Features I by I 06.11.12

Overwhelmed with sound: Terry Riley interviewed

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Terry Riley interviewed


Half a century ago, Terry Riley went on a road trip.

He drove all the way “from the tip of Spain up to Paris, taking quite a bit of time to do it,” and passing through Aix, Nimes and Arles along the way. When he got to Paris, he created a milestone in modern music. The first remix, perhaps; or the first piece of tape music to take extensive loops from a jazz recording and screw with them. Either way, it was the gateway to what proved to be an even more significant work, realised upon returning home to San Francisco.

The significance of In C for the music of the second half of the twentieth century has been compared to that of The Rite of Spring for the first. It was the beginning of the minimalist, pulse-based music made famous by Philip Glass and Steve Reich (and later sampled by everyone from The Orb to Cannibal Ox to Jay-Z), and signalled a return to tonal harmony after decades of a concert repertoire dominated by astringent dodecaphony. Western music was never the same again.

Just shy of fifty years later, I sat down for a chat with Terry Riley, who was in Arles once more to perform at the opening of a new installation by Californian artist, Doug Aitken.


“I like to learn from everybody.”


“I like to learn from everybody. I like to work with everybody. I always feel like, if I hear something – some musicians doing something that pricks up my ears – then I want to do it too. I want to learn what that is and incorporate it into the whole stream of the work I do. I don’t mind being influenced if it’s something that really is beautiful.”

The last time I saw Terry Riley speak was two years ago, at a Wire Salon Q&A at London’s Cafe Oto. He was having trouble with the noise then, always asking that the volume be turned down every time they played an extract from one of his works. Tonight, as we sit around a small table in a former train running shed with Aitken’s multi-screen extravaganza hammering away in the next room, Riley is once more wishing for a little more peace and quiet. “I feel like I’m in a bomb shelter!” he complains. “I like the sound, but it’s hard to think. Just feeling a little overwhelmed with sound …”

An hour or so earlier, accompanied by son Gyan on guitar and Tracy Silverman on electric violin, Riley performed his own live soundtrack to Aitken’s video work. Moving around the room as the multi-screen film played – he tells me that at one point the idea was to have him on a cart, pulled by donkey throughout the installation – Riley himself switched between using a harmonium, his voice processed through a digital harmoniser, and a Steinway grand piano alternately played traditionally on the keyboard and struck with bolts applied directly to the strings, like one of John Cage’s prepared pianos. This being the centenary of Cage’s birth, I wonder if this was meant as a deliberate homage.


“There was a kind of mystical element to these clumsy processes with magnetic tape that attracted me. I could hear deeply into the sound.”


“No, it wasn’t conscious at all,” he insists, adding, “I’ve just used bolts because I like the gong sounds.” For Riley, the point of this still-unusual technique is to “take it out of that classical piano sound and give it another direction.”

Terry Riley has been finding alternative directions in which to take things throughout his career. Even at school, he had looked for inspiration to composers “who had very strong ideas,” like Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. At San Francisco State University in the mid-’50s, he engaged in free improvisation sessions with composers Pauline Oliveros and Loren Rush. Later in the decade, he switched to UC Berkeley where he met a bearded ex-Mormon jazz freak named La Monte Young. The two soon became inseparable and Young introduced Riley to John Coltrane, Japanese gagaku, Indian classical music, and the idea of a music based around long, sustained tones.

This sense of suspension, of time standing still – perhaps best summed up by the score of a La Monte Young piece from 1960 which consisted simply of two notes a perfect fifth apart and the instruction “to be held for a long time” – would follow Riley throughout his career and become one of the cornerstones of the minimalist idea. It is also what drew Riley and Doug Aitken together. “We were both interested in stasis in music and images,” Riley confirms. “I knew that working with him would be very simpatico.” The other key feature of minimalism to develop at the turn of the 50s and 60s was the loop.


“That’s the sort of thing that’s always interested me: things where you can’t quite figure out what you are hearing.”


It was in Paris, in 1963, earning a living playing boogie-woogie piano at American military bases, that Riley was asked by the director, Ken Dewey, to compose something for a theatre piece called The Gift. Chet Baker had just been released from jail in Italy, so Riley took him to the studios of the French national radio and had his band play Miles Davis’s ‘So What’, recording them both individually and as a group. Then he mixed the tapes down, letting the different parts run out of phase with each other, creating tape loops and delay effects on the fly.

A few years earlier, Pierre Schaeffer had created the Groupe de Recherches Musicales for the development of musique concrète, at the same institution, but it was not to Schaeffer’s studios that Riley turned. “I was interested,” Riley says now of his attitude towards the GRM, “but I didn’t pursue it the same way.” As far as he could see, the point was not the detached manipulation of abstract sound objects, but rather “to expand the whole sonic palette.” For Riley, tape music was also a manual labour, a kind of instrument in itself (in contrast to Schaeffer’s insistence that the studio was not an instrument). “Manipulating tape by hand was dealing with frequencies that were in between the notes,” he says. “You could have slides, and you could use grainy noises.”

It’s the way the notes deteriorate and degenerate with time – such at least was the way he had put it back in 2010 at Cafe Oto. So I wonder what he thinks of the lossless reproductive capabilities of digital formats. “Well, there is a kind of blandness to a lot of digital sound,” he laments. “It’s precise, but there was a kind of mystical element to these clumsy processes with magnetic tape that attracted me. I could hear deeply into the sound. It wasn’t explicit. It wasn’t saying one thing or another. It was sort of in between the cracks. And that’s the sort of thing that’s always interested me: things where you can’t quite figure out what you are hearing.”


It was this experience with working with loops in Paris that led to the development of In C back in San Francisco. With a score consisting of just fifty-three short phrases – mostly just a few notes long, occasionally stretching out to more extensive passages – appended by a note adding, “Any number of any kind of instruments can play”, nothing quite like In C had been done before. The genius is in how simple and how adaptable it is. Each player can play each phrase as many times as they choose, pause and drop out when they choose, even skip a pattern if they can’t play it for some reason. Since its 1964 premier, the piece has been recorded by everyone from the Shanghai Film Orchestra to Acid Mothers Temple. Ghostly International have even done a remix album.


“When I wrote In C, for instance – believe it or not – that was an act of bravery because nobody was writing tonal music then.”


On reflection, Riley seems somewhat nonplussed by the achievement, almost tired of it. At Cafe Oto he had refused to talk about it at all. “When I wrote In C, for instance – believe it or not – that was an act of bravery because nobody was writing tonal music then,” he tells me. It’s an act of bravery he puts down to the example of John Cage who by this time Riley had become friends with, performing alongside him whenever the older composer came by the Bay Area. “I think the main thing that Cage taught me was that you can almost do anything. He gave people the courage to do whatever they wanted and it still be art – to strike out in any direction. ”

That first performance in 1964 counted amongst its players many of the people who would go on to spread the minimalist gospel to the world: Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, and Jon Gibson, who would later play in Philip Glass’s band as well as taking part in first performances of works by Frederic Rzewski, Steve Reich, Harold Budd, Alvin Curran, and Arthur Russell. It took place at the San Francisco Tape Music Center on Divisadero Street, at the eastern edge of Haight-Ashbury.

“I think that all the musicians that were involved in the San Francisco Tape Music Center were what you would call non-academics,” says Riley. “Most of us were just out of school, we didn’t want to pursue any kind of academic path. And our music wasn’t necessarily accepted anywhere else. So everybody thought, well why don’t we make a place … ?”


“Our music wasn’t accepted anywhere else. So everybody thought, well why don’t we make a place … ?”


When the Center was founded, Riley was in Europe, driving through France and “taking quite a bit of time to do it,” but its founders, Oliveros, Subotnick and Ramon Sender, were old friends. Before the Tape Music Center was founded, Sender had had “a small room” with an Ampex tape machine at the San Francisco Conservatory. Riley had taken part in the Sonics concerts Sender had put on there, and worked on an early tape piece called Mescaline Mix with Sender’s help and equipment. “That was really the beginning of the Tape Music Center,” Riley recalls.

The Tape Music Center was pivotal not just in the development of minimalist music but the whole lineage of electronic music. It was here that Donald Buchla developed his Buchla Box, one of the first modular synthesizers, and several of the Center’s founders were also key players in the organisation (with Stewart Brand and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters) of the infamous Trips Festival of 1966 documented in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.

The Trips Festival was not only the moment when the hippie LSD underground went overground – it was also the first of a series of mid- to late-60s encounters between the world of rock music and avant-garde electronic music, as the event saw the Buchla Box and bands like The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company playing side by side. Yet, having offered a few pioneering works in the genre earlier in the decade, by this point Terry Riley was “kind of sat on the sidelines a bit”, developing his keyboard techniques and ultimately travelling to India to study Hindustani classical music.


“I was kind of a drop-out!


I was curious to know how it must have felt the first time Riley encountered musics like house and techno, having once been signed to CBS and performed at the Electric Circus, then leaving that world behind for several years. Would there have been an almost uncanny shock of recognition in hearing the application of those typical post-disco virtues of a pared-down dynamic range and sound palette, emphasis on loops and repetition, the trancelike swell to intensity?

“Well, of course I recognised that,” he agreed, while allowing that his “own direction veered off to another side.” Riley spent several decades studying under Pandit Pran Nath, both in India and in the States. And upon returning to the grind of concertising, it was to a more intimate form of address; eschewing the loud harmonics of the electric organ for the piano, and striking up a long and productive relationship with the Kronos Quartet. “So during that whole time, technology developed,” he says. “But then again, it interested me less – and still does to some degree.”

Not wholly disinterested in new technology, however. For Mr Riley has a new toy. “I bought this voice harmoniser thing,” he says with an evident glee. “I just got it a couple of weeks ago, and I know it’s going to take me somewhere. I’ll do something with it. It’ll be a step along the way.” The septuagenarian is also finding inspiration from his own son. “His path was so different than mine. He went to the conservatory. He was kind of a straight-A student,” Riley beams of his composer-guitarist son, now 35. “I was kind of a drop-out!” he admits. “We’re very different, but we have a very strong bond musically. It’s on a very high intuitive level when we work. Very little verbal communication goes on. I’ve learned from him. That’s what’s really exciting to me. I like to learn from everybody.”

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