Less Is More

No longer an enfant terrible, composer Terry Riley continues to astound and amaze

"I've been doing a lot of writing, and finishing a lot of works recently. I just finished a piece for 30 guitars, which we're going to record in Germany this summer. I've completed a saxophone quartet for the Art Quartet in Switzerland, and we're going over there to perform it this summer as well. And I've got another lined up for Kronos; I've got a piece that was commissioned by NASA, and it incorporates some of the sounds of the planets that they recorded on the Voyager missions. So I'll be working on that this summer."

In addition to newer compositions, Terry Riley's past work is also receiving welcome archival attention in the form of You're Nogood, a double CD containing newly unearthed full-length versions of his classic 1967 pop-meets-classical experiment, "Poppy Nogood."

"That's part of this Organ of Corti [label] series, [which is releasing] works that I did in the '60s, a lot of which have never been released before. That latest release is a full performance of a piece I did at a Philadelphia disco, a cut-up of the rhythm-and-blues song 'You're No Good.' Since my nom de plume in those days was Poppy Nogood, I responded to that tune right away. I used it as kind of a basis for the sound piece."

Composer Terry Riley: Influencing everyone from classic rockers to current DJs.
Betty Freeman
Composer Terry Riley: Influencing everyone from classic rockers to current DJs.

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Scheduled to perform on Friday, May 11. Showtime is 8:00 p.m.
Scottsdale Center for the Arts

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You're Nogood hearkens back to the prototypical work Riley did for Columbia Records in the 1960s, but it also reminds the listener of how influential his compositional process was on the most experimental rock music of the 1960s and 1970s. Pete Townshend, for example, has always been vocal about his respect for Riley's work; the synth opening of "Baba O'Riley," which launched a million cigarette lighters in a thousand stadiums, is a classic Terry Riley-style riff, and Riley's emphasis on repetition and variation resonates favorably in today's remix and DJ-friendly pop culture.

Oddly, Riley himself seems a bit distanced from his impact on modern pop music: "I don't listen to a great deal of music in my free time. If I do put on music to listen to, it may be an Indian classical musician, or world music, which I'm particularly fond of. But," he laughs, "I guess I'm not too avidly interested in the fields that I represent."

However, Riley recognizes and applauds the continued success of contemporaries like Philip Glass, even going so far as to offer a theory on the music's sources. "I think what it is -- I don't know if this applies to Philip Glass' work so much -- but I think the attraction of minimalism is that it put the groove back into classical music. And it had a kind of kinetic quality which people were connected to in pop music -- and in jazz, too, to some degree. I think that still holds a sort of attraction for people who are looking for a way into classical music; I just did a teaching residency in Chicago, and many of the students there were all writing in this [minimalist] style."

Though Riley's work output hasn't slowed, his public appearances have had to accommodate his hectic schedule. Current performances are a far cry from the legendary all-night concerts he used to mount, events to which groups of fans brought sleeping bags and food. The audience took periodic rests, while onstage Riley performed for 10, 12 or 14 hours straight.

"I don't do those anymore, although I might if somebody asked me. Lately I've tried to stay within standard concert lengths; also, I'm playing much more piano, and it's physically harder to sustain piano playing for long periods. Especially the way I play.

"Still, when I perform, improvisation is always the main focus; although writing for other people, it necessarily has to be more structured. Kronos, in particular, [is] really good at merging the two. The way we rehearse is basically to spend a lot of time in the studio. I don't put a lot of diacritical marks in the score to indicate how they should play; I'd rather follow the notation up with real-life contributions. I think that helps to give the music a measure of spontaneity."

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