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Interview: Composer Terry Riley

By Mark Towns
Published: February 13 2001, JazzHouston

"And then all wars ended / Arms of every kind were outlawed and the masses gladly contributed them to giant foundries in which they were melted down and the metal poured back into the earth / The Pentagon was turned on its side and painted purple, yellow, and green / All boundaries were dissolved / The slaughter of animals was forbidden / The whole of lower Manhattan became a meadow in which unfortunates from the Bowery were allowed to live out their fantasies in the sunshine and were cured / People swam in the sparkling rivers under blue skies streaked only with incense pouring from the new factories / The energy from dismantled nuclear weapons provided free heat and light / World health was restored / An abundance of organic vegetables, fruits and grains was growing wild along the discarded highways / National flags were sewn together into brightly colored circus tents under which politicians were allowed to perform harmless theatrical games / The concept of work was forgotten"(Terry Riley, from the liner notes of "A Rainbow in Curved Air", 1968)

Composer Terry Riley launched what is now known as the Minimalist movement with his revolutionary classic, "In C" in 1964. This ground-breaking work introduced into Western music the idea of repetitive, multi-layered, trance-like patterns (with no melody on top) as the main ingredient. Its impact and influence can be heard in the works of 20th Century composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams, and in rock groups such as Tangerine Dream and The Who. Terry Rileyís hypnotic, polymetric, eastern flavored improvisations also set the stage for the New Age movement that appeared over a decade later.

His second release, "A Rainbow in Curved Air", is, in the minds of many fans and devotees, his all time greatest work. On it, the multi-talented Riley plays all instruments, including electric organ, electric harpsichord, dumbec, soprano saxophone, and tambourine. It was this underground classic which inspired Pete Townshend to use the unique electric keyboard sounds on The Whoís classic rock anthems, "Wonít Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley".

Riley has gone on to compose music for various classical ensembles, choruses, and orchestras, including Kronos Quartet, Array Music, Zeitgeist, Rova Saxophone Quartet, The Steven Scott bowed piano ensemble, California E.A.R. Unit, and the Saint Louis Symphony. Riley also regularly gives concerts as a vocal soloist in the North Indian Raga tradition.

I recently spoke to Terry by phone from his home in Oakland, California:

MT: What were your early influences?

TR: I grew up as basically a self-taught musician who liked to improvise a lot, so that had a big impact.

MT: So youíre not a trained musician at all?

TR: I am, but I got my training kind of late. (Riley, born in 1935, received his Masters from UC Berkeley in 1962). As a youth, I learned to play piano by ear. I had teachers, but essentially I was teaching myself. In some ways, thatís the best way.

MT: That way, you learn the stuff they canít teach.

TR: Thatís it.

MT: Did you play in any bands back then?

TR: I had a band in high school. Plus, I played classical music that I more or less learned on my own.

MT: What was your instrument in that band?

TR: The piano.

MT: What kind of music did the band do?

TR: Well, in those days (the 1950ís) you played for high school dances, so we played standards.

MT: So when did you start tinkering around with reel to reel tape players?

TR: I was working with Anna Halpinís Dance Company in the early sixties and trying to make pieces for her dance company on tape. I got hold of a very inexpensive tape recorder and learning how to make tape loops and creating pieces that way. It kind of evolved with my work in the theater and dance.

MT: Were you aware of anyone else doing tape loops?

TR: I knew about the Musique-Concrete people in France, and Iíd heard some of their experiments. And I must have heard some other people working with tape loops. I heard some of James Kennyís work in those days.

MT: So how did you go from being a guy playing with tape loops to getting a deal with Columbia Records?

TR: I moved to New York in 1965 and I started doing some concerts there with electronic keyboards and saxophone. And somebody from CBS - John Lecuer, who was an executive producer there, came to one of my concerts with his assistant, David Behrman, who is also a composer. So we started planning some works of mine for CBS.

MT: So they discovered you, basically.

TR: Yeah, but it happened through Richard Maxfield, who was one of my electronic music mentors. Richard Maxfield and David Behrman were good friends, so I think Richard pointed them in my direction.

MT: So they must have been really excited about your music, and thought it was something new and important.

TR: I think so, yeah. There was quite a bit of excitement.

MT: How important do you think your music was to the whole sixties counter-culture type thing?

TR: It definitely fit into the patchwork of everything that was happening at that time. There were several movements happening simultaneously. There were the beat poets, who I was in contact with. There were people like the Grateful Dead who were just getting started, and I knew those people. And there was a lot of cross-fertilization, I think, in the sixties, of different fields of music. Thatís when it really started happening. Today, people take it for granted, but then, it was at the beginning of all that.

MT: Did LSD or any kind of mind-altering substances play a part in your creative process back then?

TR: Who, me?

MT: I remember that ďA Rainbow in Curved AirĒ was like a rare jewel that was only brought out and listened to on "special occasions".

TR: Well, you know what they say -- if you remember the sixties, you werenít there.

MT: Right. What did you think when you first heard The Whoís use of your style in the keyboard parts of "Baba OíRiley" and "Wonít Get Fooled Again" (from "Whoís Next")?

TR: I had a good friend who was doing the light shows for The Who, and he turned Pete Townshend on to "A Rainbow in Curved Air" on an (LSD) trip. The song "Baba OíRiley" was dedicated to both me and (Indian Guru) Meher Baba. Pete has always said that I had a big influence on him.

MT: Has anyone tried to convince you to put some of your music on top of some techno-type beats, or combining some kind of heavy rhythmic thing with what you do?

TR: Itís interesting you ask that, because the Cortical Foundation ( is doing an archive now on my work of the sixties. I just finished five different CDís -- in fact, six, because oneís a double album. (One of them is a piece I did with Chet Baker back in Ď63 in Paris). The latest one they released is a piece I did for a Philadelphia label in the mid sixties thatís one of the early plundering techniques, you know, of cutting up some of the existing rock and rhythm and blues records and making a kind of ambient beat record out of it. Even though I did it in 1967, it just got released this year.

MT: Have you considered touring with something like this?

TR: I donít think Iíd be interested in touring with it. I was interested in people hearing what I was doing then, because it has more to do with the way I was thinking in the sixties than it does right now.

MT: It seems that this is the kind of thing that might bring your music to a whole new audience.

TR: Well, I donít know how much this new CDís gonna get around, but I think itíll be very interesting to some of these people that will see what was done in the sixties, because I think a lot of people didnít realize that was happening.

MT: Do you consider yourself an innovator?

TR: Well, I guess I donít actually consider myself that, but I know that Iíve been called that.

MT: Do you have anything you still hope to conquer in the music world?

TR: Iíll just wait and see what comes down the pike, I guess. I donít have any particular project that I havenít done yet that I think that I just have to do. But sometimes things present themselves to you for a new challenge.

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