Terry Riley: 'I haven’t felt nailed down to anything'

The contemporary composer celebrates his 80th birthday this year and shows no sign of slowing down, with a blowout weekend at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust on tap. Just don’t call him a minimalist

The American composer-performer Terry Riley has had a year to remember. In the wake of his signing a publishing contract “very late in life” – and thus belatedly entering the repertoire of more musicians – Riley’s rhythmically arresting and sometimes jazzy pieces for two pianists were the basis of this spring’s excellent release by the Zofo duo. Meantime, the Nonesuch label celebrated his 80th birthday by issuing a box set of his opuses, as recorded by the Kronos Quartet (the same group that originally persuaded the composer to re-engage with the string quartet form).

This weekend in New York, Riley will also help to break in one of Brooklyn’s newest venues: the contemporary-minded National Sawdust. During two evening sets on Saturday, he’ll improvise on piano and synthesizer (in the company of his son, the guitarist Gyan Riley). Sunday brings performances of selections from Riley’s “Abbeyozzud” series of guitar works – and, in the late set, a performance of Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band. (That piece is otherwise known as Side B of the iconic 1969 album A Rainbow in Curved Air.)

On Monday’s early concert, the Grammy-winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth – fresh from a live collaboration with Kanye West – will perform two Riley works, one of them written specially for the group. Later in the evening, the two Rileys will close the festivities with another improvised set, this time in the company of local experimental hero John Zorn.

Though such varied activity clearly represents a Terry Riley festival worth talking about, be wary of describing it as a festival of minimalism – that 20th-century school of classical composition with which he is naturally associated, thanks to In C, but to which he has not restricted himself. Reached over the phone this week at his California home, the closest this good-humored giant of the 1960s American underground ever comes to expressing annoyance is when recalling the ways in which his stylistically diverse career is occasionally discussed.

“Well you know, it’s hard to accept labels in terms of creative work, in any case,” he says. “In any period of life, I haven’t felt nailed down to anything. I’ve always been interested in expanding my musical horizons. ‘Minimalism’ has been tacked on to my work, I think mainly because of In C and the Keyboard Studies and some of the works from the 60s.” Then he allows himself a calm and gentle chuckle, before saying: “Certainly a lot of stuff has happened since then.”

Terry Riley
‘I’ve always been interested in expanding my musical horizons.’ Photograph: Jill Steinberg

As evidence, he points to his new piece for Roomful of Teeth, titled Madrigal. “It’s basically melodic, but it also has scat-singing sections ... It’s a bit of a journey, this piece. In eight minutes, it goes to quite a few places.” Another jazz-world texture – specifically, what Riley describes as the “gently swinging, kind of optimistic” feel of ragtime – also figures in his string quartet works, as well as his latter-day piano improvisations. When that influence is placed alongside lessons gleaned from his longtime study of Indian classical music (and, yes, the occasional trace of drone-based minimalism), the climax of a contemporary Riley concert tends to find him juggling a range of sounds that few other musicians would think to combine.

“I’m always interested in a kind of magic, in elements being transformed in music,” he says. Describing his process of starting compositions and improvisations alike in a “field of emptiness and chaos”, he talks of “just trusting” the idea that his chosen elements will eventually work well together. “You think you know what they are, but then as the composition develops, they reveal other aspects of themselves. That’s been one of my desires – to create a transformation of musical ideas. Even In C does this, through very minimal, limited means.

“But it certainly transforms very simple modular, repeated patterns into some kind of constant universal pulsation. For me, music is existing in a universal mind that’s out there all the time. When I’m working, I always feel like something is being given to me. It is very intuitive ... It’s an interesting process, because so much of it comes from the unknown.”

Today, Riley’s seat-of-his-pants live improvisations are certainly shorter than they once were, during his legendary “all-night flights” of the 60s and 70s. But on the evidence of a recent New York appearance, at Federal Hall in 2014, Riley’s mixture of pianistic modes is still plenty spellbinding. And while he’s already preparing for a 2016 recording of two major, recent concertos, this weekend’s festival of extemporaneous explorations and new compositions shows that he’s not finished with his big 2015 quite yet.

Terry Riley festival is at National Sawdust from 3-5 October; nationalsawdust.org


Seth Colter Walls

The GuardianTramp

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