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Hear and now: Terry Riley in Australia

Greg Hooper

Terry Riley Terry Riley
photo FionaCullen
There’s a certain kind of person who likes to ride in the bullet proof car, look out on the squalor and the roadside lifers, the trash pile pickers and the sump-oil gleaners and think—that’d be me if I wasn’t so good. Terry Riley is from the other end of the distribution. Grew up in a nothing special place, loved music as a kid. Went to uni around 1960, was buddies with LaMonte Young, the guy with the original minimalist vision. Got into Jazz—Monk, Coltrane, Miles—20thC classical—Schoenberg—then wrote In C in 1964 and started the whole modular pulse based style that later hit the bigtime with Reich and Glass. Travelled, smoked dope, performed all nighters, was on the edge of pop-crossover stardom then went to India to study music with Pandit Pran Nath. Family man, teaching, to and from India, composing, performing, the quiet culture-hero. Turns up in Australia not a moment too soon.


Two night concert series: first night—Terry Riley solo piano improvisation. Up on the Powerhouse stage is the Steinway, 3 mikes lined up along the length, not much else. Terry Riley strolls out, smiling grandpa with beard, little brimless cap, shirt with a somewhere from Asia type pattern. Sits down, slow bass riffs start and then a few isolated jazz chords drop in over the top. Gentle warm-up, sort of early ECM Keith Jarrett without steroids. Arpeggios start rolling out—big ones, full width of the keyboard. Rhumba action, happy ragtime boogie then enter the singing, Indian drone style, and segue into world music scat improv, Tuvalu horseman at the piano bar.

End first half. Post the interval and a more contemplative second half begins with Riley reaching into the piano to play the strings. It looks and sounds like he is using an eBow, a device for magnetically driving strings into oscillation. The sound is like the tampura, the instrument that typically supplies the droning tonal centre for a lot of Indian music. Riley often played tampura when accompanying Pran Nath. Back to the laying of hands upon the keyboard and jazz again, and what about a few show tunes with singing on the side to weird things out even more. Oops, back to the roots with a hippie blues refrain for a couple of bars before slouching into dark moods for awhile until Riley goes upbeat with Bessie Smith meets Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Back to club-style and a song about ‘stories of love, money and intelligence’—a hipster code for every screenplay out of Hollywood.

Notes fade away, harmonics pulse and wash, the keyboard gets plucked, hammered, stroked and droned. The first night had been a couple of hours and it didn’t seem that long at all. But it wasn’t what I expected. First up I was a little surprised, even disappointed, not to be hearing grand and charismatic revelations from a master of 20th century composition. No sweat, no charisma, nothing showy from the old guy on stage. Instead Riley delivered Beat into Hippie and out the other side. More like seeing Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg all those Adelaide Festivals ago rather than seeing Glass or Reich—not so Rock, not so singular of purpose. Just great touch and virtuosic improvisation. Stamina and agility. One great memory leading to another.


The second night is a mix of Terry Riley performing with others, and works by others performed in celebration of Terry Riley. The first piece is an improvisation between Riley on piano and Lawrence English and Keith Fullerton Whitman. (Trivia insert: Fullerton is the town where Leo Fender was born and invented the first commercially produced solid body electric guitar). English and Fullerton are on laptops and processing. Both excellent musicians in their own right, English and Fullerton are in many ways the inheritors of the punk do-it-yourself cassettes through the mail revolution of the 70s. Annoyed, disgusted and indifferent to the major transmission modes of the culture industries, punk went for a down-home distribution of both music and design aesthetic, exploiting the cheap postal system and the new possibilities that cassettes offered as a recording and distribution medium. In much the same way, the work of English and Whitman (CD labels, online artist presence, festival/concert organisation), illustrates the possibilities of current production and distribution technologies. The music and aesthetics have changed but it’s still do-it-yourself community building.

Riley starts up with sparse and spiky minimalist riffs—these are great riffs, but what sets them apart is the transitions from one riff to the next. As with last night, always smooth and if not smooth then surprising. Harmonics smear around as the laptops pick up the piano and echo phrases into layered drones. But the playback doesn’t always work, clicks and pops extend the piano sound in an uninteresting way—more disruptive than glitch, more like bad looping. I get the impression the laptop side was having a hard time adding something of interest. It’s a hard ask—go on young processing chaps show suitable reverence while improving modern piano style of guru composer.

The piece ends, stage goes dark, and the roadies start to disassemble all the electronica. A competition sets in—the audience is waiting and quiet, and the quieter they are the quieter the roadies have to be, which makes the audience quieter still, which makes the roadies...

Next follows a set of pieces by Sarah Hopkins. Of all the composers working with Riley at this concert, it is Hopkins who most overtly identifies a spiritual component within her musical practice. Her first piece starts very gentle with didgeridoo then cello on sad melody—sounds like the intro to Within You Without You by the Beatles. More build up, some harmonic singing, the effect a bit too much like bringing in one new ‘spiritual ‘ device after another. Then comes a piece with Topology and Eric Griswald on piano—a sort of American Civil War melody done minimal. Next, a choral piece for a women’s choir, Robert Davidson on bass, a bit of scat jazz amongst the drones. Gets a bit earnest and new age-ish. I start looking for the ghost of Joan Baez, and she isn’t even dead yet. A big upside of Hopkins’ pieces though is their sense of community and sociability in performance. Anyone can apply to join.

After the interval comes A Rainbow in Curved Air, Riley’s 1968 second album after In C. It’s a slow and steady jazz classical groove again, like so many other pieces, but then you realize that it’s more the case that so many other pieces are like it. Then everything speeds up. Cue the ecstatic singing, courtesy of Riley’s years of training and performance with Pran Nath. Amazing playing as the musicians fade in and out of synch. This is the music that started a whole genre—where the riff came from in The Who’s 1971 hit, Baba O’Reilly. A great work brilliantly played by Riley, Clocked Out Duo, Topology and Iain Grandage.

Pause, and Eric Griswold starts one of his compositions, deliberately clumsy fiddling about with a music box until strings come in with a little phrase, fingered bass, more short phrases, nothing actually developing, strange groans as the bass gets bowed, a few percussive bits and pieces on the glockenspiel, move into piano tinkles and the glockenspiel again. Sort of aimless, then Bang! jump into the whole band pumping. Great contrast. Finishes back with a different music box.

Another by Riley, Salome’s Excellent Extension. Cinematic, very distinct sections, like cuts to different scenes of the action. Jerry Goldsmith TV titles, Streets of San Francisco or any other 70s show—maybe all of them. And then back to the jazz club, a 60s caper movie, John Steed and Mrs Peel.

Finish the night with a new work. Moorish beginnings, slow mournful singing, then up-tempo, like triumphing over sadness. Builds up and flops around. Strange, free form post-Beat hippie lyrics. Nice blending of instruments and part following. Great modulation between feels and, if you don’t like one bit, don’t worry a new bit is coming.

Riley bypassed the whole let’s get domesticated, big buddy corporate collectivism, cowardice is the strategic positioning of the risk averse, and stayed true to the building a better world one personal transformation at a time individualism of the Hippies. He improvises. Spontaneous, looking outward, intellectual and humble, each phrase gives rise to a new phrase and that phrase to another again. 50 years of listening shuffled in a bag and dropped onto the keyboard to hear this now.

PULS8, A Festival celebrating the music of Terry Riley; Terry Riley in Concert, Solo Piano Works, April 21; Collaborations, Terry Riley with Keith Fullerton Whitman, Lawrence English, Sarah Hopkins, Elwyn Hennaway, Iain Grandage, Clocked Out Duo, Topology, Brisbane Powerhouse, April 22

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 33

© Greg Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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