Uncharted Territories

Trailblazing composer Terry Riley still seeks out new sources for improvisation

Terry Riley isn't an easy person to track down. At least his albums aren't: I was in a record store recently looking for the Lisbon Concert, his brilliant 1995 recording of his own solo piano music, recorded on the final stop of his 60th-birthday tour. I found a handful of Riley CDs in the classical section, but Lisbon wasn't among them. I asked the salesperson if the store carried it; after a quick search on the computer, he said, "Oh -- that one's in the jazz section."

One of the greatest American composers of the 20th century, Terry Riley has been called the "Godfather of Minimalism" and the "Progenitor of New Age." His work has influenced everyone from Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams to Soft Machine, Tangerine Dream, and Curved Air, which named itself after Riley's early masterpiece, A Rainbow in Curved Air. Pete Townshend wrote "Baba O'Riley" in his honor. The London Sunday Times listed Riley as one of its "1000 Makers of the 20th Century."

If none of that has translated into popular appeal, it's not for lack of recordings. Riley has made dozens of albums over the course of his 35-year career, many of which have received their share of critical attention. But knowing exactly where to find his music is another matter. Go to Tower Records or CDnow online: While several of Riley's CDs are listed under "Classical," others can be found under "Jazz," "World," and "New Age."

Then again, Riley has been transcending categories ever since he took the avant-garde scene by storm in 1964 with his revolutionary minimalist work In C, described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "music like none other on earth." His original compositions are a combination of Eastern and Western musical styles, fusing repetitive, minimalist patterns with ragtime, jazz, impressionism, North African music, and Indian raga.

Yet Riley's music isn't derivative; nor is it postmodern pastiche. Through intricate and delicate pattern-weaving, the composer takes seemingly disparate languages and blends them into cohesive compositions. The unifying element, the idiomatic glue, is improvisation, which Riley seamlessly threads throughout his written works.

"It's my general, deep interest in improvisational forms that attracted me to these styles of music. I knew about jazz first," explains Riley, speaking from his ranch in the Sierra Foothills. "After jazz I became interested in the music of North Africa, and then India. But I think that all the forms of music which involve improvisation have interested me."

Riley began his career playing ragtime piano in North Beach, frequenting local clubs to hear the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. So it's no surprise that the composer hasn't prepared much for his piano recital at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall this Sunday. "Because there's going to be a lot of improvisation, a lot will depend on what kind of musical vantage point I have at that moment. To me, music is all about being in the moment," he says.

Born in 1935 in Colfax, Riley studied music at SF State and then Berkeley, where he received a masters in composition. "I was having a problem with my memory when trying to perform classical music," he says, "and I just felt like the pressures of always having to play the same piece perfectly the same way every time was too much. I thought the only way out of this was to compose my own music, and if I forgot something, I could make it up. And that," Riley concludes, "started me on my long career of crime."

Riley met the perfect accomplice at Berkeley: conceptual composer La Monte Young. "We drove the music department crazy," he recalls. "We would put on very radical concerts based on dada and the work of John Cage, and the university didn't approve of this. We became outlaws."

In addition to his work with Young, Riley performed all-night solo concerts at which he'd improvise on an old organ harmonium to a background of saxophone tape loops. "I would take things like Junior Walker and the All-Stars and cut it up and play it backwards." After school, Riley took his tape-loop experiments to Europe. "The last project I did over there was with Chet Baker and a theater group," Riley remembers. "I had Baker record pieces and then I'd cut them up into loops of little fragments of these melodies he was playing, and I'd make a composition out of them and have him play against them."

That experiment inspired In C. "After I got back to San Francisco, I was trying to create another piece like that -- a jazz piece based on loops that a group could play live," says Riley. "Sometimes when your mind is working in these ways, something very different will arise spontaneously. And that's what happened with In C."

Described in the Wall Street Journal as "as much a watershed as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was in its day," In C is a work of flexible length and instrumentation in which a piano strikes a uniform tempo -- the middle C key -- while an ensemble plays 53 separate figures. Each musician moves at his or her own pace until every player has reached figure 53.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Concert Calendar

  • April
  • Sat
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed
  • Thu
  • Fri
San Francisco Event Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.