Them ol’ cosmic blues

“So it’s open air? And it’s an electronic music festival?” queries an incredulous Terry Riley, regarding the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. The father of minimalism speaks by phone from his Sri Moonshine Ranch in California, after recently playing at Barcelona’s renowned Sonar Festival.

He sounds enthused, and why shouldn’t he be? After more than four decades of making innovative, uncompromising music, Riley continues to gather new fans while sustaining the interest of his longtime listeners. Whether he’s playing solo piano, experimenting with digital electronics or working on a commission from NASA for the Kronos Quartet, Riley’s cosmic consciousness resonates through the generations.

“The kind of audience I got there was a young, hip, rock-noise-music-whatever’s-going-on-today kind of an audience,” Riley reports on his Barcelona performance. “There were a couple thousand people in the room, and they were standing up close to the stage, like they do at a rock concert. That was fun for me, because I never usually play in those kinds of situations.”

It’s his boundary-crossing achievements that allow Riley to find himself welcome anywhere from the classical recital hall to a tent at an electronic music festival to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where he performs on Thursday, July 26 (preceded by Detroit ambient electronicians Windy and Carl). His integration of repetition, electronics, alternative tunings and improvisation into the classical setting has profoundly changed the course of modern music, influencing such peers as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. And decades before Ecstasy-saturated ravers danced until dawn, Riley invited folks to bring sleeping bags and settle in for all-night concerts of soprano saxophone improvisations and electronics.

Placing the music in its context, he explains, “That was the psychedelic era. The idea of really going on a trip with music was important to me in those days. It wasn’t just something that you did casually, but that you did over long periods of time. You experienced the psychological effects of long durations in music, as well as the spiritual and emotional ones.”

Along with LaMonte Young, Riley instigated the birth of minimalism in music. Though it’s difficult to create a catchall definition, minimalism usually incorporates elements of drones, repetition and high volume. When it first came about, it caused audience uproars, as documented on Riley’s Olsen III disc. Yet the minimalists often met with commercial success unknown in most of the rest of the classical world too. Indeed, Riley’s sounds filled the space of many a cultured and countercultured den, courtesy of Columbia Masterworks, which cannily packaged In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air more like rock records than classical ones.

Riley even made a “rock” record with John Cale, his erstwhile cohort from LaMonte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music. Their brilliant Church of Anthrax served as a popular backdoor entrance into minimalism for many a Velvet Underground fan. And certainly the Who have done much to ingrain Riley’s time-lag synth techniques into the popular unconscious, whether people realize it or not. Yes, Pete Townsend paid homage to Riley in “Baba O’Riley,” modeling the distinctive synthesizer intros to that song and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” after Riley’s work on A Rainbow in Curved Air.

Interest in his earliest work has intensified lately. A benevolent group of California sound archivists called the Cortical Foundation has been issuing a stream of early Riley recordings that range from the utterly rare to the previously unreleased. One of the most astounding releases is You’re Nogood, a double-disc document of an “All-Night Flight” excerpt, and one of Riley’s earliest commissioned pieces, for a Philadelphia discotheque in 1968. Riley takes a soul obscurity by Harvey Averne and gives it the ol’ Steve Reich “Come Out To Show Them” treatment, using tape loops and his custom “time-lag accumulator” system to transform this conventional soul tune into a tripped-out polyphonic early masterpiece of plunderphonics.

For the record, Riley’s tape-delay and looping experiments predate Steve Reich’s more well-known examples. Riley was even working with Chet Baker (!) in Paris in 1963, warping a Baker imitation of “So What?” into a tape-manipulation extravaganza. Elsewhere, he altered speeds and added distortion to Junior Walker’s “Shotgun,” transforming the minimalist soul classic into a minimalist-remix minor classic.

“Blues and R&B and jazz have always been a big influence on my life,” states Riley. “It especially was during the ’60s and ’70s. I think that by working with these kinds of music, I was to try to give people a different kind of perspective on R&B and jazz, so that they’d hear it in a way that they could never hear it in its pure form.”

It wasn’t R&B that would shape his musical journeys the most, however. Through LaMonte Young, Riley met the great Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath.

“That was the point that made me realize that I wanted to go into the music deeply and study it, study the tradition and devote my life to really learning it, instead of just being acquainted with it,” said Riley. Starting in 1970, he began intensive studies with Pran Nath, drawn in by his charisma, and intrigued by the similarities between Indian classical music and his own minimalist innovations. As he explains, “I had been working with modal music, and since Indian classical music is modal, and I was dealing with rhythmic cycles already that were kind of complex, it had all of the elements that I felt I needed to study to go further and deeper into polyrhythms and different kinds of scales and construction of modes.”

Though he’s immersed himself in a centuries-old musical tradition, Riley continues to voice his individual musical identity in a most contemporary manner. NASA has commissioned him to utilize the electronic sounds of the planets, as gathered on the Voyager mission, in a composition for the Kronos Quartet, with whom Riley has frequently worked over two decades. He also demonstrates his technical prowess and his improvisational sensibilities through solo piano performances, which is what he’ll offer at the DIA.

Riley reveals, “It’s a fairly new piano piece of mine, in just intonation, where I retune the piano to different frequencies. It’s called “The Dream.” It’s got a lot of improvisation in it, but it’s got some fixed elements, too. It’s quite extraordinarily remapped the piano, so that [for instance] when you go up on the scale, sometimes the notes go down. It’s not the piano that you can play Beethoven or Mozart on.”

From his “All-Night Flights” of the ’60s to “The Dream” and beyond, Riley remains an American original, and one of our great modern composers.

Terry Riley
w/Windy and Carl
Thursday, July 26, 8 p.m.
Detroit Institute of Arts Auditorium
5200 Woodward (John R. entrance), Detroit.
$20 general, $15 Founders Society members
Call 313-833-4005.

Greg Baise gets electric in the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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