Less Is More

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

In the late 1960s, California-born composer Terry Riley went by the sobriquet "Poppy Nogood."

The name sounds far more bellicose than Riley's soft, almost courtly manner of speech might suggest; but Riley's work, after all, encompasses a tangle of styles and influences that politely disrespects generic conventions of all kinds, melding pop with classical, Indian raga with Western formalism, and tape-loop cut-ups with R&B. At the center of the mélange is Riley himself -- the calm speech in the eye of all this joyful noise.

At 65 years of age, Riley is no longer the enfant terrible of contemporary classical music, but it wasn't so long ago that a piece called In C sent modern music in an entirely new direction. Mid-century America produced a wealth of revolutionary composers -- John Cage, George Crumb and La Monte Young were only a few of the standard-bearers who produced some of their formative works in the 1950s and 1960s -- but Riley's 1968 piece, fluid in its running time and endlessly changeable in its permutations, was at once insistently repetitive and capable of accommodating infinite variations on its basic motifs. In C was just that: A long, largely improvisatory meditation on the possibilities inherent in a single harmonic scale. Though Young's work had brought the term "minimalism" into general use, it was Riley's piece that really cemented minimalism's impact as a serious compositional style.

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

It also, sadly, tainted Riley's subsequent reception among the press and the general listening public.

"I don't feel confined, as a creative artist, by the term 'minimalism,'" he says carefully from his California home, in response to a question he's undoubtedly been asked a hundred times. "It's a little bit difficult in terms of my relation to the public, though, because the press always talks about me as if I died in 1970. In C is still the piece that I'm most associated with. Generally, if people know me at all, they know me through that piece."

In C, though undeniably central to contemporary musical history, represents but a small percentage of Terry Riley's work and compositional style, which runs the gamut from Burroughsian tape pastiches to a delicate six-voice setting of Jack Kerouac's "Chorus 193" from Mexico City Blues. In 1989 he debuted a jaw-dropping cycle of five string quartets, written for the Kronos Quartet, called Salome Dances for Peace, in its own way every bit as revolutionary as In C. And in 1970 Riley preceded every trendy pop musician to India in search of inspiration and education. In fact, he took the study of Indian music so seriously that Riley the student eventually became Riley the instructor.

First taken on as a disciple of the famed vocal raga master Pandit Pran Nath in the early 1970s, Riley is now honored in New Delhi as a teacher in his own right. "I'm continuing those trips to India where I can," he says, "but I'm starting to slow down a bit on that as my schedule in general has gotten busier. I still teach and do some performances of North Indian raga. That's been over 30 years now."

Asked about his long association with Indian musicians and teachers, Riley chooses his words slowly and deliberately. "It's a very deep connection that I have with the music, and it kind of manifests itself in two ways. One is in the way that I try to continue the tradition of my teacher, Pandit Pran Nath, and perform the ragas that he taught me and to keep that going. His tradition and his contribution, I felt, was very unique to Indian music. And the other way it manifests is that a lot of the things I've practiced and learned in Indian music have found their way into my composition and my piano playing.

"It's a way of looking at the improvisational process," he continues after a thoughtful pause, "but it's also spiritual. If you're involved with Indian classical music, you can't help but drink in the spiritual atmosphere of the music. Music is considered a spiritual path in India -- not necessarily religious, but a way to some kind of enlightenment. If you look at the history of Western music, of course, its roots were in the church; it was devotional music up until the 17th century, and maybe a little beyond. And I think as [Western] music became more public and intellectualized, a lot of that emphasis was lost. But in India they've kept the long tradition, an unbroken one, and it's really an oral tradition; one person gives it to another.

"Actually," he says by way of demure understatement, "I've been pretty active lately in terms of performing; I make five or six trips to Europe every year. I perform in India regularly, and I also do quite a few [performances] around the States. They don't get written about so much, but I am away from home a lot. And I was in Russia last May. I'd been there before, but I'd never performed there, and it was very well-received." (It certainly was; a newspaper review of his concert in Izvestia proclaimed Riley "the greatest composer-pianist since Prokofiev.") "It was really a thrill for me, because I got to play at the Moscow Conservatory and the Sergei Kuryokin Festival in St. Petersburg, and I got to have a lot of interaction with Russian musicians.

"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."

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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