Terry Riley: Obsessed and Passionate About All Music



Terry Riley
Interview Excerpt #3


FRANK J. OTERI: When you look toward the beginning of this thing that we now look back on and say "this is the birth of minimalism" it’s sort of hard to say who started what and who was really the originator. Most people acknowledge La Monte Young as the founder of minimalism. But certainly in terms of the use of repetition in music rather than the use of sustained notes, it’s really hard to find earlier examples than the examples of your early music. When you first started creating music based on the repetition of small melodic cells, what was the initial name for what you were doing? Did you feel there was any precedent for it?

TERRY RILEY: Naming it never, never entered my mind at that time. It was just something I was doing and that other people were doing. You know La Monte and I did a lot of improvising together around this period too because we were not only at UC Berkeley, we would grab a practice room with two pianos and play for hours together. And then we would go up to Anna Halprin‘s studio and improvise more freely with whatever she had in her studio, a piano or she had various percussion instruments… La Monte had this fascination with making friction sounds and we ended up doing the two sounds piece on marimbas. We spent a lot of time playing together and improvising together, but never thinking about for instance "is this a kind of music" or "is there something this should be called?" Uh, I think that came later. But I must say I think La Monte is the fountainhead of this modern music period that’s called minimalism in the sense that he defined very clearly in his mind and in his work as a very young man, the kind of space that minimalism holds. First of all you have this space, then it’s filled with something. Well La Monte filled it with long tones and he also worked with repetition like the Henry Flynt piece, I can’t remember the number.

FRANK J. OTERI: 1698.

TERRY RILEY: Whatever. This was a piece of repetition. He was definitely exploring a lot of ways, but his main focus since I’ve known him and I think it’s been an obsession with him is to make pieces based on long frequencies that can be experienced over long durations, especially his work with just intonation where this was a very important element. So in that sense, I’d say that it begins there.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think it might have been David Lang who said that for him and many younger composers, In C was what The Rite of Spring was for most composers in the first half of the Twentieth Century. This was the great liberating piece. And in 1964, when In C was written, whether your were practicing serialism or practicing indeterminacy–the last thing a cutting-edge composer wanted to reference was tonality. By calling a piece In C, you were proclaiming the work’s tonality and tonal center. What were the initial reactions to this piece in terms of other composers of the time who had heard it?

TERRY RILEY: Well you know In C was written in San Francisco in ’64. I had just come back. I’ll just give you a little background. I had just come back from Europe after spending two years there, so my main contact was with people like Ken Dewey who is a playwright. I was involved in theater with him and street theater. And I’d moved away from any world that had considerations for such things as atonality vs. tonality, or uptown vs. downtown or whatever. They weren’t even concerns of mine any more. I was very interested in just the little world that I inhabited at that time. So, when I came back to San Francisco, I’d had this idea about really wanting to write a piece because I worked with Chet Baker over in Europe and really had this chance to experience working with a real jazz musician for the first time. And the immediacy of that kind of music and also Chet was a wonderfully lyric and tonal, and thought in these terms. He was making mainstream jazz music.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

TERRY RILEY: So, I wanted to bring that into my music too. And also at time I’d been visiting Morocco and I was getting into their music. And that also was tonal. And had a lot to do with tradition, which I was starting to get interested in, musical traditions of other cultures in the world. But when I got back to San Francisco, I didn’t appear to me, I mean it really was an inspiration. I mean it wasn’t the piece that I thought I was going to write. This came to me all as a kind of vision so when I showed it to people, like musicians around San Francisco, there was general excitement but there was also a kind of wondering how it was going to work. And, you know, putting together the performance was a bit of a mystery. In C really was these formations of patterns that were kind of flying together. That’s how it came to me. It was like this kind of cosmic vision of patterns that were gradually transforming and changing. And I think the principal contribution to minimalism was this concept, it wasn’t just one pattern, it was this idea that patterns could be staggered and their composite forms became another kind of music.

FRANK J. OTERI: What I find so interesting about a piece like In C though is that it’s so much about the performers as well. You have these 53 cells, but the performers determine how many times they play them and how many times they’ll overlap. So, in a sense, it’s a natural outgrowth of Cage’s development of an indeterminate music, becuase there really is some chance involved with this. And it really allows the players the freedom to express themselves, to decide for themselves when to go on to the next measure and to create these multiple layers. It’s almost as if the musicians all have to listen to each other to hear… They’re creating the counterpoint to some extent.

TERRY RILEY: Right. That was a big concern of mine. And also, I didn’t want to have a conductor or someone who was telling the musicians what to do. I wanted them making their decisions based on their listening. Unfortunately, it’s hard to play as a large group like that and stay together. Those were the problems we were encountering when we first rehearsed, how to stay together.

FRANK J. OTERI: And that’s how eventually it was performed with the pulse. How did that come about?

TERRY RILEY: As you know, and this story’s been told. Steve Reich, who was in the group in the first performance, one day said "This isn’t working!" ‘Cuz we were all playing and couldn’t right in the groove with it. So uh, Jeannie Brecken, who was, I guess, Steve’s girlfriend at the time, starting playing on the top Cs of the piano and it just immediately helped the group immensely to focus and to stay together. And it became part of the piece.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now you’ve written other pieces like In C that don’t have the pulse, that are coming from the same basic idea. I’m thinking of the piece Olson III which is also based on cellular patterns…

TERRY RILEY: Well Olson III is a pulse piece, I mean, you know its, the whole thing is pulse because it only has eighth notes in it. It only has one note value. So it didn’t have the problems that In C had being that In C is polymetric. You have different meters going on simultaneously. It presents more problems of staying locked together. But Olson III has no meters. Essentially, they’re just all eighth notes even though the patterns are different lengths. There’s never any different note values that would create a little confusion about where the beat is.

FRANK J. OTERI: The pieces that you developed subsequently to that, I’m thinking of pieces like A Rainbow in Curved Air and the various incarnations of Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band some of which last all night… Works that you had done with the time lag accumulator, basically allowed you to play In C-type pieces by yourself. They allowed you to have these cells, to throw them out there and they would keep repeating.

TERRY RILEY: Right. You could make fields of patterns again, but they came out, you know they were governed then by mechanical means of delay through tape manipulation.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, Poppy Nogood you did on saxophone. You don’t really play saxophone anymore…

TERRY RILEY: I haven’t played saxophone since I started studying voice in Indian classical music.

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  1. Pingback: The music of Terry Riley « tiboresque

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