A Composer For Our Time
Mark J. Prendergast interviews California-born musician Terry Riley, the influential inventor of 'minimalist' music.
Without any shadow of a doubt, California-born musician Terry Riley must be considered the inventor of 'minimalism', a form of music that has its fullest expression in the modern era via the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Born in Colfax in 1935, Riley attended both San Francisco State College and the University Of California, Berkeley; courses which were partly funded by extensive ragtime and jazz piano performances in local bars and coffee houses. Later, with an M.A. in his pocket and inspired by the discipline and inventiveness of John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Bill Evans and Miles Davis, he headed for Paris and fully immersed himself in the world of jazz improvisation.
After travelling extensively in Europe and North Africa, Riley returned to America fired by the openness of Eastern chant music and set about composing the piece 'In C'. Its first performance in 1964 rocked the music world. Using only notes in the key of C, Terry Riley gave the performers (which included a young Jon Hassell and Steve Reich) some modal fragments which could be thrown in at any time into a music of endless repetition and pulse. Slowly shifting musical blocks were the result. In one inspired move, Riley opened the floodgates to a new world of sound that allowed serious Western music a way out of the cul-de-sacs of serialism and rigid composition/performance.
Disinterested in celebrity, Riley then concentrated on tape technology, investigating the properties of tape delay and the electronic organ combined. A bright, multi-layered music with huge time cycles was the result, as can be heard on the best-selling 'A Rainbow In Curved Air' (1969). Here Riley's growing interest in modal playing, which drifted across numerous musical scales, imbued the music with a great melodic richness and fluency. The accompanying 'Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band', with its emphasis on texture and atmosphere, sounds today like a radical shift to Ambient music, a form which Brian Eno would make his own six years later.
Riley kept moving. Inspired by fellow innovator LaMonte Young, he went to India to study under Pandit Pran Nath in 1970. Exposed to the intensely rigorous, concentrative sublimation of Indian classical music, Riley became a disciple and has remained true to Nath to this day. He has spent years learning the exact notation and dynamics of Indian music and vocalising, including the detailed study of tabla percussion. When first involved with Nath he began simultaneously to re-build Western electronic instruments to access the different tunings required by Indian music and recorded a batch of material, including 'Persian Surgery Dervishes' (1971) and 'Descending Moonshine Dervishes' (1975). His work seemed to reach a creative focus on the ebullient 1980 album 'Shri Camel', which combines all the innovative ideas of four decades of research and development.
Since then Riley has immersed himself in lecturing, performing and composition. A meeting with David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet in the early '80s led Riley to compose no less than 10 lengthy pieces for strings. From there he went on to write music for saxophone quartet, Bulgarian voice choir, brass/percussion ensemble, and solo piano - the latter given full expression on the album 'The Harp Of New Albion' (1986), where Riley's fond 'just intonation' method of re-tuning produces endless harmonic variation.
Some years back Riley was featured in a BBC2 documentary on West Coast contemporary music, and he is justifiably revered in certain music circles. Earlier this year he worked in Los Angeles with Brian Eno and Jon Hassell on a new version of 'In C' for the Shanghai film orchestra. On a rare visit to London recently, I got the opportunity to speak to him at a spacious West London Indian restaurant where he was being filmed for a day. My first question obviously concerned 'In C', which is now 25 years old. How did he come to compose such a radically different piece of music?
"Well, I had been building up to writing a piece like that for quite a long time; three or four years perhaps before it was actually recorded. I had been experimenting with tape loops, repeating patterns and cycles on magnetic tape, and then I started working in 1961/62 in Paris with Chet Baker, the jazz musician. I had him playing some different patterns on the trumpet accompanied by bass and trombone and other instruments. A group of us were living in Paris and we did a theatre piece at the Theatre Of Nations in 1963, which was kind of a forerunner of 'In C' because it was a piece built out of patterns but still very jazzy with Chet's playing."
Did your interest in tape technology stem from the Schaeffer/Henri French 'musique concrete' scene of the 1940s and 1950s or did it spring from the new technology of the 1960s?
"What happened was that, during the '50s, when I got interested in tape recorders they were quite a new phenomenon. I mean, people didn't have tape recorders and there were no cassette machines for musicians at that time. It was really fascinating to play with magnetic tape because you could alter the sound so much. I was into composition then and I just wasn't aware of what others were doing with tape. I was interested in Stockhausen, Boulez and people like that. I got into it through working with dance companies and would make soundtracks and sound collages on magnetic tape."
Riley wears the unkempt beard of a mystic. His eyes glitter constantly as if in possession of some inner knowledge. During the entire course of the interview he remains incredibly relaxed, his subdued American accent showing no signs of stress as the ensemble Zeitgeist go through their paces on saxophones and marimba around us. 'In C' comes up again: "It was first performed in San Francisco but wasn't recorded until 1968. Morton Subotnik, Steve Reich and people like that were in the first performance. The reaction was very positive and the audience that came to it were all poets - San Francisco poets - like Michael McClure, who were interested in all the new things that were happening. It was just before the psychedelic era, and all these people were looking for new kinds of poetry and music."
This success prompted Riley to move to New York but lack of funds prevented him from delving into electronics, since in those days such equipment was very expensive. Still, he kept writing and working on ideas. Live performances gave him access to some equipment and eventually CBS Records took an interest.
"I had a Super Vox Continental electronic organ and a couple of tape recorders to do feedback loops with, and John McClure, who was at Columbia Masterworks, and a producer came out to see me play at Steinway Hall in New York. Then David Behrman, another producer at CBS, asked me to record 'A Rainbow In Curved Air' and then things really started happening."
This can be readily observed from the number of new progressive rock groups that began using repetitive organ cycles in their music around that time. Both Curved Air and Soft Machine were directly stimulated by Riley's album, and Pete Townsend readily quoted the keyboard motif on the 1971 LP 'Who's Next' - particularly on the dedication track 'Baba O'Riley'. Yet it's Soft Machine, the extreme psychedelic experimentalists of the late 1960s (comprising Daevid Allen, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge) that Riley has fondest memories of:
"At the time, Daevid Allen had worked with me in Paris and was familiar with my work. Then I came to England in the late '60s, jammed with them, and showed the group all the things I was doing with tape, delays and repetition." (Interestingly, Allen had met William Burroughs in Paris, hence the Soft Machine name, and was fascinated by word manipulation. The interaction with Riley confirmed that the future of experimental rock lay in tape loops, and repetitive sequences).
Even though all this was happening you then decided that there was more fertile ground in Indian music. In fact, you initiated Jon Hassell into the Kirana style of singing and, as we know, his application of that to trumpet has produced some great new music. Was this divergence to the East quite a radical change from what you where used to?
"Well, I found in my own musical development that my work was pointing towards the kind of music that was happening in India, North Africa and the Middle East. I was trying to create a music that was going along parallel paths. Even though it had many differences it shared many things, so a study of Indian classical music I felt would be a very valuable thing for me to do. And not from a superficial point of view either but from a deep, serious study point of view - how the music actually worked - and Pandit Pran Nath, who I went to study with, I think is the greatest teacher in India and I felt very lucky when I got to work with someone who really represented the old traditions."
The atmospheric avant gardist LaMonte Young, who was instrumental in the change of emphasis to 'sound environment' in contemporary composition and heavily influenced The Velvet Underground, provided space for Riley to perform in his Theatre Of Eternal Music during the late '60s. He introduced him to Pran Nath's music and arranged a number of trips to Dehra Dun in Northern India in the early '70s. Jon Hassell was to go on one of these trips and come back with exotic stories of temples, golden sunrises and spiritual wonderment.
Though there are numerous recordings to Riley's name, many are live performances and re-interpretations of earlier material. His rare trips to the studio are explained by his unusual compositional approach.
"I have to have a piece ready to a certain point before I want to record it. Sometimes I chart the piece out, but if I'm regularly playing it myself I must get a deep enough understanding of it to feel that I want to record it. There are certain years, particularly the mid '70s to the '80s, when I just didn't feel like recording. I felt it was the time for gathering material and working on something new. I haven't recorded anything of my own since 1986, since 'The Harp Of New Albion' which is the last record I've actually played on."
On that album Riley covers 115 minutes of time with solo piano explorations. His best piano work, though, can be found on the 1984 soundtrack for Alain Tanner's film 'No Man's Land', recorded with sitar/tabla player Krishna Bhatt in Paris. I enquire about this essential opus:
"Alain Tanner came to a concert of Krishna and I where we were playing many of the pieces in a longer format. This was in Geneva. So pieces like 'Jaipur Local' are in truth later sections of 'A Rainbow In Curved Air', with musical patterns that are very similar and related. The piece 'Jewel Movement' is from a cyclical composition called 'Songs From The Old Country'."
Although you often write quite technical sleeve notes referring to Mixolydian modes and such, you have gone on record as saying that your music is a reaction to the strictness of post-Webern/Berg serialism, particularly the rigidity of the 12-tone avant-garde and its accompanying aural difficulty.
"Well I like what I'm doing. That kind of music, I realised, was a search for expanding the language. But what you always have to think about in music is how it feels to you, the performer. If someone likes serialism then they do it. If they like to go 'boop, bop, bop, be' and they really feel good doing it, then do it. For me, though, it just doesn't feel right - so I don't do it."
With a healthy live following in the USA, Europe, and Japan does Terry Riley consider himself to be a composer or performer?
"I think of myself firstly as a composer, definitely. I definitely like to organise music and, of course, a lot of it I need to perform myself in order to get the idea."
His recent concert in London's Queen Elizabeth Hall saw him speedily attacking both grand piano and Yamaha synthesizer in the company of reed/marimba/xylophone ensemble Zeitgeist and experimentalist George Brooks (an emotive soprano soloist who also gained from studying with Pran Nath and who teaches at Mills College, Oakland, where Riley frequently lectures). Here he worked through a variety of sounds under the compositional heading of 'The Playground' and produced exact sitar music from the DX7 synth. According to Zeitgeist: 'It's like Terry brings in a pile of lumber and we have to figure out how to make it into a house.' On the subject of ensemble work I enquire about the recent 'In C' China recording.
"Riley returned to America fired by the openness of Eastern chant music and set about composing the piece 'In C'. Its first performance in 1964 rocked the music world."
"We went to China in January (1989) and made contact with the film orchestra of Shanghai - the orchestra that does all the Chinese films, a very good and fine orchestra.
This was the first time a modern Western piece had been performed in China. Now they're actually performing that piece around China, it has become part of the repertoire and they call it 'In China' instead of 'In C'." (Note: this interview took place before the state of emergency occurred in Beijing and elsewhere.)
Regarding the technical side of your music, the recordings you have made display a very high level of technical proficiency and technical innovation. You described it once as a 'hall of mirrors effect', of seeing something and then seeing it again and again in different parts of the atmosphere.
"Well the early records - for instance, 'Rainbow' - was the first music I know of where tape delay was used as a structural element. By using a tape recorder I could put the delay on and thus have a rhythmic structure to play against. I don't know if anybody else played with tape delay in those days, but I was doing concerts all during the '60s with it and tape feedback. I was always interested in using those as part of the process and structure of music. I don't do that anymore because everybody is doing it, and therefore I don't feel the need."
(Anybody who thinks that Fripp and Eno invented tape delay/feedback systems on 'No Pussyfooting' (1973) should think again!) What of synthetics?
"I played organs all during the '70s and got my first synthesizer in 1980. I couldn't re-tune a synthesizer until the (Sequential) Prophet 5 came along, and that was the first synth I had. Chester Wood, who was my technical engineer during the '70s, designed that end of the Prophet so that I could use it."
Yes, I've read about his addition of oscillators and resistors to your Prophet and Yamaha organs so that you could re-tune them in 'just intonation' mode for your improvisations. Could you explain what 'just intonation' is exactly?
"'Just Intonation' means that the (musical) intervals are composed out of simple fractions that are whole numbers. For instance, if you have a fifth in Western music it is represented in 'just intonation' by the interval 3/2, or can be, which means three vibrations to two vibrations as a proportion of the interval. So all the intervals are based on mathematical proportions and these proportions create resonances, which are sounds that are not in the piano instrument when it's tuned in 'equal temperament' (standard tuning). All my work from 'Persian Surgery Dervishes' (1971) on is in 'just intonation'. It is used a lot in Eastern music, Indian music, African music, Middle Eastern music and a lot of folk music. It isn't a mathematical thing - they don't calculate it - but they're actually playing it. My biggest influence here was LaMonte Young, even though Californian Harry Partch was the first to use just intonation and build his own instruments in the 1930s. LaMonte's just intonation using long tones was the particular thing that affected me, and when I actually heard this I realised what its potential was like in Western music. He was the first person that really made it clear to me."
Once you had the Prophet, did you get more interested in synthesizers and in time translate to other models?
"No, I just used the Prophets. I ended up with two of them and used them like a double manual organ, linked together. Again, it was the organ mentality at work - using two Prophets as a single instrument."
Your work has led over the years to a huge outcrop of instrumental music, and nowadays you're seen as a kind of 'guru' figure. What do you think of the modern situation?
"Well I think it's a positive step in music because I feel we did hit a dead end with Western classical music, particularly during the period of the post-serialists. I thought: 'There is definitely nowhere to go after this.' So it was a very positive step to begin with tuning and then rhythmic cycles, with a new look at improvisation as well, and how they can be incorporated into our own culture in a meaningful way. I feel that there is a lot of fertile ground out there, a lot of room for individuality. Musicians can still be very interesting."
When you are working in the studio, do you have certain demands that you put on the studio environment or are you able to adapt to any surroundings?
"I think I'm fairly adaptive as long as I can get the sound I want. For instance, when we were doing the 'In C' recordings in China I went to Los Angeles and Jon Hassell and Brian Eno happened to be there. They came into the studio where I was working and I asked them to get involved, and Brian actually started working on it there and then. He was producing and Jon did some production work, too. Now Brian Eno is very masterful in the studio. I don't have this skill since I'm more of a performer. I'd rather have a good producer and tell him what I want in the sound than do it myself, because I'm not a master of recording techniques. As for studios, there is only one that sticks in my mind as the nicest, most enjoyable studio I've worked in, and that was Strawberry Studios in France years ago - a small studio in an old Chateau that was beautifully built."
Is the material prepared in advance or once you're in the studio?
"For me, writing involves a lot of improvising. What I usually end up doing when I'm writing is I pick out certain versions of improvisations that I find are the most effective and I set them down so that they are not improvisations anymore!"
Riley enthuses about his relationship with Jon Hassell, a musician with whom he jams a lot but for some reason has never officially recorded with in terms of collaboration: "He's very musical and we have a very similar musical background." On the subject of Brian Eno, the master minimalist has nothing but praise: "I'm really impressed with what he does. His insight into music is very good and the directions of music he has picked up on are very important for our time. He's joyful to work with and his 'In C' production was very satisfying. Both he and Jon really loved it. Eno is kind of like Andy Warhol. He has that quality of knowing what's right, and musicians often need people like that around them - somebody who knows. It's good to have someone like that to give you feedback. Again, I think Brian is very masterful in the studio. He knows how it works and he knows how to get the best out of it."
Nowadays, what keyboard instruments do you play?
"Well, piano is the favourite and I still play the Prophet 5 synth. I have a Yamaha DX7IIFD and a slave module, a TX81Z, which I use with the keyboards. I only use instruments that are re-tunable. You see, the thing is I don't have that much time to work with electronics.
Chester Wood still works with me occasionally - but since I live up in the mountains now, away from San Francisco, near Nevada city in California, I'm quite far away from cities and equipment, servicing, and such like. It also requires a lot of time."
Riley is a very active live performer. His annual itinerary includes concerts with Pran Nath, Krishna Bhatt, and other Indian musicians of the calibre of Zakir Hussain, where he plays pure Indian instrumental and vocal music. Additionally, he now performs with Zeitgeist for whom he wrote the lengthy piece 'Room Of Remembrance', which is made up of "five melodic phrases whose chord progressions contain entry and exit points for other pieces". This was also recently performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Just as important are the 11 or so compositions for the Kronos String Quartet. He has enjoyed performing with them on 'Crow's Rosary', and this year's release of the five-part 'Salome Dances For Peace' should herald more concerts. But for now he's busy composing:
"Well, I'm writing for the St. Louis Symphony, Carnegie Hall in America. They're celebrating their hundredth birthday in 1991 and they commissioned me to write an orchestral work, 'The St. Louis Symphony'. So that's my big project now."
If you were to mention one serious composer and one popular musician that had a major influence on your life, who would they be?
"LaMonte Young and Lennon & McCartney. I wouldn't necessarily say influences on my work in the case of Lennon & McCartney, because I couldn't point to any specific influence, but I find their music of the '60s still the most interesting in terms of developments in pop music!"
And if you were to choose one of your own recordings from the past, which one would it be?
"Eno is kind of like Andy Warhol. He has that quality of knowing what's right, and musicians often need people like that around them."
"Ah! I guess it would have to be 'A Rainbow In Curved Air', which is still something quite special because it has been my bread and butter piece!" (Laughs.) Do you think that European music has been superseded by the American 'minimalist' movement, particularly with the enormous success of Philip Glass?
"Well you know, music goes in fashions and I don't think in actual practice you could say that. Yes, Philip Glass has established a big reputation, but that doesn't mean that someone else's work in Europe is not as important. I know many people that do very important work and they do it quietly. What impresses me is the work itself. A lot of this music gets hidden, you have to really seek it out."
Finally, what's the next important development that you see happening in music, particularly instrumental music?
"One of the most important developments will again be in tuning - the construction of instruments that are capable of microtonality. That'll increase our colour spectrum in music enormously. I think that work could be done on acoustic instruments and with combinations of acoustic/electronic instruments which use both types of sound to accomplish their ends. Tuning is very important. It is a field that can influence compositions enormously."
Interview by Mark Prendergast