Terry Riley: Obsessed and Passionate About All Music
Interview Excerpt #1
FRANK J. OTERI: Terry, I am so honored and thrilled that this talk is finally happening.
TERRY RILEY: Not as honored as I am.
TERRY RILEY: You were a high school student when it came out?
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughter] No, I was born when it came out!
TERRY RILEY: Oh [laughter]
FRANK J. OTERI: But I was a high school student when I learned that your music existed. I found your records in a rock record shop in Greenwich Village and that was a pivotal moment for me, which is why I thought it would be interesting for us to start off talking about what your early influences were in your musical education and what shaped the kinds of decisions you’ve made as a composer and as a musician growing up. You mentioned radio and hearing old standards on the radio as you were growing up in the 30s and early 40s and I thought we could talk a little bit about that for starters.
TERRY RILEY: By the time the war broke out in ’41, my father joined the Marine Corps and after that he was sort of a professional Marine and we were living up in northern California and we kind of traveled around California during the war and lived with my grandmother and stuff like that. But I was never living in a big city like San Francisco or Los Angeles. I was always out in smaller rural areas and so my music education was kind of catch as catch can. I had an uncle who played the guitar, an uncle who played the trumpet, an aunt who played the accordion and that was my contact with the music world.
FRANK J. OTERI: What was the first instrument that you played?
TERRY RILEY: Violin. I started on the violin before the war and I was actually really enjoying it and was doing pretty well on violin. But then when the war broke out we moved to Los Angeles briefly ‘cuz my father had to take military training down there before he was shipped to the Pacific. And then that was the last; I had four months to six months on the violin. I think it was very, very basic you know. I think I could play the Marine Corps hymn though for my father which made him happy!
FRANK J. OTERI: So at what point did you decide in your life that you were going to be a musician and a composer?
TERRY RILEY: Well, I think I was very young. I mean I remember just always being obsessed and passionate about music when I heard it and deeply moved by it, you know. It was the important emotional event in my life to hear music and to really feel it and I don’t know if I formalized in my thinking that I was going to be a musician, but thinking back on it, it was the only thing I really felt obsessed by.
FRANK J. OTERI: Was there any particular music that you heard that you were more interested in than other music or was it everything?
TERRY RILEY: Uh, you know it was pretty much everything. When you’re young, like every new impression, any musical impression is a whole new universe, world and galaxy that comes into your life. So as it came in one by one I was tremendously excited to hear anything that I hadn’t heard before. As I said, in the beginning it was whatever was coming over the radio and at that time it was commercial radio. So mainly standards that you would hear…
FRANK J. OTERI: So when was the first time you heard western classical music?
TERRY RILEY: I think I was eight or nine when I started hearing occasional pieces of western classical music and around that time also my mother found a piano teacher for me because I had been playing a lot by ear and she thought I should, since I liked it so much, every time I’d go to someone’s house that had a piano I’d sit down and spend the time there at the piano. So they got me a piano and a piano teacher and she started introducing me to little pieces of Bach. And that was my first contact with western classical music.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now in your formative years growing up, did you ever think of there being a division between classical and popular music or was it all part of one?
TERRY RILEY: Never. I don’t think at the beginning especially not, but as I got older of course you know, then. By the time I got to high school I got the first really good music teacher that I’d ever had. I’d go to his house in the afternoon after classes and he’d play me all these really wonderful records in his collection and I was starting to hear for the first time Bartók and Stravinsky and other things of 20th century music and that was my last year of high school/first year of college.
FRANK J. OTERI: And at this point had you started writing your own music?
TERRY RILEY: I did a little. My teacher was writing a musical for the high school to perform. And he asked me to write one of the songs for it. So I think that was my first composition. I wrote a popular song for this musical.
FRANK J. OTERI: Do you still have that music anywhere or is it gone?
TERRY RILEY: I don’t have the music. I kind of remember it, but I don’t have it. Whatever was written down is gone.