2. Studying Composition and Discovering Jazz
FRANK J. OTERI: Now when you studied music formally at the university level, I know I heard this from La Monte Young when we all had dinner together, that you, La Monte, and David Del Tredici were all in a composition class together. What an exciting composition class that must have been! What sort of things were you writing at that point?
TERRY RILEY: The period you’re talking about is I think around 1960, ’61 in the UC Berkeley composition class. Around that time, I had gotten very interested in serial music, especially the piano music of Schoenberg, which I liked very much. I found this complete freedom, rhythmic freedom that I hadn’t experienced in other composers before and I wanted to experiment with that myself. So around that time, I was writing a set of piano pieces that were very much influenced by Schoenberg and yet when you look at them now, they’re still fairly tonal. They hold very close to certain centers and I didn’t use a tone row.
FRANK J. OTERI: Do you still acknowledge those pieces. If someone were interested in playing them, would you release them?
TERRY RILEY: Yes. I guess I would say from about those pieces I would say was my beginning. I wrote some pieces that I would still acknowledge before that, but unfortunately they’ve been lost in my moving around. I wrote some pieces, you know when I was at undergraduate school. A trio for clarinet, piano and violin which I liked very much, but…
FRANK J. OTERI: and it’s gone…
TERRY RILEY: …I can’t find it anywhere.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, you were doing things you were influenced by Schoenberg and of course this was the same time that John Cage was doing a lot of his experiments with chance music and indeterminacy and also it was also this great decade for jazz. When did you start getting interested in jazz and improvisation? When did that really take hold?
TERRY RILEY: Uh, I’d say that my interest in jazz really took hold with the period of the Miles Davis Quintet, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane. This emergence in the late 50s and early 60s. It’s around that same time that I was going to UC Berkeley and also a lot due to La Monte because La Monte was a jazz musician and had been playing a lot in L.A. with lots of musicians. And he introduced me to a lot. He introduced me to Coltrane. I listened to Coltrane’s music for the first time.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now did you first meet La Monte in a composition class?
TERRY RILEY: Yeah.