Terry Riley at 80
A couple of weeks ago I watched the 10 members of the Richard Alston Dance Company perform a piece called Overdrive, set to Terry Riley’s “Keyboard Studies No 1”. The inventiveness of the choreography and the supple energy of the dancers — notably the remarkable Liam Gillick — made Riley’s steadily shifting patterns, composed in 1964, sound as though they had been minted that morning.
Riley celebrates his 80th birthday today: June 24, 2015. He’s been one of my heroes since I heard the first recording of his composition In C at the end of the ’60s. It’s a pivotal piece in the evolution of modern music: a key element of the evolutionary burst that emanated from the apartment behind a Chinese laundry on West 55th Street in New York City where Gil Evans, George Russell, John Lewis and others gathered to discuss the direction of music in the late ’40s, coming up with new thoughts that were focused through the lens of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, whose radical approach to harmonic structure and temporal perception provided the inspiration for everything from James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” through the so-called minimalists — Young, Riley, Glass and Reich — to the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” and much more.
Anyway, that’s an old story now. Riley’s music, however, never gets old. I wouldn’t want to be without the music he created in Paris in 1963 for Ken Dewey’s play The Gift, manipulating a tape of Chet Baker’s quartet, or the sampling exercises “You’re No Good” and “Bird of Paradise”, using the eponymous disco hit by Harvey Averne and a fragment of Jr Walker’s “Shotgun” respectively. Or the endlessly influential A Rainbow in Curved Air, or his collaboration with John Cale on Church of Anthrax, or his lovely 2011 album of live performances with his son, the guitarist Gyan Riley. Or the many solo improvisations with titles like Shri Camel, Poppy Nogood and his Phantom Band, Descending Moonlight Dervishes and Persian Surgery Dervishes. Or every version of In C that I can find, including the one recorded by Africa Express in Mali last year. Or, by no means least, the vinyl bootleg of his wonderful duo performance with Don Cherry, recorded in Cologne in 1975.
And then there are his string quartets, including no fewer than 27 works commissioned by the Kronos Quartet over the past 35 years. In 2002 I travelled to the University of Iowa to hear the world premiere of one of them, and to write a piece for the Guardian (here it is). The piece was called Sun Rings, and it was built around noises recorded by NASA’s Uranus probes as they travelled the galaxy. These sounds — a collection of random chirps and whistles — were controlled by the four members of the quartet, using touch devices. They were augmented by a 60-piece choir, using a key phrase from the writer Alice Walker: “One earth, one people, one love”, against back-projections devised — with the aid of NASA’s library — by the stage designer Willie Williams.
One Earth, One People, One Love is the title given to a celebratory five-CD box of Kronos/Riley collaborations released in the US this week and in the UK on July 10. Four of the discs contain the previously released versions of Salome Dances for Peace (1989), Requiem for Adam (2001) and The Cusp of Magic (2008), but the fifth — also available as a single CD — takes its title from a new recording of the first piece Riley wrote for the quartet, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector (1980), and also includes Cadenza on the Night Plain (1983), plus other bits and pieces.
Among those bits and pieces is the movement from Sun Rings called “One Earth, One People, One Love”, which, taken in isolation, presents itself as one of the most beautiful and moving pieces in Riley’s catalogue. Featuring a prominent cello melody against the whooshes of the electron particles captured by NASA’s sensors and the gentle tolling of what sounds like a prayer bell from a Shinto temple, with the voices of Walker and the astrophysicist Don Gurnett in the background, it’s a piece of extraordinary depth and poignancy. (Here’s a version recorded at a Kronos concert in Germany in 2010.)
It’s the kind of thing, in fact, that makes you think a little harder about the world around you. But even when the content of Riley’s music has been less explicit, it’s always had the knack of doing that. And sometimes, too, it inspires people to dance. So best wishes to him for a happy birthday, and for many more of them.
* The photograph of Terry Riley was taken by Fabio Falcioni and is the cover image of Fabrizio Ottaviucci’s album of his piano pieces, Keyboard Studies 1-2 / Tread on the Trail, released on the Stradivarius label in 2008.