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Posts tagged ‘Terry Riley’

‘In C’ at the Barbican

terry-riley-at-80One of the great qualities of Terry Riley’s In C, a foundational work of modern music, is that it can be played by any number of people using any kind of instruments for as long as they choose to make its sequence of 53 motifs last. Since the appearance of the original album in 1968 it has been recorded by a wide variety of ensembles, including the Shanghai Film Orchestra, Acid Mothers Temple, the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble, Adrian Utley’s Guitar Orchestra, and Africa Express with Damon Albarn and Brian Eno. The original album version lasted 42 minutes, but it can be made to go on much longer. (I haven’t heard of an attempt to compress it into the length of a 45rpm single, but I’ll bet someone’s had a go.)

The fact of its remarkable flexibility, however, does not mean that every performance is guaranteed to be successful. Last night the composer himself, looking wonderfully spry for his 81 years, took his place at a prepared piano amid the London Contemporary Orchestra on stage in the Barbican Hall. Just over 70 minutes later the final chord was greeted with an ovation from a full house. I left feeling flat and disappointed.

In its best performances, In C seems to float not just on its famous eighth-note ostinato (suggested to Riley by Steve Reich, and originally the top two Cs of the piano keyboard) but on the moiré patterns created by the combination of instruments, which could be the  brass, reeds and tuned percussion of the original ensemble or the kora, balafon, melodica and calabash of Africa Express. It’s a magical thing — but not an inevitable product of the score.

Last night’s ensemble of 20 musicians, under the direction of Robert Ames, featured bassoon, clarinet, alto saxophone, flute, two guitars (one of them played by Riley’s son, Gyan), flute, violin, viola, cello, viola da gamba, double bass, chamber organ, celeste, and three singers, with a drummer and two percussionists who reproduced the ostinato in a variety of ways, using various implements. This was not far off the 1968 line-up, in which a group of 11 musicians augmented themselves via overdubbing: 10 instruments at the first pass, seven at the second, giving a maximum aggregate of three trumpets, three saxophones, three trombones, three flutes, three oboes, three violas, three vibraphones, two marimbas, two bassoons, two clarinets and piano, a total of 28.

Sheer weight of numbers, then, could not have been the reason I found the Barbican performance so earthbound. For all the panoply of resources, the only element of variety in use seemed to be that of volume. There were soft passages and louder passages, but the rest of it sounded curiously like a big band riffing rather than an ensemble layering and juxtaposing the short motifs provided by the composer. It was all rather prosaic and — despite the composer’s active, if discreet, presence and the ensemble’s evident enthusiasm — hardly true to the spirit of the piece. There was also a rather imprecise attempt at a bravura ending, signalled by the director, which seemed completely inappropriate.

The first half of the evening had consisted of duets by the Rileys, father and son, mostly for piano and electric guitar, although Terry also sang in a deceptively artless voice and played a plaintive-sounding melodica while the nimble-fingered, quick-witted Gyan switched briefly from his Telecaster to an acoustic instrument. Beginning with a loose-limbed piece based on a raga, the set included a song with a strange fantastical lyric which ended with a line about rolling a joint, and which the elder Riley described, to appreciative laughter, as “the national anthem of California”. Cutting through the hippieish mood from time to time were lightning-fast unisons and slashing chordal passages.

At the time Riley conceived In C, in 1964, he was working as a ragtime pianist in the Gold Street Saloon, a waterfront bar in San Francisco, and in his solo passages last night there were frequent echoes and occasional direct hints of blues, stride, boogie-woogie and other vernacular forms. One piece swayed to an elegant habanera rhythm, and contained some lovely filigreed piano/guitar interplay that exposed the substance beneath the charming surface.

The album titled Live that they released a few years ago on Riley’s own Sri Moonshine Music label, featuring duets recorded between 2004 and 2010 in Drogheda, Nantes, Berkeley and Petaluma, is highly recommended. Those interested in looking further into Riley’s vocal music are directed to Atlantis Nath (2002), another self-distributed album, full of fascinating chants and songs with accompaniments including electronics and a string quartet.

* Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Duplan / Light Motiv

Terry Riley at 80

Terry RileyA 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.