Terry Riley’s next birthday is June 24, 2020, when he’ll turn 85. But the groundbreaking minimalist composer is already celebrating, and it’s a party on wheels. He’s booked dozens of concerts stretching through next summer, including tributes at Knoxville’s Big Ears festival in March – where he may perform a rare organ piece (“We’ll see if I can still get up on the bench”) – plus two European tours and an assortment of other dates around the United States.
“There’s a general flow of energy and optimism over people’s lifetime,” says Gyan Riley, the composer’s son, a guitarist and animated presence on the New York new music scene, “and this is a special period for him.”
Both Rileys, who tour as a duo, will be at Pioneer Works in Red Hook for “Terry Riley Live at 85,” with all-star performances Dec. 20 and 21 that honor some of Terry Riley’s landmark work – including a new version of the 1969 classic A Rainbow in Curved Air – and present rare live collaborations, including the elder Riley’s duo with John Zorn, and Gyan’s with an ensemble performance of Tread on the Trail, a mid-1960s piece written in the same period that produced In C, Riley’s most famous and oft-recorded work. Guest musicians include Okkyung Lee, Greg Fox (Liturgy, Zs), Angel Deradoorian (ex-Dirty Projectors), Yuka C. Honda (Cibo Matto), and Travis Laplante, among others.
Although the Rileys feature a variation on Rainbow at their shows, the ensemble performance – conceived with their input, but including neither musician – will be a rare one. “It’s one of my favorite pieces of Terry’s,” says Par Neiberger, whose Outer Ear Projects co-presents the concerts. “In New York, most of us have seen In C performed multiple times by multiple ensembles, but you never get a chance to see an ensemble perform A Rainbow in Curved Air”—much less with younger musicians from the New York indie/improv scenes, who can take a deep dive into what Neiberger identifies as the music’s “fourth world” qualities – the trajectory out of Indian classical music into the minimalism of Riley and fellow composer LaMonte Young, especially.
Reached by phone recently in Moscow, Riley was enjoying a much-needed day off amid a crisscross tour of Europe and points further east. Unlike musicians who dread the rigors of travel, Riley takes a spark from the road, as I discovered last fall when he headlined a gig at Krakow’s Unsound Festival staged in a salt mine. Along with his son, he was happy to hang out for a good while after the show, introduced to one of the city’s most unusual bars – its tables stocked with vintage Singer sewing machines – off the rowdy square in the Jewish quarter. We shared a laugh about that, along with conversation about the two-decade collaboration with Gyan, his affection for jazz standards, why he’s stopped taking commissions and why creating in the present is a lot more interesting than recreating the past.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You and Gyan have a wonderful chemistry onstage, but there’s got to be a lot more than blood to account for that. How would you describe it?
TERRY RILEY: Of course, there’s the genetic thing. The other thing is we’ve developed a language together and grown together as a duo, learned how to play together. The more we do it, the more free we can become with it. Our goal – and what often happens in the best of times onstage – is we’re both thinking like one mind and going to the same places at the same time. That’s pretty exciting, when you don’t have to have a score or anything that’s reminding you where you are; you’re just listening to each other and coming up with a common solution to an improvisation.
You also cover a lot of ground within a set, drifting through genres. The music percolates between jazz, folk, minimalism, Indian sounds, improvisation, electronica.
I think that’s becoming a wider panorama of ideas now that we play with and getting looser with and just having more fun with it.
When we spoke at Unsound in Krakow last year, you talked about how much fun you were having being on the road. Seeing how many concerts are lined up going into 2020, that doesn’t seem to have changed. What keeps you out there?
Especially with the duo, because I get to hang out with my son. I wouldn’t want to have a big band. It’s so easy with just the two of us. I really look forward now to all the moments on the stage, the challenges and the opportunities that arise musically to grow. You can grow a lot when you’re playing on the stage, especially if you’re trying things out and living a little dangerously and letting things happen. This year’s probably the busiest year I’ve had, in sheer numbers of concerts. I’m hardly home at all this year.
While most people in their 80s are looking to kick back, you’re kicking forward…
I’m lucky that I’m still healthy enough to do it, and have the energy to do it. I don’t know what I’d kick back to that I’d enjoy as much. I don’t watch television or movies much. Playing music is really what I want to do.
As part of the Pioneer Works performances, you’re playing a set of standards. What prompted that?
[It’s] something I always do at home but people have been nagging me to try it out in public so I guess I’ll go for it.
What kind of stuff?
Jazz standards, the American songbook stuff, I’ll probably be singing some of them, some jazz standards, too, and some things I’ve written – not standards yet, but something in that light. Once in a while, I’ll throw one in at a concert. I haven’t done a whole set of that material.
I’d hate to say what I’m going to play yet. “Airegin” is something I play a lot. Gyan and I have a version of it, Sonny Rollins’s tune. “Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me,” some of the Cole Porter tunes, Gershwin tunes. If I’m getting ready to go out on tour, I’ll often play standards to get myself warmed up.
What sort of direction do you like to take them in?
I often weave them through some modal, Indian raga scales, go in and out of them, extend them in different ways, just take bars from them and extemporize on just a few bars of them. But I like to take them into some kind of unusual territory.
Does looking back at earlier work – in particular with some of these 85th birthday programs – resonate with you in any particular way? Are you nostalgic at all, or interested in reinterpreting things?
Every once in awhile I’ll unearth something I did 25 years ago, because I hear something in it that I didn’t hear at that time, another way to do it. For the most part, I’m trying to look more forward and going into places where I myself will be kind of surprised what happens.
What sort of process do you use for composing today?
Right now, I’m kind of in a period like I was in the ‘70s, where I wasn’t writing in terms of paper and pencil but I’m composing in my head ideas which then form the basis for compositions. Since I’m mainly just playing with Gyan or solo things, I don’t feel any need to write them down.
I’ve stopped taking commissions from people, because I was feeling too obligated to finish them on time and I didn’t want that kind of pressure. Mainly, what I’m composing now is for me, or for Gyan. A lot of it happens right onstage: we’ll compose whole ideas onstage, which we’ll try to develop on the tour. That’s a lot of fun for me. But as far as paper-and-pencil writing, I’m not doing any of that—or very little of it. Done with that.
So I don’t have to ask you what your composing routine is.
I have a daily routine. When I have a schedule that I can do it, I like to start out each day practicing raga. That gets me tuned up for whatever else I’m going to do that day. And then at nighttime I usually do a lot of piano improvs, standards, or something like that. More and more, I’m trying to integrate ragas into my piano work and the work with Gyan.
I haven’t done any traditional raga with tabla and tamboura for a few years now. After Pandit Pran Nath passed away, I was trying to carry on the mantle of his work, and doing a lot of traditional North Indian raga concerts. I find the most satisfying thing for me now is to use raga as a feeding ground to develop some kind of new form that wouldn’t happen in India or happen in the tradition of Indian music. Pandit Pran Nath always encouraged that. He was saying, “You’re American. You have to create something out of this. I planted the seed in American soil, and now you have to make it grow.”
I try to keep his teachings intact, in terms of the way he taught me composition. But now I really am interested in integrating them into my own kind of form, which I think is the most honest way to approach the work.
When I saw you and Gyan play in Krakow last year, I noticed that the iPad was part of your toolkit. What role does that play?
That always appears in one of our sets. Gyan has developed a way of playing that’s very compatible with the iPad work I’m doing. I wouldn’t be as interested in doing solo iPad, but [like] interacting with him. Sometimes I’ll jump on the keyboard, too, while the iPad is going, and try to extend it even more. And I’ve been doing quite a bit of work with synthesizer and guitar, too. Both being electronic instruments, we’re able to create a bigger orchestral palette.
I know it’s far from a novelty, but it brings a certain element of fun.
Some of the apps are really great musical instruments, and the sounds they’ve been developing are so good it entices me to keep working with it.
One of the major sets at the Pioneer Works shows is a new performance of A Rainbow in Curved Air, so I wanted to ask you about that piece, how it came to be, and what it means to you now.
I was playing the patterns that you hear on the old LP for a couple of years before I recorded it at CBS. In those days, we had very little multitracking [of] instruments. I think Rainbow was the eight-track recording at CBS Studios in New York. They just wheeled it in, it was brand new, and it was on the night I started my sessions. Nowadays, eight-track, people say alright, nothing. Then, we went from stereo to four-track to eight-track in the late ‘60s. It was a major leap. So that recording really wouldn’t have happened had I not had access to the technology.
The release of Rainbow happened around ‘69, so this year was the 50th anniversary. We did a big show in San Francisco, to start out this tour, which was kind of a revisitation of the music. Of course, it’s much different now, because it’s 50 years later. We don’t even try in any way to emulate the record, but we use the material of the record to launch other kinds of improvisations. It’s recognizable as the piece but not as an example of the record. It has a lot to do with the collaboration between the two of us. Now it has electric guitar. Sometimes it has a more grungy feeling. It can get darker. It can go into different areas that have nothing to do with the original. It’s hard to explain in words what we’re doing. We don’t even know what we’re doing some of the times.
That was the classic CBS Studio?
I was recording in two studios for CBS that year, but Rainbow we did uptown. 57th, I think. And then I recorded Church of Anthrax with John [Cale] down at the old 30th Street church. It was a great old place to record, even though it wasn’t soundproofed so you got traffic noise.
Rainbow proved to be very influential on a lot of rock ’n’ roll, and became kind of popular.
It was an underground classic, I guess. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done like that. In C was the first thing that happened that broke the ice. Once it was released, the first big wave of popularity came in the U.K., and there were quite a few performances—even by rock groups like the Soft Machine. That was the first thing that was like my calling card, before my solo keyboard works were heard.
I talked to John recently about getting together again. He’s living in L.A. now, so we may try to cook something else up together.
That would be fantastic.
It’ll be something else. He’s a fantastic musician, and great to work with, because he’s very strong in his opinions. I’m a little strong in mine, too, so we try to find a middle ground.
Touring can be hectic, but do you get a chance to enjoy the travel side of it?
To keep in shape, I need to walk a lot every day. Even if I’m not looking at stuff, I like to to be out walking in the streets and taking in the atmosphere. I’ve been in Paris hundreds and hundreds of times and lived there for 18 months, and I still love walking around.
I love that when you lived in Paris, you were a saloon piano player.
Yeah, I worked in a bar. I worked in a bar [in Place Pigalle] where Cole Porter had been a pianist when he lived in Paris. It had quite a history of famous and semi-famous people playing there.
That was the first of your all-night shows!
I played all night in Paris. I’d start around 10. That bar didn’t close until 4am. I’d be on my bicycle at 4am, pedaling home after the gig. Gyan and I, last year when we there, took a walk to see if that bar was still there, but it was gone. It had been there since before World War I. I also played floor shows for the Strategic Air Command clubs in France. In the ‘60s, there were clubs all over France. I would drive the bus, and drive the floor show artists out, and play the gig, and drive back to Paris.
A lot of dancers?
Dancers, singers, comics… you name it.
That’s a romantic image.
It was an education, hanging out with these people. Some of them were remarkable human beings. I learned a lot from them.
These days, when some people think about minimalism, they may associate it with something academic. But these things that shaped it aren’t academic at all.
Absolutely it had nothing to do with [the] academic. [Laughs]
Terry Riley performs at Pioneer Works on Dec. 20 and 21 at 7pm; pioneerworks.org
Steve Dollar is a freelance journalist and critic for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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