Terry Riley has become a totemic presence in music over the past half-century: a pioneer of minimalism, a godfather of sampling and ambient house, and a shamanic hero to generations of hipsters. As he celebrates his 80th birthday, it’s something of a shock to see him on stage – fulsome beard, pink scarf, grey tweed blazer – playing a key role in proceedings.
He has composed three new compositions, featuring nine members of the London Contemporary Orchestra and the 18 voices of the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. Riley starts by singing a melismatic raga in his growly baritone, and follows it with two pieces that recall Carl Orff’s spooky Schulwerk music, all clattering toy pianos, tuned percussion and child voices.
The initial idea was to present these orchestral pieces in the first half, with Riley playing solo on the piano and synthesiser in the second. Instead he incorporates his lengthy improvisations into the compositions, which makes for a slightly disjointed show: just as each orchestral piece starts to become hypnotically interesting, it’s interrupted by Riley playing solo. Nevertheless, Riley’s solos are wonderful to behold. He creates strange, zither-like textures on a prepared piano, before removing all the bolts and clips from the strings and playing the piano untreated, in a florid, modal style pitched somewhere between Alice Coltrane and Keith Jarrett. Towards the end of the show he switches to a Korg Triton and plays a garbled, ecstatic freakout using a mix of organ and choir voicings.
It’s faintly reassuring to hear Riley’s summer-of-love utopianism echoed in the lyrics: just as his sleevenotes to 1969’s Rainbow in Curved Air fantasise of a day when “the Pentagon was turned on its side and painted purple, yellow & green”, here his words (“look to the skies and dream; why commute to work underground?”) reject urbanisation and long for a pre-industrial bucolic idyll. Ironically, Riley’s music is as joyously futuristic as ever.