Minimalism Goes Big for Terry Riley's 80th Birthday
By Lou Fancher
Fantastically (and ironically), composer/performer Terry Riley's 80th birthday fete — a celebration of the musician often recognized as the "Father of Minimalism" — is a three-day, monumental extravaganza.
San Francisco-based, Grammy-winning Kronos Quartet/Kronos Performing Arts Association, will host the birthday bash, at SFJAZZ Center June 26-28. The festivities include a selection of Riley's first- or one-of-a-kind compositions, a new work by Yoko Ono, six one-minute pieces written by composers expressly for the occasion, a conversation with Riley and Kronos' founder David Harrington about their over three decades of working together, appearances by guest artists singer/songwriter Pete Townshend (the Who), violinist Kala Ramnath, Beat poet Michael McClure, pipa player Wu Man, The Living Earth Show (Travis Andrews and Andy Meyerson), and more. The heady concoction of reconstructions, commissions, and collaborations culminates in a final performance by Kronos of Riley's two-hour, five-part Salome Dances for Peace, a work the group hasn't performed in over 20 years.
If Riley's music is, at its core, a tiny, perfectly formed circle, the concentric circles resulting from his influence on generations of musicians are enormous. Along with Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams, and others whose compositions do not constrain despite categorization as "minimalism" and stylistic descriptions including "repetitive," "polymetric," "looping," or "droning," the architecture of Riley's music unfolds to connect global, universal, multigenerational realms.
Steeped in musical traditions as varied as avant-garde/postmodern composer John Cage, jazz trumpeter/composer Miles Davis, Indian classical singer/educator Pandit Pran Nath, and others, Riley's near-addiction for collaborations led to signature works early in his career that blended Eastern and Western music traditions. Receiving an M.A. in composition from UC Berkeley and eventually assuming a position at Mills College in Oakland after extensive work with seminal, cross-genre, and avant-garde artists in Europe and New York City in the 1960s, Riley had work that took enormous strides in the development of electronic music, tape looping techniques, deep exploration of improvisation in Eastern and Western contemporary music, and significantly, the non-vibrato sound of Kronos.
"One of the most important things we learned from Terry is the non-vibrato," says violinist John Sherba, 60, a member of Kronos since 1978. "It means the expression of the bow becomes something you think about in a different way. Vibrato can be used to mask pitch — without it, you still want a chord to tune exactly. We'd spend hours with Terry, just tuning a chord."
Sherba says Riley's character is interwoven in every piece he composed: Sparkling imagination percolates in the rhythms; gentility shines in lush, lyrical passages; dignity, respect, and social justice for all people strides boldly in the form of complex tonalities requiring that an ensemble play as a cohesive unit. "In the back of your mind it's always there that it's hard, but you want to do it justice," Sherba says.
Although there's endurance required to perform Sunday night's Salome, Sherba says playing its buoyant rhythms leaves him with a residual boost, like a good workout. Performing Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector (1980) on Friday night's program, Sherba's likely to recall improvising at Riley's ranch in Grass Valley. "Being there, we heard the frogs, Terry singing his morning raja warmups — it was one of our first attempts at going off the page. We were young and of course, we overdid it. Terry was chuckling, I was throwing in everything and the kitchen sink and Terry said, 'It's better to sit back and listen. You don't have to carry it yourself.'"
Hank Dutt, 62, echoes Sherba's recollections of working with Riley after joining Kronos as the quartet's viola player in 1977. "Terry didn't write things down at that point. I credit David (Harrington) with getting him to write a score," Dutt says.
Even with a score to follow, Dutt says Riley's work is "daunting" because Riley's skill as a performer allows him to create spontaneous, 13-beat patterns and then come back to them while improvising — or change meter continuously, as happens in Cusp of Magic, a work featuring pipa master Man. The lush chords, cool tones with no vibration, and perfect tuning required to play Riley's compositions allow Dutt to accentuate his instrument's rich, middle-voice between the bass of the cello and the high violins. "I save the 'ice cream' (the rare bits of vibrato he occasionally allows to slip into his playing) for the most beautiful notes."
A special festival treat will be a one-minute piece by former Kronos cellist Joan Jeanrenaud who performed with the group 1978-1999. "She was pivotal for all of us — it will be significant to welcome her back," Dutt says.
Along with longtime friends and collaborators, the birthday party includes select third generation, Riley-influenced musicians, like San Francisco-based The Living Earth Show. Electric guitarist Andrews and percussionist Meyerson form the duo that operates as an electro-classical chamber ensemble. Known for blending classical music, indie rock, electronics, world music, and remarkable rhythmic dexterity — proving an inheritance from Riley — Andrews, 31, and Meyerson, 29, are graduates of the San Francisco Conservatory.
"David Harrington invited us for coffee and was all gung-ho about the idea of working on a piece," Andrews says, about the invitation to participate in the festival. "We just said 'yes' to whatever he was thinking of doing."
Harrington selected a world premiere version of A Rainbow in Curved Air, a 1969 composition using overdubbing and an album on which Riley plays all of the instruments. The piece was largely improvisational and incorporated electronic elements and an approach that is now considered pioneering by music historians.
Although the original version used various keyboards and electronic manipulation, Andrews says the re-creation involves deliberate rescoring to re-create the "trippyness" of the piano and human beings playing notes to match the work's electronically delayed eighth notes. "What's really weird is that we're trying to be as faithful as possible and by doing that, we're hitting the luddite switch and doing the un-technological thing. We tried to figure out his carefree improvisations as if they were gospel. Being faithful to notes is part of loving the historical documentation."