't felt in previous musics."

How did that climate arise?

"Well, I think it was a new era of hope. The musics of Webern and Schoenberg were created during a time of very great distress on the planet - World War I, the discovery of psychotherapy and the dark sides of the mind. I think the influence of that very gnarling, anguished music continued on through most of the first half of the century in some form or another. Some composers were outside of it but most were touched by it. Even Aaron Copeland and people like that - who were essentially bright-sounding composers - got involved in it. I think after World War II, there was a change in the climate - just before the '60s, which, in my view, were the high point of the Twentieth Century in terms of really wanting to be free, and tear off all the bonds of society which said that you had to live a certain way or do certain things to be a real, valid individual. And that was when minimalism happened.

"I think that climate was actually a climate of hope: a period of deepening spirituality - as was the whole of the '60s. That changed in the 70s. As far as I was concerned, by the time the public caught up with minimalism, the real heart of that movement had passed. Now you have minimalism taught in colleges, and that means it's dead. Something else has to come now to be a real powerful element for young composers."

Much of your own recent music is very large-scale. Is it in any sense minimalist?

"Even though the way it's presented is not like minimalism, the way I think still is. I still usually start from small kernels. The way I compose hasn't changed basically since I started. It's probably all I'm capable of - each person has their own limited way of looking at things. Even though I try to increase my scope and things do change, essentially I tend to look at music in a certain way."

You, La Monte Young, Reich and Glass are often all lumped together with younger composers like Adams and Torke, and labelled minimalists. Are you comfortable in that setting?

"Well, it's like any category - Catholics, Buddhists - but within that whole category you have all these different people. I would like to keep my individuality. Even though they lump all these people together, there are vast differences between the people working there. I don't reject the term as an easy handle for people to recognise a group of composers that do similar things, but it certainly doesn't acknowledge the individuality of those people. And I wouldn't use it myself. The only time I call myself a minimalist is in a joking way, or if I'm writing program notes!"

Let's talk a little more about your work with the Kronos Quartet, which has been a big part of your music recently. While you were teaching you had a period when you didn't compose very much and then you met the Kronos. Is it true to say that they inspired you to get back to writing?

"Yes. I think I have them to thank for any music that I have written down. You don't know what makes you start doing things again, but I had gotten to the stage in the 70s where I didn't feel that there was anything worth writing down, that it was just enough to play music. If people wanted to play my music, my attitude was that they could listen to the records and learn it from there. It was firmly embedded in that idea and I actually didn't feel at the time that there was anything that I could write. I remember trying to write on the blackboards at Mills College, and finally just giving up. It was a period when notation was not pleasant for me to think about, it was a great deal of effort.

"But I liked the Kronos so much and so respected what their own goals were that I forced myself to do it as a challenge. It was difficult to actually get geared up to write the first few pieces - although I felt that they turned out very well. But I didn't want to commit to any one direction. I thought, 'I could play this a hundred different ways, why should I write it down one way?'"

Was that because you were so steeped in a tradition that didn't set any store by notation?

"Yes, Indian classical music. But even before I studied that I had written In C, which is practically not notation - it's just one page. And I thought that if you can't get it down, if you can't do it in just that, then it's not worth doing. Also, as I said before, I didn't want to write anything that could only be done one way. Eventually I gave in and started doing things and thinking of them as my best shot at that moment. I think that most people who write music come to that conclusion and think, 'OK, maybe this isn't perfect but it's the best way I can do it right now'."

"I have a distrust of the organisation of the orchestra, which is like the army. You've got this General sitting in his chair, and the Lieutenants, down to the Privates on the back rows. There's a lot of that kind of politics in the orchestra which I find pretty disagreeable as a way to make music together"

Presumably the attraction was the Kronos themselves rather than the string quartet, which seems a very traditional genre...

"Yes, it was the Kronos, but I think the string quartet also had a lot to do with it - I happen to love string quartets. I remember when I was a college student spending hours listening to the Bartok string quartets, and to me that was like heaven - I couldn't hear them enough. I like the modern string quartets, I don't listen much to the older ones. I think that the Kronos' particular approach influenced me to want to write for them - and the fact that they really had faith that I could do it."

You once said that writing for orchestra didn't appeal to you at all, and yet you've now also written for Kronos and orchestra.

"I have a distrust of the organisation of the orchestra, which is like the army. You've got this General sitting in his chair, and the Lieutenants, down to the Privates on the back rows. There's a lot of that kind of politics in the orchestra, which I find pretty disagreeable as a way to make music together. Not all orchestras are guilty of this kind of hierarchy, but it exists to a great degree in most. So it just didn't seem like a very healthy climate. Yet, here's this form in which you can make music, which doesn't exist anywhere else, and it's probably largely due to that political structure that they succeed. It's very strange. Philosophically I don't agree with it at all, and yet I can see how it works.

"If you have a very good conductor who is firm enough, and yet compassionate enough to get the musicians to play the music with lots of feeling, then you can get great results. The first orchestra piece I did was for Carnegie Hall's 100th anniversary, and I was afraid to try to write it because I had never written for anything bigger than a string quartet. About that time I discovered computers and notational software, so that made it possible - I don't think I could have written it without the help of the computer and sequencing software, enabling me to hear it; it would have been too complex. I hadn't been brought up around orchestras; I never went to many orchestral concerts and so I had to do it like I did my studio projects, like Rainbow in Curved Air - thinking of it as multitracking. I ended up writing a fifty minute orchestra piece - it was huge. It took me hours! Months! Years!"

What sequencer do you use?

"C-Lab Notator on an Atari, with a Proteus II for the orchestral sounds."

The next orchestral piece - The Sands - was the concerto for Kronos and orchestra, wasn't it?

"Yes. I learned a lot from that. I scaled it down a little bit from Jade Palace which was written for the St. Louis Symphony. It was written for small orchestra - almost a 'Haydn'-sized orchestra. I added more woodwind. But I learned from the other piece that if you want to get a good performance then you have to scale down some of your grandiose ideas! So the concerto is simpler. It was written on the eve of the Persian Gulf War as a protest against shameless aggression."

How did Salome Dances for Peace come about?

"It was a sort of child of The Harp of New Albion. That's how it got started, anyway. I had been working on The Harp and playing it quite a bit in Europe. One of the sections wouldn't fit for some reason, but I really liked the music. Then one day I was practising and it just came into my head - 'Salome Dances For Peace' - that is what this music sounds like. I wasn't really thinking about titles, but it just hit me. About that time, the phone rang and it was David Harrington wanting to commission a new string quartet. So I said that I wanted to write a string quartet that was a ballet. I had written out this big story of Salome dancing for peace, where she's reincarnated in the Twentieth Century. I kept writing the story and then writing the music - it was leading me on. Salome was a big theatre piece in my own mind: I was imagining all kinds of things happening while I was writing it. Even though it's for string quartet, it's this vast thing."

How do you actually go about writing these large-scale pieces? Do you just start at the beginning and work right through?

"Yes. Usually, I'll start with one central idea which may be just a scale or something that I'm very interested in, just the sound of that scale, and a few patterns start developing out of that. Then a lot of times some totally unrelated themes will come to mind from that scale. That's happened so much that now I just trust it and always write it down. I put it in the notebook and think that somewhere along the way this is going to relate. That's the way it was with Salome. 'The Peace Dance' - which is the first part of the quartet - came first, but there are many ideas throughout the piece that came very soon. I just put them away until they found their way into it - they just said, 'here I am. This is where I come in'!"

There's a real mixture of different sorts of material in that piece.

"Yes, but they're all very related, even though they sound so different."

What unites them?

"Different elements. Sometimes the basic scale is often the element, but then it's a transposition of that scale which I maybe didn't even recognise at first. Sometimes it's little kernel ideas - like little tiny motifs. Not like leitmotif but little repeating figurations which get turned around and become another movement if you just change them slightly. I don't do an awful lot of analysis afterwards, but I do see relationships."

You said Salome basically came out of The Harp of New Albion. Is that how it usually happens, the next piece being a step on from the last one?

"Not always, but there is often unfinished business in one piece which has to be taken up in the next, especially if you didn't feel like you'd really completed an idea. Sometimes ideas like that run through several pieces and you just can't quite get enough of it - you can't quite complete the idea to satisfy yourself."

How does The Harp of New Albion relate to La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano?

"I probably wouldn't have thought to do it - or wanted to do it - if The Well-Tuned Piano hadn't been there first. It's a piece I'd always admired. I was just playing electronic organs. The piano, of course, is so different to electronic instruments, so when I got my first piano I started to re-acquaint myself with it. Then it occurred to me to write a piece, but The Well-Tuned Piano was standing there like a giant monument, so I thought, 'well... shall I do it? Should I write this piece?'. Then as I kept practising and tuning, I just felt that it had to be done, that it was significantly different.

"It definitely draws inspiration from The Well-Tuned Piano, and a lot of my music draws inspiration from La Monte Young. We're like brothers. He's one of the major influences in my life, along with Pandit Pran Nath, who is also a composer. His music is not as well known by the public, but a lot of what I compose is influenced by his composition, especially the great melodic subtleties and invention that he's had in raga, which are distinctly his own."

How important is ethnicity in your music?

"I have a little difficulty with the term ethnicity because of my strange and strong belief in reincarnation. I don't feel removed from ethnicity, so I am ethnicity myself and I'm a part of all the things that I hear. If you mean the musics of primitive peoples - yes, I like those musics a lot, I feel very close to them. I like the music of India and China, Africa and South East Asia. I feel like I've already been trained many times before in these musics; I have a good understanding of them and their feelings. Basically, music is not about technique, it's about spirit.


Yamaha C7 MIDI Grand
2 x Yamaha TX802 sound modules
Yamaha DX7MkII
Yamaha YC45D two-manual electric organ
Prophet 5
Proteus I and II sound modules
Ensoniq SD1
Atari Mega ST computer with HD
Atari Stacy II computer
C-Lab Notator

"So ethnicity is a very pure, preserved spirit because the music hasn't gotten out enough yet to be changed. As ethnic musics come out and are assimilated into pop culture, they lose a lot of their initial impulse. When you first hear dijeridu or something it's very powerful, but then you listen to an aboriginal rock'n'roll group and you think, 'where did it go?'. I'm interested in keeping that feeling. So when people hear my music they feel that spiritual impulse underneath it."

So all the stylistic aspects are just superficial?

"Yes, they're not important. When people first heard those musics, they wanted to play sitar or ethnic sounds on the synthesizer or something, but the real value was these cultures retaining their spiritual approach to music."

Steve Reich has said that many of the composers of his generation who went to study world musics, came back trying to emulate those cultures somehow. He was almost suggesting that people on the West Coast got a bit too excited and started growing top-knots and...

"...Went crazy, yes! I believe that is the way he thinks. But to me his rhythms sound very much like a Westerner doing African music. I think out here in California there was a great feeling for the Orient - it being the gateway for oriental people emigrating here. I think we had much more contact with that feeling than they do on the East Coast, where it's much more European. They call this the Pacific Rim culture out here, and you notice it when you go across the country - it's such a different feeling between the East and the West. I think culturally that makes a big difference in the way people approach their music."

Just intonation

As discussed in the following interview, 'just intonation' means the exploitation of subtle gradations between notes - the theoretically infinite curve between one semitone and the next - according to the natural bias of key and scale. Only instruments capable of pitching anywhere within a scale - such as the violin or the human voice - have the potential to do this. Keyboards, for example, have to adopt the 'artificial' imposition of temperament - stepped scales - because the relationship between each note is mechanically fixed. When each semitone is equally spaced throughout the scale, this is called 'equal temperament'.

For the composer, just intonation usually means that A# provides a different pitch to Bb, whereas for the equally tempered muso there are only 12 notes in the universe and you get Bach. Riley found liberation in Indian raga, but there are other precedents: blues guitarists have been just-intoning like crazy for decades.


1967 Olsen 111 - an orchestral choral work written for the students at the music high school in Nacka, Sweden. Commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music.

1968 Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band - Intermedia '68 tour of six New York state colleges. Commissioned by NY State Arts Council.

1968 The Time-Lag Accumulator - a tiny maze of sound chambers and mirrored rooms which contained microphones to capture fragments of conversation and automatically arrange them into sound collages of repeated patterns. Installed in the Nelson Atkins Gallery of Art in Kansas City for the Magic Theatre Exhibition.

1969 Music With Balls - a thirty-minute colour video in collaboration with Sculptor Arlo Acton and Producer John Coney. Commissioned by the Dilexi Foundation.

1970 Experiments in Art and Technology - American Artists in India. Riley was sent to New Delhi to work with renowned raga master Pandit Pran Nath in an effort to combine new technology of the West with methods of ancient Eastern tradition.

1970 An experimental stereo colour video film for Danish Television produced by Carl Nielson.

1970 An experimental concert filmed in the dark using infra-red head sensitive cameras, recorded at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm for Swedish Television, produced by Stefan Olson.

1976 Music With Roots in the Ether - a one-hour concert and one-hour interview. Video produced by Robert Ashley.

1976 Shri Camel - a solo keyboard work commissioned by Radio Bremen.

1981 Three string quartets - Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, G Song and Remember This Oh Mind, commissioned by the Kronos String Quartet.

1982 The Ethereal Time Shadow - a work for voice and two Prophet 5 synthesisers. Commissioned by the Sudwest Rundfiink, Baden-Baden, West Germany.

1982 Songs For the Ten Voices of the Two Prophets - a work for voice and two Prophet 5 synthesizers. Commissioned by Radio Bremen, West Germany.

1983 Rites of the Imitators and Crazy Horse Offering. Commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation, Portugal.

1984 The Medicine Wheel - a work for piano in just intonation, synthesizer, sitar, tabla and voice. Commissioned by Radio Bremen, West Germany.

1984 Two string quartets - Cadenza on the Night Plain and Mythic Birds Waltz. Written for the Kronos String Quartet and commissioned jointly by Mr Ackart Rahn; Hessicher Rundfunk in Frankfurt, West Germany; and Kronos.

1984 The Harp of New Albion - a work for piano in just intonation. Commissioned by the Cologne Radio, West Germany.

1985 Salome Dances for Peace. Part I - a string quartet ballet written for the Kronos String Quartet and commissioned by IRCAM in Paris, France.

1986 Salome Dances for Peace. Part II - written for the Kronos String Quartet and commissioned by Betty Freeman.

1987 In Winter They Buried the Cocktail Pianist - a work for vibraphone, marimba, soprano saxophone, and piano. Commissioned by Zeitgeist of Minneapolis.

1987 Sketches For the Tain - commissioned by the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

1988 The Crows Rosary - a work for string quartet and piano/synthesisers in just intonation. Commissioned by the Lincoln Centre and The Kronos Quartet.

1989 The Jade Palace Orchestral Dances - written for the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. Commissioned by Carnegie Hall.

1990 Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra - commissioned by the Salzburg Festival.

1990 A work commissioned by New Music America for the Canadian-based group Array.


Reed Streams (Mass Art, 1966)
In C (Columbia Masterworks, 1968)
A Rainbow In Curved Air (Columbia Masterworks, 1969)
The Church Of Anthrax (With John Cale) (Columbia, 1970)
Happy Ending (Warner Bros France, 1972)
The Persian Surgery Dervishes (Shandar, 1972)
Le Secret De La Vie (Phillips France, 1974)
Shri Camel (Columbia Masterworks, 1978)
The Descending Moonshine Dervishes (Kuckuck, 1982)
The Ten Voices Of The Two Prophets (Kuckuck, 1983)
No Mans Land (Plainsphere, 1985)
The Ethereal Time Shadow. (Music From Mills, 1985)
Cadenza On The Night Plain & Other String Quartets (Gramavision, 1985)
The Harp Of New Albion (Celestial Harmonics, 1986)
1989 In C (Performed by the Shanghai Film Orchestra) (Celestial Harmonies, 1989)
Salome Dances For Peace (Nonesuch, 1989)

Series - "20th Century Americans"

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Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Mar 1993


Terry Riley


Composer (Music)

Related Artists:

Jon Hassell

Philip Glass

Steve Reich


20th Century Americans

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 (Viewing)

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> PC Mastersound

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