The Musical Life of Riley

As far back as the '60s, Terry Riley began changing the rules of contemporary classical composition. His early classic piece In C was among the first examples of what has (somewhat incongruously) come to be called the Minimalist movement. Composers who have followed in his wake and show a pronounced Riley influence include Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Riley's early work, which featured simple musical patterns that would repeat on themselves, changing ever so slightly until the repetition created a sonic quilt of many layers, was alternately hypnotic, disturbing, soothing and exhilarating. It also was unlike anything else being written or performed in its era. In the early 1970s he became a student of North Indian musician Pandit Pran Nath, whose teachings and tutelage have informed his work ever since.

During a recent phone conversation with the composer from his California home, I asked how he came to be drawn to Eastern music.

"It happened when I met Pran Nath. I had already been somewhat interested in Indian music before that time."

He went on to explain that Indian forms have always allowed for more improvisation and his own music has always had improvisational elements.

The label "Minimalist" has always seemed to me like a bad choice to describe Terry Riley's multilayered and ever flowing music. He's quick to agree. "It is the wrong word, but the label is somewhat unavoidable now." He also points out that his early work is now 30 to 40 years past. "My music is quite different now. Some people may want me to go back to what I did back then, but one has to keep moving on. You don't want to bore yourself. There are still elements of what's come before in the music I'm doing these days, but my approach has become much broader."