In the key of change
Minimalist pioneer Terry Riley brings his signature composition to Chico State
Terry Riley’s groundbreaking composition “In C” was released in 1964, at the dawn of the British Invasion, and at a time when singles like The Supremes’ “Baby Love” and The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” had teenagers’ hearts aflutter at dances across the country.
Even to this day, it’s hard to wrap one’s head around what Riley created more than half a century ago.
“In C” is made up of 53 modules, or pieces of melodies and musical loops assigned to different players, that, when played as written—or sped up or slowed, or even with parts omitted—over and over begin to create a sort of kaleidoscope of sound. The length of the performance dictates which sounds emerge.
Riley, now 83, has quietly made a massive impact on popular music with his experiments. That particular pioneering piece of minimalist music influenced numerous artists—Soft Machine, Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream, to name a few—and most notably inspired the intro for The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”
“In C”—written by Riley in one night—was first performed in San Francisco by outsider composers and Riley collaborators Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Jon Gibson and Morton Subotnick, and has been interpreted countless times since.
“It’s played a lot—I mean, once a day somewhere in the world,” Riley said from his Yuba County home. “What I like about it is that it does have this flexibility, and it can surprise me at times when people come up with novel ideas on how to perform it.”
Riley will perform the famous piece alongside some 35 or 40 Chico State students and faculty members—under the direction of Department of Music and Theatre faculty member David Dvorin—next Thursday (Feb. 28) to open the annual New Music Seminar at the university.
While “In C” is arguably Riley’s best-known piece, his work and contributions to music go far beyond that. His 1969 album A Rainbow in Curved Air was light years ahead of its time, a synth-and-tape-loop sci-fi journey that provided a road map for all ambient and electronic albums that followed.
“In C” and Rainbow were released on a major label at time when America was socially and chemically transforming. If you think psychedelics played a big part in Riley’s music, you’d be right.
“It had a big impact on the way I conceived a musical form,” Riley said. “It took me into details of music that I hadn’t seen before. It blew things up, like a big magnifying glass. That’s one of the things that ‘In C’ does—patterns change gradually over a long period of time. You couldn’t accomplish this any other way.”
The biggest influence on Riley’s music was meeting Indian classical singer Pandit Pran Nath in New York in 1970 through a mutual friend.
“I can’t imagine not meeting him; it was destined to be,” Riley said matter-of-factly. “I’d heard Pandit Pran Nath’s music in the late-’60s, and was very moved by it, but I didn’t really understand what it was about, or why I was moved. And it was like a big mystery that I felt I had to solve in my own music. I had to understand it before I could progress further with my own compositions.”
Riley would end up teaching at Mills College in Oakland years later, and always included aspects of Indian classical music in his courses. While music has taken Riley to all parts of the world, he’s spent a good portion of his life in Northern California, where he still resides. His early years were spent in Redding, at a time when the city had only one high school, and he attended Shasta College and studied with renowned pianist Duane Hampton (who later set up the Duane Hampton School of Music in Redding).
Known primarily as a solo artist, Riley’s collaborations over the years are noteworthy to say the least. He’s had a long-lasting musical relationship with the members of the Kronos Quartet, whom he met at Mills College in the late-’70s. Riley also worked with John Cale on 1971’s psychedelic journey Church of Anthrax, and collaborated with jazz swashbuckler Don Cherry, whom Riley introduced to Indian classical music, and reflects on fondly.
“It was not as intense as my collaboration with John Cale,” Riley said of his time with Cherry. “It was more relaxed and flowing. What I liked about Don Cherry is he was kind of a minstrel—he’d always be playing music in the street. If you’d be talking and walking down the street, he’d have his flute out, playing away.”
Riley still loves collaborating. He’ll be playing with Grammy-winning pianist Gloria Cheng for a second New Music Symposium performance on March 1. But his main musical partner over the last 20 years has been his son and guitarist Gyan (they will tour Europe this summer). The partnership has been the right thing at the right time for the elder Riley, one that satisfies his creative and paternal instincts.
“We’ve developed this kind of improvisational rapport in our concerts,” he explained. “It’s been a great thing for me in my old age to have this new path to explore.”