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Terry Riley's avant-garde sounds are still casting spells
Terry Riley, musician and composer, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn on Nov. 26, 2019. Riley, who's avant-garde sounds are still casting spells, is celebrating his 85th birthday — and his influence on a wide swath of culture — a bit early in Brooklyn. Kyle Johnson/The New York Times.

by Mike Rubin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- At 84, musician and composer Terry Riley looks every bit the part of a synthesizer wizard. Visiting the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn last month from his Northern California ranch, Riley, his beard a cascade of wispy white waves tumbling onto his red scarf, was like an avant-garde Gandalf.

But “guru” isn’t just the vibe he radiates; Riley’s influence stretches farther afield than almost any other figure in 20th century classical music. His landmark composition, “In C,” first performed in 1964 by an ensemble including Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick, helped put minimalism on the musical map, although he now disdains that term.

“I always thought ‘minimalism’ sounded like ‘simple-minded music,’ and it isn’t that,” he said. “It has that kind of edge to it that puts everybody off.”

In anticipation of his 85th birthday (although he doesn’t reach that milestone until next summer), Riley is performing in two career-spanning concerts at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn this weekend. The programs on Dec. 20-21 will include Riley on solo piano, an improvisatory duo with John Zorn, and what Riley believes is the first New York performance of “A Rainbow in Curved Air” since shortly after its 1969 release.

On the recorded version of “Rainbow,” Riley played all the instrumentation himself, using overdubs to build layers of electric organ, harpsichord, tambourine and an Indian goblet drum called a dumbec. At Pioneer Works, the piece will be performed by younger musicians, including Angel Deradoorian, Greg Fox and Yuka Honda.

“Terry Riley opened a world of infinite sound in which I could submerge myself for days,” Deradoorian said. “In that realm, I felt the purest inspiration to explore the meaning of music, the power of repetition and variation on a theme, and its meditative, transcendent effects.” Fox said Riley’s music has taught him about having patience in his work: “How even small things, repeating, twirling, can be extremely familiar and also energizing every time they reappear.”

Riley said he’s aware “people are still discovering works that I did in the 1960s,” adding that it’s “heartwarming to know that it’s still alive, that it still reaches across generations and affects people today who are living in a totally different world than when those pieces were created.”

Besides his impact on the contemporary classical world, Riley also permeated pop culture. “A Rainbow in Curved Air” inspired Pete Townshend, who named the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (with its Rileyesque organ patterns) in his honor; when they met years later, Riley said, Townshend told him he owned 32 copies of the record.

He also jammed with the English prog-jazz outfit the Soft Machine and recorded “Church of Anthrax” with John Cale, which became an art-rock touchstone. Commissioned by a Philadelphia discothèque owner in 1967 to write a piece for the opening of the club, Riley taped the Harvey Averne Dozen’s soul single “You’re No Good” off the radio and transformed it into a 20-minute track that presaged the future of dance music edits and hip-hop’s sampling and looping.

But Riley’s greatest influence has been on electronic music, not only of the experimental variety but on popular genres like house and techno. “Terry Riley is the bridge from Messiaen to Kraftwerk,” said Gavilán Rayna Russom, who plays synthesizer for LCD Soundsystem and recently released a solo album of electronic works. “There was also a spirituality at work, but one that had a cybernetic relationship to technology. Terry’s approach is more like psychedelic rock than the more hard-line New York minimalist composers, he was more trippy.”

Indeed, Riley’s “All Night Flight” events in 1967 and 1968 were the precursor to rave culture’s chill-out rooms: dusk-to-dawn affairs held in gymnasiums and galleries where audiences were encouraged to bring sleeping bags and picnic baskets filled with varied ingestibles while he created music to mind-expand (or doze) to. Needless to say, the psychedelic revolution was a key factor in his evolution.

“There was a kind of a renaissance in the ’60s,” Riley said. “I think that people who did psychedelics and did music couldn’t help but change somewhat the way they perceived musical ideas, that they could actually see deeper into them.”

Of all Riley’s works, “In C” in particular has continued to pique the interest of performers. It has a relatively basic structure: 53 short interlocking repetitive patterns centered around a doggedly insistent rhythmic pulse. The piece can be played by any combination of instruments with no specified number of musicians or duration, and the entire score fits on a single page. There are more than 30 recorded versions of “In C,” ranging from the Shanghai Film Orchestra to Japanese psych-rockers Acid Mothers Temple to Damon Albarn’s Africa Express collective of Malian musicians.

“For one thing, ‘In C’ has kept me from having to drive a cab or work in a grocery store,” Riley said. “I always like it when people do things that I wouldn’t have thought to do.”

The universal appeal of “In C” extends from its repetitive structure. “If you look at world cultures, repetition was a traditional way of establishing some kind of ecstasy: By repeating something, people would change their mental and spiritual outlook,” Riley said.

Such repetition has long been the bedrock of dance music — be it disco, Chicago house, or Detroit techno — but in recent years, a broad range of cutting edge, underground and improvising artists have also picked up on Riley’s ideas (and sometimes his instrumentation) and taken them into other realms.

Riley first came to embrace repetition through his work with tape loops. He’d cut them up randomly and listen to them on an early tape recorder. “It accumulated a lot of noise, and in that noise I was starting to hear ghostlike forms emerge,” he said, so “the landscape could change in the music through being repeated over and over again.”

A crucial step was his subsequent development in 1963 of a live tape-looping system that he called the “time-lag accumulator.” The playback from one tape recorder was sent to a second, and then that playback was fed back into the first, creating a staggered delay. “It’s something now you can do on your iPhone,” Riley said, “but it was mind-blowing in those days to come up with this idea.”

Peers and younger artists inspired by his work continue to seek him out. Although he and Cale had a rift over the mix of “Church of Anthrax” following its 1971 release, they recently ran into each other at the Desert Daze festival in California. “Since then he’s called me, and we talked about working together again, so there’s a possibility we’ll do another,” Riley said. “It would be fun to see what would happen this many years later.”

Riley was also recently approached by Solange to collaborate at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles but passed on the opportunity. “I think she’s very good at what she does,” he said, “but I didn’t see a collaboration in it.”

His preferred partner of the last 20 years has been his son Gyan, 42, a conservatory-trained classical guitarist; the two will appear together on the second night of the Pioneer Works booking.

“For me music is a daily practice,” Riley said, “that I try to deepen in the sense that I get to understand more about what music really is, and sometimes what I think it really is is the simplest elements — elements that are just basic to music, that when they can come forward, are the things that need to be there to move myself or to move an audience.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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