TERRY RILEY: DRONING DARK DARKNESS
Stream: Terry Riley and John Cale “The Protege”
(from Church Of Anthrax on Columbia)
The London Times called composer Terry Riley one of the makers of the 20th century, and if that makes his music as important as rocket engines, transistors and acetate safety film, then they are completely correct. His long-form synthesizer pieces inspired pop musicians (like the Who, who named half a song after him) and his discography documents liberation through the pursuit of infinity. He will open the West Coast Left Coast festival this Saturday. This interview by Dan Collins.
A lot of people credit you as being one of the trio of the most important minimalists: Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and yourself.
Terry Riley: Yeah, well—La Monte Young is.
I was just listening to The Last Camel in Paris, and while there is a certain beautiful simplicity there, I don’t know if I would consider it ‘minimal.’ Do you think of yourself as a minimalist?
Terry Riley: That term is very deceptive. I’ve never used it myself in terms of describing my music. What I’ve done, anyways, is to kind of think quite broad and often complex. I don’t think it’s the best term for what I’m after.
In the work of Young and especially Reich, there seems to be one basic thesis: things seem to be aligned, and then they dissipate, and then they come back together. But that’s not your approach at all.
Terry Riley: I think that those two—especially Steve Reich—are very interested in process in music, and having that process being heard. And that hasn’t been an interest of mine. My interest in the process of the human organism, which is quite improvisational.
One of the thing that points out your love of humanity—or at least its capacity to make music—is your time spent hearing and promoting Pandit Pran Nath, the Hindustani singer. How did you first become aware of him? What has his legacy been in your own music?
Terry Riley: I was introduced to him through La Monte Young in 1970. And I immediately was attracted to him and his music and the legacy of tradition that he represented in Indian classical music, and—as I later found out—that was a joke in that there’s lots of good musicians! And I realized that Pran Nath was extremely unique in his approach. A very traditional person, but different at the same time. I’d say he was a rogue—unhampered by the world of music. When I first heard him sing, it really moved me a lot, as did the knowledge he had of traditional Indian music. Pran Nath passed away in 1996. And he asked me to continue to keep that going.
It seems like in the sixties—right around the time you started coming to prominence—American and English popular music became very obsessed with Indian classical music, at least on the surface level. When you heard bands like the Rolling Stones or Shocking Blue using sitars, did you think, ‘Great, these guys are getting into my type of music’? Or did you think they kind of cheapened the source material?
Terry Riley: I understood where they were coming from. I think there were some people who were more genuinely interested than others. George Harrison, for example. And other people just liked the sound and thought it was an exotic thing to have in their mix.
You have touched and been involved with pop music in a way that many composers haven’t—at least, not as tastefully! You collaborated with John Cale, who is a great composer but is known more for being a rock and roller.
Terry Riley: You know, I went to New York in ’65. My old friend La Monte Young had the Theater of Eternal Music, so I met John Cale and Tony Conrad and Marian Zazeela. And John was just getting ready to go leave the group and go with the Velvet Underground. So in the transition period, John and I started playing in the group with La Monte—just getting ready for him to leave, and I was going to take his place. And after he left, we both started hanging out and playing a bit together, and we were both signed by CBS in those days so they wanted us to do an album together. So that’s how Church of Anthrax came about.
As a Cale compatriot and ‘minimalist,’ what did you think of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, which came out a few years later? It seemed to be an attempt to tap into o the Theater of Eternal Music’s energy. He even name-checked—and misspelled—La Monte Young’s name on the sleeve.
Terry Riley: I don’t know that album, I’m sorry to say! But what John brought from La Monte into that group is very responsible for the sound that they’re known for—the big, droning, dark darkness that was prevalent also in punk music. John learned a lot from playing in that group. John is an amazing musician in his own right—a very original and powerful musician.
He’s an L.A. RECORD favorite! But you’ve also helped inspire slightly more famous and successful rock artists. Pete Townshend even named ‘Baba O’Reilly’ partially in your honor. And you’ve influenced a host of others. Do you enjoy modern pop music?
Terry Riley: Well, I’ll say that I enjoy the heyday of pop music, which I would consider the sixties and early seventies varieties, which I thought were starting to merge more with experimental contemporary music. The compositions were getting more involved. The Beatles working with George Martin, for instance, was a way of bringing those worlds together. I think those periods were where the music was a little bit more powerfully expressed. But I must admit, I haven’t kept in touch with it in the past few decades.
How about modern electronic music? A lot of it owes a direct debt to you, which many artists would be the first to admit. Are you proud of that legacy?
Terry Riley: One of the problems with electronic music is that the technology has become so powerful—and the commercial aspect of selling the gear has become so powerful—that a lot of musicians haven’t had time to go deeply into any particular area of electronic music as they did in earlier years when there wasn’t a lot of distraction. Now the choices are hundreds of different kinds of effects boxes and gear. And often in computer-generated music, it’s hard to go deep when there’s so much going on.
Is there any electronic music going on in the present that you do appreciate?
Terry Riley: Heh, you caught me off guard there! I don’t know what to say about that. I can’t think of any electronic music that I’ve heard that really grabs me too much. But I must say, I like one of the guys I’m going to play with at the show a lot—Matmos. I think Matmos have done a lot of good things with their approach to electronic music. I don’t know if you’ve gotten a chance to hear it, but they did a collaboration with me on their new album. It’s called ‘The Hashish Master.’ I think it’s their best tune. And they’re splendid performers. If you’re going by just the record, I think you’re missing a little bit of who they are.
You’re also known for giving it your all live. You’re famous for doing all night concerts! Do you know what the longest show is that you’ve ever done?
Terry Riley: I know I did an all night concert in 1967 at the Philadelphia College of Art that was 10 PM to 6 AM. But I cheated a little bit because I would take breaks. I would record sets, then I would play back the recordings and go out when the audience was asleep—then come back at the end of the set and do another one, ha ha! That was a pretty long performance, though. I just recently did a three-and-a-half-hour show at the Berkeley Art Museum of continuous music.
One thing I’ve read, at least about your Last Camel in Paris days, was that you were proud of not bringing pre-recorded music into your shows. You would tell the audience, ‘This is a tape machine, but I’m recording what I’m doing live and using it later in the set.’
Terry Riley: I have used prerecorded things, not at my own shows—but you know, for Kronos reasons, for example, I might use backing tracks if I really want to get a more orchestral sound or a sound-effect that I can’t get with just the music. But the way I worked in the sixties—with the electronic organ and the delays—I haven’t done much of that in these later years.
Describe your most recent sounds.
Terry Riley: I’m really very much involved now playing duos with my son, Gyan Riley, who’s a really fantastic composer and guitarist. We just completed a tour. It’s very low-tech—it’s essentially voices, piano, and guitar. But musically, it’s in a place where I’m really interested right now—just a kind of intuitive direction his music is taking.
Is that the same child who coined the phrase ‘Poppy Nogood?’
Terry Riley: No! Ha ha—that was my first child, my daughter Colleen. Gyan’s the youngest, and he’s the one who turned out to be a professional musician, too. So we’ve worked together a lot. He started out as a real prodigy, and we’ve worked together since he was a teenager.
Were you a prodigy at that age? Or are you slower than your son?
Terry Riley: I think I was more slow. No one ever really called me a ‘prodigy.’ I felt I had a lot of music talent when I was young, but I had trouble connecting. I grew up in a kind of remote area near Redding, California. And there wasn’t enough stimulus up there to get me really going. So I was developing kind of slowly. That’s probably good—you can be in it for the long haul, too. To me, there’s always room for improvement, and you’re always trying to get to that next stage you can imagine being in as a performer or a composer.
Do you have any surprises lined up for Saturday’s show?
Terry Riley: Naturally—ha ha! I prepared a solo organ concert for the Disney Hall in May of 2008, and that was the first time I’d ever done a solo concert on a pipe organ. For me, it’s like a guy who has a Piper Cub and he’s gonna have to drive a 747! So I’ve got to get down there and get myself oriented on this massive organ. So for surprises—I guess I don’t really know what we’re going to do for the show!
Last year I went to the Los Angeles Downtown Public Library, checked out a copy of your In C on CD, and somehow lost it on the way to the car. They charged me thirty dollars to replace it! Do you think it was really worth that much?
Terry Riley: Which version did you get? There’s about 25 versions out there. There are some versions out there that I think would definitely be worth it. One would be the Ictus Ensemble from Belgium. The Bang on a Can version. And the Paul Hillier Ensemble version.
What’s the worst version of your music you’ve ever heard?
Terry Riley: Ha ha—I don’t think I can answer that! There’ve been so many versions of In C that people have done who didn’t quite understand the piece, or at least didn’t have the right forces together to really make it work. But that’s fine, too—because one of the great things about In C is that it brings people together in a group. So even if you don’t succeed, at least you’ve had a communal experience!
TERRY RILEY WITH THE KRONOS QUARTET, MATMOS AND MIKE EINZIGER ON SAT., NOV. 21, AT EUREKA! THE WEST COAST LEFT COAST FESTIVAL OPENING EVENT AT WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL, 111 S. GRAND AVE., DOWNTOWN. 9:30 PM / $30-$70 / ALL AGES. LAPHIL.COM.