On the Record is a weekly column that rounds up details about new and pending recordings of interest to the new-music community: contemporary classical music and jazz, electronic and electroacoustic music, and idioms for which no clever genre name has been coined, on CD, vinyl LP, cassette, digital-only formats… you name it.
This list of upcoming release dates is culled from press releases, Amazon and other online record stores, social-media posts, and similar resources. Dates cited correspond to U.S. release of physical recordings where applicable, and are subject to change. These listings are not comprehensive—nor could they be! To submit a forthcoming recording for consideration, email information to email@example.com.
Gyan Riley: A Sprig Grows in Brooklyn
To say that the guitarist and composer Gyan Riley grew up in a musical household is to state the painfully obvious… he’s the son of Terry Riley, the iconic composer and keyboard improviser who changed the course of modern music with works like In C,A Rainbow in Curved Air, and Poppy Nogood & the Phantom Band. Father and son have performed together widely and frequently, and continue to do so.
But Gyan, whose given name is pronounced with a quick, hard G followed with yahn – “I tell people, if you can’t remember, think ‘Gyan With the Wind,'” he explains – is very much his own man. In 2010 transplanted himself from the California Bay Area to New York City, where he soon fell in among John Zorn’s multifarious circle of creative collaborators.
On March 30, Riley will release his newest solo album, Sprig, on National Sawdust Tracks, the label managed by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, his longtime friend and collaborator. Vernal, organic, and bursting with life, the music is a timely arrival – and for every physical copy of the album sold, Riley has arranged with American Forests to plant a new tree. He’ll herald the album’s arrival with a concert at National Sawdust on March 29. Speaking by phone from his home in Brooklyn in the wake of New York City’s latest blizzard, he talked about his origin as a guitarist and composer, the gestation of his style, and what prompted him to use the album to take an ecological stand.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Obviously you grew up in a musical household, but when it was that you identified the guitar as being your tool of choice?
GYAN RILEY: I was 16. I didn’t actually start playing guitar until I was 11 or 12… I won a guitar in a raffle in my hometown. I was kind of trudging through Suzuki violin before that, not very successfully. So I had this guitar and I just took to it, and it was pretty apparent immediately that I was going to do it very seriously… you know, in the summertime playing like eight hours, just playing all day long. Even though I didn’t really have any guidance yet at that point, I was figuring things out, tinkering on it, and had enough understanding of how to play a string instrument to just kind of teach myself a little bit.
A few years later, what sealed it was I went to this classical guitar seminar over the summer in Arcata, California, at Humboldt State [University], and it was one of those things where they get the leading figures from all over the world to come participate in master classes and concerts, workshops and lectures and everything. I knew very little about about the classical guitar, and it just completely kind of blew this whole world wide open for me. That was when I knew: I was like, OK, I’m going to go for it. I’ve got a couple of years before I need to apply to colleges, and I’m going to try to go to conservatory.
Zooming in on that experience, I wonder what it was that you were drawn to instinctively in terms of repertoire… whether it was the sort of formal Andrés Segovia – Julian Bream – John Williams kind of high-classical axis, or if it was more contemporary stuff?
It was both, although admittedly as a 16 year old I was less interested in hearing Berio’s Sequenzas then I was hearing like, you know, beautifully played Bach on a Baroque lute.
I gradually got my feet wet with the more contemporary stuff. And then, as you know, it’s a slippery slope: before I knew it [laughs] I was waist-deep in all kinds of crazy music. I got into it a little bit slowly – and part of that is that when you’re in a conservatory, you’re required to play music from all the periods. Whether I wanted to or not, I had to play a lot of Renaissance, Romantic, and Classical-era music. Basically, by the time I was in conservatory, all I wanted to play was either Baroque music or 20th century repertoire. And this has to do in what was written for the instrument – stylistically, the Romantic and Classical-era stuff didn’t really sit with me as well as the Baroque and contemporary music.
For me, it wasn’t enough… and I think a lot of that is that when you’re serious about the western classical music tradition, you spend hours and hours a day preparing that stuff. At that point I’d already started to figure out how much dedication it would take, so I wanted to feel good about the way I was spending my time, and not feel like it was work. That’s kind of how I got into composing, because I found that every time I would sit down to really work on a contemporary piece, I would find myself annoyed by the elements that I didn’t like about it. And then at one point I realized, well, like the political thing: if you’re going to complain about it, you better do something about it.
Most of the original music that I’ve heard from you has been not of a sort of classical severity so much as something that seems very open and porous to other elements, other aspects, other styles of music. As you were developing your compositional chops and shaping your idiom, what were your major influences? Did the so-called New Age guys like Will Ackerman and Michael Hedges had any kind of influence, or were you really pursuing a more classical line of thought?
Good question. When I first started seriously writing music, I was still in school, and I was surrounded by all these western classical composers, and the music that I started writing when I was more, at first anyway, influenced by these forms… say, sonata form, or theme and variations, or any of the classical forms leading up to where I came into it. And then at one point, after I finished my studies, I realized that the music that I was most taken by didn’t fall into those forms, so it seemed a little bit unnatural to be working like that.
Often the music that I was most inspired by was music from folk traditions. And you can stretch that, I would even say, like blues and jazz and ragtime and into the American element of folk music and rock. There was this kind of tug of war: How is that relevant in the greater spectrum? And then at one point I just stopped caring about how or if it was relevant, and just kind focus on writing whatever I was hearing and not caring about the relevance of it.
At one point I heard a quote from somebody – it might have have been my dad who said it, now that I’m thinking about it. it’s something he would say [laughs], whether or not it was actually him. It was like, “I don’t care about originality; I care about how deep something gets, how deep something can go into a mood or into a space that music can take you. Especially in this day and age, being original is increasingly difficult. If that’s your sole aim, it kind of begs the question: what’s the point? But I’m kind of digressing a bit…
I guess what I’m wondering is at what point you started paying attention to guitarists outside of the classical sphere, and really allowing yourself to, as you said, to, evolve into doing what it was you wanted to hear.
I can remember my parents took me down to Oakland to hear the John McLaughlin Trio with Dominique Di Piazza and Trilok Gurtu to when I was about 17 years old. I don’t know if you ever went to the old Yoshi’s in Rockridge… it was tiny and a really, really special atmosphere. Every seat was good – except for mine, because there’s this really tall guy sitting in front of me. My dad had met John McLaughlin, so at the intermission after the first set he went to say hello and introduced me. And he said, “How is it?” I said, “Well, it’s great, except that I can’t see anything!” [Laughs] And so he arranged to have me sitting in the seat right in front of him.
It was a completely life-changing experience for me to see someone play the guitar like that, the improvisational abilities. It was a genre of music that I didn’t know existed, and so much talent and creativity with all the musicians, and so much interplay. It was kind of like the most elaborate composition I had never envisioned, and it was largely being created on the fly. So that was a major pivotal experience for me.
You mentioned Michael Hedges… I actually had the privilege of hearing him. It wasn’t like a kind of music that I had really paid much attention to before, but I was really struck by his presentation and his sort of aura when he was onstage. He presented a very, very clear picture of his artistry in a bit of a quirky way, but it was super-effective. And he was doing something that I’d never heard before, either. He really forged a new style that a lot of people have imitated over the years.
Absolutely. So when did you get to New York?
Seven and a half years ago, in 2010.
Have you sensed fundamental changes in the way you hear and make music since you moved from one coast to the other? Has New York gotten under your skin in that way?
Absolutely. [Laughs] I can’t imagine anybody moving here and not having it get under their skin…you’d have to be holed up in your apartment. For all the wonderful things about California and the Bay Area, one thing that I was lacking there was feeling like I was creatively poked in my sides constantly to try new things. As soon as I got to New York, there were so many different things happening constantly around me. I also didn’t know that many people and I didn’t have any work, so I was going out all the time, almost every night, to hear some music and try to meet new people.
One of the big things that happened is I started working with John Zorn. His family of artists is super broad, so just having an in to that world. I became aware of something so much different music that was being created, all across stylistic borders. I also started working with Dither, the electric guitar quartet, shortly after I arrived here. I had barely played electric guitar at all when I moved here – I don’t even know if I had one, to be honest. And those guys are masters of sound and pedal usage and electronics, tonal variety and stuff like that. So that was a major learning experience.
I feel like you might have addressed this in a recent interview I read, but when you’re traveling in these very heady avant-garde music circles, do you have to stop and remind yourself from time to time that it’s OK to just play pretty?
You know, it’s funny: no matter what happens with me, I always come back to the simplicity and beauty of the acoustic instrument. It’s like it’s therapy for me. It’s not that I don’t love everything else, just that there’s something about it… even the tactile sensation of playing an acoustic guitar is so important. It’s medicinal, almost.
Let’s talk about the music on Sprig. Specifically I’m wondering, in terms of your practice, whether that music was composed first, improvised first, or some mix of both approaches?
On this album, it’s almost entirely improvised first. Usually my guitar music is just improvisational moments that stick in some way, shape, or form, and I at some point develop them into something that has a form. Sometimes it’s in 10 minutes, and sometimes it’s in five years. [Laughs] In this case, on this album, what I was really happy about is that… this is my first solo record in seven years, which is a really long time.
Timing-wise, does that mean this is your first New York solo album?
Kind of, although my last solo album was on Tzadk, and even though I recorded it in California, it was released just after I moved to New York. So depending on whether or not you count that, yes and no.
So this is the first one that you made here?
Yeah, yeah… although I did record it in California.
Oh, OK. Well, the music gestated here.
Oh, definitely. Entirely, yeah, I developed all the music here. What was nice about this is that there was no pressure to get anything done with this. These are just ideas that came into being over the last seven years, and I didn’t have a label champing at the bit for an album. There was absolutely no pressure, so I was able to just let things develop on their own. and that was really nice to be able to do that.
Do you feel like there’s a thematic strand throughout? I’m going from the title, the whole notion of a sprig, but there’s also definitely a literal sense of nature and conservation present in the way that you’re presenting the album. Is that intrinsic to the music, or something that came to you after the fact?
I can’t say there’s any musical connection; I almost never write anything that could be considered programmatic. Especially with instrumental music, it can be hard to make those connections successfully. I think that it’s more a sentiment of connection with the music. One of the things that really separates this album from my last one, for example, is the music is much more distilled. In fact, the title track came from a piece that I had written previously – I realized at some point that in this eight-minute piece that I wrote, I think there were two measures that I was really happy with [laughs] and I would find myself kind of trudging through the rest of it. So at one point, I just started kind of playing around with that, and it became the title track.
So musically, for me, this record is really about distilling the elements that I think are important in a piece, and having the goal be to preserve whatever sentiment is attractive about that music to me, and get rid of everything else. It’s kind of what you were saying earlier: to be OK with something being beautiful, to not be pressured by feeling like something needs to be complex to be important, to just accept that you like whatever element, whatever character about a piece, and often that’s going to be beauty. And that’s OK. That’s actually great. The world needs more of that.
Finally, what made you decide to go the route of linking sales of this album to tree conservation?
I had been thinking a lot about what I could do, as many people have in the limelight of the Trump election. One of the things that kept resonating across conversations in pubs and social media and everything, it’s like, what can we actually do about it as citizens? One of the things that kept coming up is, now more than ever, to support the sort of anti-establishment organizations – the conservationist movements, Planned Parenthood, everything that you possibly can that you really believe in – to give as much as you can, monetarily and energy-wise, just to counter what’s going to be happening politically.
I’ve always avoided having any sort of social connection with the music I make. For some reason, that never occurred to me as something that I should be doing, or that I would want to do. But then I was thinking, and in a couple of minutes it made perfect sense to me. It was like, what is this album really about to me? and, What do I care about, and what would I like to see happen in the world? Given where I was raised and the environment I grew up in, preserving that is really, really important. And seeing devastation happen increasingly over time, and knowing that it was just going to get worse, I realized that this is something that could be really nice. And really, what hit me is: oh, the title of the record is Sprig – I can’t believe I didn’t think of this! [Laughs]
There’s a beautiful unity between the creativity and activist urges you’ve expressed with this album.
I hope people can feel that connection, because if you’re not strumming a guitar and singing lyrics about specific things, it’s hard to understand that. It’s hard to see that; it’s much more sort of subtle and suggestive in the ways we’ve been discussing. But that’s the way I feel it, and I hope other people can see that and hear that.
Sprig is due March 30, 2018, on National Sawdust Tracks in vinyl, CD, and digital formats; pre-ordering is available now via Bandcamp. Gyan Riley celebrates the album’s arrival at National Sawdust on March 29 at 7pm; nationalsawdust.org
New This Week
Arild Andersen – In-House Science (ECM) Karl Berger – In a Moment – Music for Piano & Strings (Tzadik) Jakob Bro – Returnings (ECM) Caroline Davis – Heart Tonic (Sunnyside) Yuko Fujiyama – night wave (Innova) Kyle Gann – Hyperchromatica (Other Minds) David Garland – Verdancy (Tall Owl Music; relatedLog articlehere) Anne Guthrie – Brass Orchids (Students of Decay) Ah Young Hong – a breath upwards – vocal works by Milton Babbitt and Michael Hersch (Innova) Ursula K. Le Guin & Todd Barton – Music and Poetry of the Kesh (Freedom to Spend; related Log article here) Lucy Railton – Paradise 94 (Modern Love) Scott Worthington – Orbit (IIKKI; related Log article here)
(☆ – new addition this week)
Hong Chulki/Will Guthrie – Mosquitoes and Crabs (Erstwhile) Toshiya Tsunoda/Taku Unami – Wovenland (Erstwhile) Christian Wolff/Antoine Beuger – Where Are We Going, Today (Erstwhile)
Clarice Jensen – For this from that will be filled – works by Clarice Jensen, Michael Harrison, and Jóhann Jóhannsson (Miasmah) Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Sound Prints – Scandal (Greenleaf Music) Ashley Paul – Lost in Shadows (Slip) Quince Ensemble – Motherland – vocal works by Gilda Lyons, Laura Steenberge, Cara Haxo, and Jennifer Jolley (New Focus) Kristjan Randalu – Absence (ECM) ☆ Christina Vantzou – No. 4 (Kranky) Dan Weiss – Starebaby (Pi Recordings) Patrick Zimmerli Quartet – Clockworks (Songlines)
☆ Leila Abdul-Rauf – Diminution (Cloister Recordings; physical release May 11)
Anthony Braxton – Quartet (Willisau) 1991 Studio (hatOLOGY; reissue) ☆ Sarah Davachi – Let Night Come On Bells End the Day (Recital) Duduka Da Fonseca Trio – Plays Dom Salvador (Sunnyside) Goldmund – Occasus (Western Vinyl) Silvan Schmid Quartet – At Gamut (hatOLOGY) Matthew Shipp – Symbol Systems (hatOLOGY; reissue)
☆ Insub Meta Orchestra – Choices & Melodies (INSUB.)
Basil Athanasiadis – Soft Light – Shonorities (Métier) District Five – Decoy (Intakt) Duo Gazzana – Ravel / Franck / Ligeti / Messiaen (ECM New Series)
Joshua Fineberg – Sonic Fictions – Pascal Contet, Arditti Quartet, Argento Chamber Ensemble/Michel Galante, Talea Ensemble/James Baker (Métier)
Uli Fussenegger – San Teodoro 8 – Ernesto Molinari, Mike Svoboda, Martin Siewert, Uli Fussenegger (Kairos) Globe Unity Orchestra – Globe Unity – 50 Years (Intakt)
Andrew Hamilton – Music for People – Michelle O’Rourke, Juliet Fraser, Maxime Echadour, Crash Ensemble, Ives Ensemble/Alan Pierson (NMC) Alexander Knaifel – Lukomoriye – Oleg Malov, Tatiana Melentieva, Piotr Migunov, Lege Artis Choir/Boris Abalian (ECM New Series)
Mike McGinnis with Steve Swallow & Art Lande – Singular Awakening (Sunnyside) Maria Monti – Il Bestario (Unseen Worlds; reissue, LP/CD only) Luigi Nono – Como una ola de fuerza y luz; …..sofferte onde serene…; Paulo de Assis – unfolding waves… con luigi nono – Claudia Barainsky, Jan Michiels, SWR Experimentalstudio, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Peter Rundel, Léo Warinsky (Kairos) Wenchen Qin – Orchestral Works – Weiwei Lan, Wei Ji, Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien/Gottfried Rabl (Kairos) Edward Simon – Sorrows & Triumphs (Sunnyside) Karlheinz Stockhausen – Kurzwellen – C.L.S.I Ensemble/Paul Méfano (Mode) John Zorn – Insurrection (Tzadik)
☆ Charmaine Lee – Ggggg (Anticausal Systems) ☆ Weston Olencki – emulsions I-IV (Anticausal Systems)
Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog – WRU Still Here? (Northern Spy) Tigue – Strange Paradise (New Amsterdam/NNA Tapes) Nils Vigeland/Reiko Fueting/Daniel Lippel/John Popham – “…through which the past shines…” – solo and chamber works for guitar by Nils Vigeland and Reiko Fueting (New Focus) ☆ Philip White & Chris Pitsiokos – Collapse (Anticausal Systems)
Architek Percussion – The Privacy of Domestic Life – works by Adam Basanta, Taylor Brook, Duncan Schouten, and Beavan Flanagan (Centrediscs) Michael Gordon – Clouded Yellow – Kronos Quartet, Young People’s Chorus of New York City/Francisco J. Nuñez (Cantaloupe Music) Michael Torke – Unconquered – Philadelphia Orchestra/Cristian Macelaru (Ecstatic)
Michael Blake– The Philosophy of Composition: Works for Violoncello and Piano – Friedrich Gauwerky, Daan Vandewalle (Wergo) ☆ Simone Dinnerstein & A Far Cry – Circles – concertos by Bach and Philip Glass (Orange Mountain Music)
Roman Filiú – Quarteria (Sunnyside) ☆ María Grand – Magdalena (Biophilia) Dave Holland, Evan Parker, Craig Taborn & Ches Smith – Uncharted Territories (Dare2 Records; related Log article here) ☆ Oracle Hysterical – Hecuba (National Sawdust Tracks) Steve Reich – Live/Electronic Music (Analog Spark; vinyl reissue) Lisa Steich – pietà – Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra/Gregor Mayrhofer, hand werk/Niklas Seidl, Vokalensemble Kölner Dom/Eberhard Metternich, ensemble recherche, UT insieme vocale-consonante/Lorenzo Donati (Wergo)
Daniel Carter, William Parker & Matthew Shipp – Seraphic Light (AUM Fidelity) Rachel Grimes – The Doctor from India (Original Soundtrack) (Mossgrove Music)
Robert Honstein – An Economy of Means – Karl Larson, Douglas Perkins (New Focus) ☆ Stephanie Richards – Fullmoon (Relative Pitch)
☆ Sarah Bernstein – Crazy Lights Shining (Phase Frame)
Loadbang – Old Fires Catch Old Buildings – works by Scott Wollschleger, Angélica Negrón, Taylor Brook, Paula Matthusen, William Lang, Jeffrey Gavett, and Reiko Fueting
Exclusively on National Sawdust Log, watch a gorgeous animated-collage video for "My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell," the title track from a forthcoming LP by composer and cellist Nick Storring.
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