The big gun of classical punk

Is Nevada County’s resident composer Terry Riley the Johnny Rotten of minimalism?

Terry Riley: Is this the Santa Claus of atonal serialism?

Terry Riley: Is this the Santa Claus of atonal serialism?

While speaking with Terry Riley, Johnny Rotten does not immediately come to mind. In fact, the former Sex Pistols frontman is probably the least-likely music icon to offer up for comparison; in his heyday, Johnny Rotten was all sneer, middle finger, shredded and safety-pinned.

Terry Riley is none of these things. Instead, you might think of Riley as somewhere between a thin, smiling-guru Santa Claus and your favorite uncle, the one who gives you a present every time you visit.

Nonetheless, the comparison between Riley and Rotten works, at least insofar as Riley is to classical music what Rotten is to rock. The shot that propelled rock music into punk was, ultimately, very similar to the shot that propelled classical music into minimalism. And it can be argued that this smiling-guru Santa Claus was the minimalist punk who fired that shot in 1964.

It was indeed quite well aimed. Riley’s major work from that year, In C, is considered by many critics to be the piece of ur-minimalism that spurred such (now) well-known composers as Steve Reich and Philip Glass into production mode. The Who’s Pete Townshend reveres the work, even naming the leadoff song on Who’s Next, “Baba O’Riley,” after the composer. Today, the influence of In C can be heard in much electronic music—wherever there are loops of repeated sound, there is Riley.

Nonetheless, mulling too closely over In C seems somehow reductive and insulting. After all, In C was written nearly 30 years ago. Times have changed and music has moved on. So has Terry Riley. His work since In C has been just as interesting, perhaps even as groundbreaking, as that seminal 1964 work. As Riley himself says: “I’m so much more interested in what I’m doing now that it’s hard to look behind.”

What Riley is doing now is writing music. A lot of it. A partial discography of his work reveals 37 releases, beginning in 1966. The year 2000 alone saw four CDs devoted to his work, much of it new. His most recent big release, The Book of Abbeyozzud, is a leap forward, not only for Riley but also for an unlikely instrument (at least for Riley): the guitar. With guitar master David Tannenbaum supported by Riley’s son Gyan (also on guitar), violinist Tracy Silverman and percussionist William Winant, Riley presents a piece of music that is simultaneously contemporary and rooted in the Spanish guitar traditions of the past.

Riley was born in Colfax, Placer County—then, as now, not much more than a whistle stop on the train line from Reno to San Francisco. He was raised in Weimar, a town downhill that isn’t much bigger, and later he moved with his family to Redding, where he went to high school. What music he heard growing up streamed from the radio as the latest pop tunes, and young Riley absorbed it as pure, wonderful sound.

That interest in sound and music propelled Riley to college, and he entered San Francisco State College (as it was called then) in the 1950s to begin his formal music education. The shock of Redding pop radio must have been great as Riley’s entry to college occurs in the midst of the great period of American serialism, a period when atonality—rather than tonality—was king. One has a vision of Riley’s pop radio shattering against a steady academic diet of 20th-century composers Anton von Webern, Arnold Schoenberg and Bela Bartók, shards of futuristic streamlined metal dissolving against a barrage of inconceivable, harsh notes.

But Riley has never been one to choose sides. Instead, he is an absorber. Not only did Riley compose pieces in the styles of the great atonal composers, but at the same time he also found work playing ragtime piano in waterfront bars to pay his way through school. The mind boggles: daylight filled with Bartók, darkness with Scott Joplin! But rather than bifurcation, with Riley there always seems to be something akin to a flattening out, an encompassing of the ragtime and jazz piano of his bread and butter and the atonality of his scholastic exercises.

This “all-encompassing-ness” of Riley’s work is evident in any brief run-through of his CD releases: Salome Dances for Peace is an emotional, tonal string quartet performed by the Kronos Quartet; The Harp of New Albion a solo piano recording with the piano tuned to complex tonal ratios; Descending Moonshine Dervishes a piece of proto-progressive electronica performed on solo keyboard in front of a live audience; A Rainbow in Curved Air a classic that launched cyclic modal music, tape delay loops, and essentially created the context for much of today’s electronic music.

Riley is ever smiling about his propensity for doing it all. “Something in me still wants to do everything,” he says. “I’ve never been a purist, but the thing closest to my heart is tonal music.”

Tonality is ever present in Riley’s work. Even in his early tape loop-based pieces, there is certainly a “musical” quality, a quality far from the atonal serialism of his academic years. Recently released in an ongoing series titled Organ of Corti, Riley’s early pieces are exciting examples of early electronic-based music. “Unless you had an elaborate studio like [electronic composer Karlheinz] Stockhausen’s, it was very difficult to do any real sound experiments,” Riley explains. “I was a poor student, so I only had two tape recorders.” He describes how he would record himself playing the piano and then play it in a tape loop and add more parts and more parts. Each part would add more noise to the mix. “The noise of sound on sound became something interesting,” he says.

This interest in sound on sound culminated in a chance meeting with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Europe. Riley recorded Baker playing, looped it, layered it and manipulated it—all via tape. Known as The Gift, and recently re-released as Music for the Gift: Organ of Corti 1, the work is one of the seminal pieces of loop-based music and is a landmark in the progression that became, a year later, In C.

Today, Riley lives up on San Juan Ridge, above Nevada City. He recently completed a piano concerto for the Paul Dresher Ensemble bearing the unlikely name Banana Humberto 2000 and the music for a new staging of Michael McClure’s play Josephine the Mouse Singer. He is currently working on a piece for solo cello, written specifically for Joan Jeanreneau, former cellist for the Kronos Quartet. Riley still performs live and his recent show on May 6 at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley was scheduled to include saxophonist George Brooks and Gyan Riley on guitar.

I f Terry Riley can be compared to Johnny Rotten, the next question is can a more direct linkage between the two be drawn? Asked what he listens to today, Riley responds: “Very little.” But a few years ago, when his children were still at home, he was exposed to punk. Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that he liked what he heard. “There’s lots of admirable performance in punk and thrasher music,” he says. “Technically, there’s a lot going on.”

It’s no surprise that Riley found something interesting there. With a taste for newness, for absorption, for all-encompassing musical experimentation, and with seemingly boundless energy, Riley might just find something of interest anywhere and in anything. From his early experiments in tape loops to In C, to the proto-electronica of A Rainbow in Curved Air, to his string quartets, works for saxophone, cello and piano, Terry Riley remains very much a composer who continues to be fresh and exciting, always searching, always moving into the future. That minimalist punk who blew the classical world back into tonality more than 30 years ago has never stopped firing.

Meanwhile, if you want to find the smiling guru of 20th century (or, rather, 21st century) composition, you need look no further than Yes, of course, a composer as cutting edge as Terry Riley has a Web site. What else did you expect?