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Terry Riley

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Terry Riley
country of origin:
Minimalism, world music, orchestral, psychedelia
essential releases:
A Rainbow In Curved Air (1969, CBS)
Descending Moonshine Dervishes/Songs For Ten Voices Of The Two Prophets (1977/1982, Kuckuck)
Harp Of New Albion (1984, Celestial Harmonies)
In C (1989, Celestial Harmonies)


Reviewed by Mike G


The Californian-born Terry Riley is one of the founding fathers of a style known as minimalism (see also Philip Glass and Steve Reich). The style was an outgrowth - and in many ways a rebellion against - the dominant modern classical sounds of the 20th Century up to the 1960's. Sometimes called serialism, these sounds tended heavily towards dissonance and atonality and were militantly championed by composers like Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples. Tonal composers were dismissed or ostracised and serialism dominated the "serious" music curriculums of Western universities for many decades.

Parallel to the appearance of minimalism in the mid-20th century was another significant outgrowth from classical music, centred around American avant-garde composer John Cage. His radical notion that any "sound" can be regarded as music gave a new generation of composers freedom to do absolutely anything they wanted in performance. Taken to its extreme this could mean absolute silence (like Cage's composition "4'33") or complete randomness (like Cage's compositions using random permutations of the Chinese oracle the I-Ching).

But while Cage confronted and infuriated the serialists, in the end many of his ideas were intellectual exercises rather than music. Cage opened the gates, so to speak, and it was composers like Riley who poured through and brought a sense of melody back to Western classical music, albeit in a totally new way.

While the more recent work of many in the minimalist school has outgrown the minimalist tag, it’s still useful in understanding the basics of their style - repetitive, additive, cyclic music which sometimes uses unusual tunings. Also uniting most of these composers - including Riley's close contemporary La Monte Young - is their hugely influential discovery in the early 60's of the melodically rich music of North India, at first through the recordings of Ravi Shankar. This especially inspired Riley - not to mention many rock and pop musicians - whose droning pieces for organ show a clear lineage to the tambura sounds that underpin so much of the tradtiional music from the Indian subcontinent.

In C was written in 1964 and is a highly influential work. It was one of the launching pads for minimalism as a recognisable style, and its use of interlocking repetitive phrases would go on to inform a good deal of modern classical, ambient and experimental electronic music that was to follow. The composition consists of 53 musical fragments that can be played by any number and combination of players and instruments, in order and at any speed. The result? Self-indulgence for some listeners, liberation for others; it partly depends on your sensibilities although it's far less chaotic than you might imagine. This is a vital piece of music history and the particular version listed here from 1989 is a performance by the Shanghai Film Orchestra, mixed by Riley along with Brian Eno and John Hassell.

Of the original minimalists it was Riley who was most popular with rock audiences. His classic A Rainbow In Curved Air became something of a cult item amongst the 60’s counter-culture with its droning, hypnotic organ lines, sustained bursts of saxophone and rapidly repeating melodic patterns. It's intoxicating trance music, though like Philip Glass’ earlier music some listeners may not be able to handle the intensity of the repetition. If you’re among them, then you’re directed beyond this period to some of Riley’s more recent and accessible works.

Songs For Ten Voices Of Two Prophets and The Harp Of New Albion are the results of his intensive studies with Indian musicians. The former album features Riley on vocals and playing two Prophet-V synthesisers. His beautiful singing is based on special Indian vocal techniques, and coupled with the richly textured keyboards the resulting music is mystical, expansive and at times utterly compelling. The double-CD New Albion features a specially prepared 'muted' piano - originally invented by John Cage - from which Riley pulls a remarkable range of sounds, performing music primarily ambient in nature. Those seeking Riley's more accessible work are also directed to the Kronos Quartet's interpretation of his pieces on their album Salome Dances For Peace (1989).

Like the music of Glass and Reich, Terry Riley's music requires some patience and at times a redefinition of notions of musical progression and development. But if you doubt the importance of the minimalists then compare A Rainbow In Curved Air to the repetitive parcels of sound found on Mike Oldfield’s groundbreaking hit album Tubular Bells (1973). Without the inroads made by people like Riley, Oldfield’s popular two part opus may never have been made. By popularising the idea of drones, repetition and cycles in Western music, the contribution of Riley and his peers has been to have us re-examine music, break it down into its simplest forms and, in a way, start all over again.



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