Throw a rock at any group of music fans and you'll likely hit someone who claims to enjoy minimalism. Someone who'll rattle off the charms of a three-hour, "plink-plink" piano piece and act bemused if you don't agree. He'll blather on about spirits set free by minimalism's incessant repetition, using such fu-like adjectives as "meditative" and "hallucinogenic" and "hypnotic."
A lot of people take this stuff seriously.
A lot of us don't.
Terry Riley is a minimalist. At least, he was back in the early Sixties. That's when Riley invented minimalism as we know it. For that, Terry Riley has much to answer for.
"Well, it was 30 years ago," Riley says of his landmark composition In C, the startling and still-solid piece that launched a million lesser efforts. Riley says he was "experimenting with repetition, mainly through the medium of tape loops played against themselves. I had all these cycles going on in different orbits, just like planets orbiting the sun. And to hear stuff like that, even with primitive technology back then, was kind of new. So it led me to think I could do something like that with just instruments. The idea really fascinated me."
The avant-garde of the time proved equally fascinated. "It had a tremendous impact on everybody I showed it to after I'd written it," Riley recalls. "It was immediately affecting people. I could see that. I knew it was a strong idea."
Riley's own ideas would go on to change over the years. He went from the busy In C to the seemingly random noodling of 1969's A Rainbow in Curved Air to a collaboration of near-pop a few years later on John Cale's Church of Anthrax. Through it all, Riley was an influence. His early work with tape effects made a mark with Sixties prog-rock bands, especially those eager to adopt the latest in sonic gobbledygook. (Soft Machine comes gingerly, painfully to mind.)
By the early Seventies, Riley's attention increasingly focused on Eastern music, most notably North Indian raga. Minimalism's pulsing spaciness had always been aligned somewhat with the sounds of the Orient, but on albums like Shri Camel, with its droning, Sufi-smart mysticism, Riley was clearly immersed in ethnic effects.
Shri Camel also marks the maturing of a novel tuning technique Riley dubbed "Just Intonation." It's an altered method of tuning instruments into precise scales of Riley's choosing. The resulting intervals make for sounds and shadings vaguely similar to music from Asia, Africa and Indonesia.
Just Intonation's exotica is evident on a variety of Riley's compositions, but it's in its glory on Chanting the Light of Foresight, Riley's latest disc, recently released on New Albion Records. The disc is made up of six genuinely unique pieces, most of which feature the always-adventurous Rova Saxophone Quartet contorting itself into particularly unorthodox Riley "intonations."
The results are striking. The sounds of richly textured saxophones are everywhere, stopping and starting, honking and moaning, sliding in and out of each other's way. The corresponding mood is like bumping into a different kind of bliss in the dead of night.
Riley notes his skewed tuning proved quite a test for Rova. "Saxophones are constructed to play each interval out at an equal-sized intervalic relationship," he says, slowly. "And so Rova had to come up with a different way to play these tunings, with their armature, their lips and their fingering and stuff."
Rova also had other things to figure out. Like the ancient Irish war story Riley used as a framework for the CD's music.
"When Rova called me to write the quartet, I was trying to make a theatre piece out of this Irish epic I had heard of," he says. "So as I was doing that, I decided to actually use it as an inspiration for the quartet."
The epic in question, the "Tain Bo Coaignge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)," is part of a revered, eighth-century Ulster cycle of heroic derring-do. It's considered an ageless story of courage, strength and enduring fortitude in times of great strife.
Actually, it's a story about a bunch of guys stealing some cows.
"It's kinda hard to describe," Riley says of the storied cattle heist. "This queen has her prize bull stolen from her by another warring tribe. And she has this wonderful warrior--who's also kind of a great mystic--and he helps her get the cow back. There's lots of battles and some wonderful poetry along the way, and descriptions of ways to live. It has a lot of spiritual teachings in it."
After composing the complex individual pieces based on the Tain, Riley sat at a synthesizer and made for Rova a rudimentary tape of his resonant intonations. The idea was to keep the sax group's overall bamboozlement to a minimum. The idea worked.
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"I was really delighted when they got it in tune and they actually got the sounds," Riley beams. "It's very difficult to do. The first part of the first cut, 'The Tuning Path,' we spent a whole day, 12 hours, recording that, just recording those chords over and over again to get it perfectly in tune. It was a very labor-intensive process."
The recording process later included a separate, five-and-a-half-minute blitz of noise composed entirely by Rova. The cut, "The Chord of War," was deemed necessary by the horn blowers after they noticed something was missing from Riley's pieces. Indeed, Riley had written about preparations for combat, and he'd come up with a melancholy, postbattle death chant--but there was nothing about the actual fighting. Rova fixed that by constructing a suitably chaotic piece with Riley's blessings.
That Riley overlooked the concept of violence is understandable. He is, to be sure, a decidedly passive soul. Riley lives a quiet, Zenlike existence at his 27-acre ranch in the Sierra Nevada. He says he spends his morning hours practicing Indian classical music, and then later puts as many hours into the writing and practicing of his own work. Riley does say he takes time to check out what other composers and musicians are up to. His favorite recording right now is by a group of Mauritanian musicians: "It's a bit like Sufi music, you know? It makes you very high."
Such is the life of Riley. At 59 years old, he's one of the grand old men of new music. He's got little left to prove, but Chanting the Light of Foresight shows Riley's still got a lot left in him.
"My ambition," he says, "is not to have a hit CD, but to get that ultimate piece that is totally satisfying, even if nobody else liked it. If I wrote something that to me got really close to what I was trying to express all my life--that would be the ultimate high.