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Minimalism: Origins by Edward Strickland (c) 1993 by Edward Strickland ISBN 0-253-35499-4 excerpts 2309w

- pg 133, 134 -

Riley made two major contributions to early Minimalism: the re-introduction of tonality in tandem with the use of repeating musical modules, the latter derived from his influential work with tape music. The String Quartet he produced in 1960 was constructed like Jenning's quartet of long tones but within a tonal context. Prophetically, the key Riley chose was C major, the most emphatic way of making a break from atonality, using a staff without accidentals but now as a key signature. Riley's earlier compositions had been in a Serialist vein, including the Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano he wrote as an undergraduate at San Francisco State, where he studied composition with Wendall Otey. After graduating in 1957, Riley studied for a year or so with Robert Erickson at the San Francisco Conservatory, then audited at UC-Berkeley before registering officially in 1959. A piece from the same year called Spectra emulated Stockhausen's Zeitmasse in its use of different tempi for each instrument (Stockhausen used five, Riley six).

Riley describes his meeting Young in Berkeley in terms of finding a spiritual brother. They almost immediately began collaborating musically. Riley playing Young's piano studies and violin in other Young works. Violin was Riley's first instrument, on which he began lessons around his sixth birthday, before moving on to piano two years later. Like Young, Riley had grown up with far greater exposure to popular than to classical music. Young's primal sonic memory is the wind off Bear Lake, but for Riley, who is just four months older, it was the sound of the radio. He notes that he tried to sing before he could speak, joining in on "Pennies from Heaven" and similar songs on the radio in a whistle-stop town in the Sierra Nevada foothills named Colfax, near which he still lives. When saxophonist Young was studying his Uncle Thornton's swing-band fakebook, Riley was exploring the same repertory on piano. Both played in dance bands in high school and college for spending money before meeting as graduate students. Like Young, Riley was from a modest background, and without his ragtime piano playing would have been unable to keep himself afloat through the bachelor's degree and support his new family through the master's degree.

Whereas Young found the barroom scene constraining and distracting, Riley has said that he prefers it to the regimentation of the classical concert. He took advance lessons in ragtime piano with Wally Rose while studying post-Serial music in Berkeley, and considered his saloon ragtime no less interesting than his later professorship of Indian music as Mills College through the 1970s. Although Young's jazz background was as strong as Riley's, it was Riley who was to incorporate the jazz element more profoundly into his classical compositions and who continues to maintain that America's greatest contributions to music have been from jazz rather than the classical tradition.

... In the summer of 1960, Young left the Berkeley campus for New York on the Alfred Hertz Memorial Traveling Fellowship, ... while Riley stayed on at Berkeley another year, feeling very much persona non grata, and finished his M.A. requirements while working in the San Francisco Tape Music Center with tape-loops. This led to the next phase of his work with Ann Halprin, as represented by his score The Three-Legged Stool for her and in a sense most of his work as a composer throughout the 1960s.

- pg 143 -

In his 1960 String Quartet Terry Riley had introduced tonality to long-tone composition, while following Young's use of a traditional string ensemble in his breakthrough into full-fledged Minimalism in the Trio for Strings. The next year Riley made his second important contribution to the evolution of Minimalist style in introducing the element of phrasal repetition as a central structural principle in his own String Trio. Just as the C-major tonality of the Quartet represented an emphatic reversion from dodecaphony, so the unvaried repetition of tonal phrases marked a radical compositional simplification in the context of approved Serial developmental techniques of inversion, retrograde, and transposition of the prima material of the tone-row. At the same time, however, Riley's interest of training in Serialism remained evident in that the tonality of "very simple repetitive motives" was surrounded by a "lacework of chromaticism." The relationship between the two approaches to harmony seems almost symbolic of the development of Minimalism, as the tonal repetition moves to the musical foreground and the chromaticism to the background. For Riley, in any case, "That was the transitional piece" [AC 112].

- pg 146 -

The real roots of Riley's Trio and subsequent exploration of repetitive structures, through which he became the principal influence on the motoric school of Minimalism that came to the fore in the second half of the decade (In C was premiered at virtually the mathematical center of the 1960s, in November 1964), were in tape music: loops, echoes, and feedback in chronological order. The String Trio and subsequent works were an outgrowth of Riley's experimentation in the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which led over the course of half a decade through the Trio and his tape compositions per se in a direct path to In C and the maturation of modular construction.

- pg 147 -

Before he reached those studios, however, Riley worked closer to home. At about the time he began his graduate studies, Riley also began working with what he describes as "very primitive tape recorders." What most interested him initially was the repetition constructed by tape-looping. He began to distort frequencies by adjusting the speed of the tape. The creation of the repetitive modules of the tape loops gave him the idea of realizing the same process with live instruments. Riley was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, where he worked with the cofounders Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick from 1959 until after he completed his M.A. studies at Berkeley in 1961. ... Riley completed tape compositions as early as 1960, including the indecipherably hermetic score of Concert for Two Pianists and Tape-Recorders -- he and Young were the pianists -- but the first tape piece of abiding interest to the composer was produced in France in 1963. While completing his M.S. work at Berkeley, Riley composed the score for Halprin's The Three-legged Stool, called elsewhere The Five-Legged Stool (Riley suggests because Halprin might have changed the number of legs for another production). This was the first work in which he composed with tape-loops, in which sonic modules are repeated over and over again by running the same length of tape over the play head of the tape-recorder. This was the primitive origin of the repetitive style Riley was to make famous, the precursor of modular construction and what was subsequently known variously as "process," "trance," or (in pre-laser days) "stuck-needle" music.

- pg 149 -

The [Miles] Davis piece Riley had chosen for The Gift was taken from the 1959 album, Kind of Blue, perhaps the greatest single disc in Davis's illustrious and protean career. The LP followed up Davis's exploration of modal construction in the title piece from his LP Milestones the previous year. Modal jazz broke away from prevailing hard-bop and blues-based funk styles in rejecting traditional harmonic rhythm and modulation, replacing chord changes with scales or modes as the basis for improvisation. Whereas the chords might change every bar (or beat) or two, the modes were sustained for four, eight, sixteen bars, or longer. "So What" contained only two modes per thirty-two-bar chorus, eight bars of IV surrounded by sixteen and eight of I, which permitted Riley maximum leeway in his electronic experimentation by allowing him to extend the echo effect without immediately creating potentially cacophonous polytonality or sharp harmonic clashes between the echoes and the presentation of ensuing material.

- pg 150 -

Modal jazz was to be the most important indigenous influence on the development of Minimal music, soon joined by the less inflected rhythmic propulsion of rock that makes its influence felt in motoric Minimalism, especially that of Glass, who had far less involvement in jazz than his predecessors in Minimal music. Young, Riley, and Steve Reich all played in jazz groups in their teens, and all mention it as a profound influence on their work in the 1960s. Analogies between modal jazz and non-Western musics had not gone unnoticed; it was in this period that Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar brought raga to public consciousness in the West, and they were followed by numerous other master musicians hitherto unknown outside their own culture...

- pg 173,174,175 -

On November 1, 1964, five months after Young completed the Ur-tape of The Well-Tuned Piano, the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle announced the latest concerts in a series of evenings devoted to the work of local composers and produced by Morton Subotnick at the San Francisco Tape Music Center on Divisidero Street. "Works to be performed include 'Music from the Gift' (with Chet Baker), 'I' (with John Graham), 'Shoe Shine,' and 'In B-flat or is it A-flat.'"

Riley was well known in Bay Area performance circles, and the house of about five hundred was packed on Wednesday for a program entitled "oneyoungamerican" the night after Lyndon Johnson overwhelmed Barry Goldwater in the Presidential election. The four works mentioned in the notice are rarely heard, and except for Music for The Gift now largely forgotten. I was an unlooped tape-piece in which Graham inflected the word menacingly, narcissistically, etc. Shoe Shine was a looped tape-piece working off Junior Walker's hit single Shotgun. John Gibson describes the first (dated July 1964) as "a great piece" and the second (June 1964) as a "fun-house" that shook the walls. In B-flat or is it A-flat (October 1964) was so named because of the tape distortion of jazzman Sonny Lewis's tenor sax. In the program notes, the Dewey commission is still entitled "Music from The Gift" and dated July 1963.

Two other works were performed, though not mentioned in the preview. One was listed as COULE but apparently known as Coulé, a bilingual pun on "cool" and the French word for both a slur in musical notation and a plunge in swimming. It was described as a "continuously being composed ... piano improvisation upon a mode" -- which could describe much of Riley's work up to 1980. The final piece, In C, was dated October 1964.

The musicians included the composer, Jeannie Brechan, Werner Jepson, James Lowe, and Steve Reich on keyboards, Ramon Sender on Chamberlain organ piped in from a second-floor studio, Jon Gibson on soprano and Sonny Lewis on tenor sax, Pauline Oliveros on accordion, Mel Weitsman on recorder and trumpet, Stan Shaff and Phil Winsor on trumpet, and Morton Subotnick on clarinet. Anthony Martin, also onstage, modified two projectors in what he calls "a rhythmic/melodic light composition" of dots, lines, shapes, and colors modulating in "one-on-one time" with the music. Another packed house on Friday and a rave review by Alfred Frankenstein in the Chronicle, subsequently excerpted for the Columbia LP cover, followed.

Frankenstein entitled his piece "Music like None Other on Earth" and prophesied that Riley "is bound to make a profound impression with it... This primitivistic music goes on and on. It is formidably repetitious, but harmonic changes are slowly introduced into it; there are melodic variations and contrasts of rhythm within a framework of relentless continuity, and climaxes of great sonority appear and are dissolved in the endlessness. At times you feel you have never done anything all your life long but listen to this music and as if that is all there is or ever will be but it is altogether absorbing, exciting, and moving, too [November 8, 1964].

Frankenstein immediately perceived the ritual element in Riley's work, comparing it favorably to Chavez's attempts to reconstitute pre-Columbian ceremonial music. He was also the first to apply the term "primitiv[e/istic]" to what would become known as Minimal music -- he admiringly, most others dismissively. He concluded, "The style discussed here reached its peak in a piece for instrumental ensemble called "On C," which stayed on C for the better part of an hour but left one refreshed rather than satiated... 'On C' was the evening's masterpiece, and I hope the same group does it again."

It had been an event, but they didn't. In C was performed infrequently in the four years that passed before it was released at the end of 1968 by Columbia Masterworks....

... In addition, the free-form communal exuberance of the work embodies the brighter side of the paranoic and jubilant, lacerated and ecstatic sensibility of the 1960s, which has been simplified beyond recognition in the various mythologies of the era that have since proliferated. The extent to which the ecstasy and jubilation, induced chemically or otherwise, were an overcompensation, even a reaction-formation, in the context of the cultural ravages of riots, assassinations, and the Vietnam War, is still downplayed, resulting in an incoherent popular conception of the era as being alternately -- rather than simultaneously -- the best and the worst of times.

- pg 180 -

During rehearsals for the premiere of In C the freedom inherent in the score became a problem insofar as the musicians found it hard to preserve ensemble amid the fun. One of them, himself a drummer, suggested that a steady, purely rhythmic figure might facilitate the cohesion that was lacking. He came up with a suggestion Riley liked and adopted drumming out Cs on the keyboard as a way of keeping time. The musician who "just threw out the suggestion -- it was Terry's piece" was Steve Reich, the composer who took Minimalism into its next phase -- phasing.

- pg 193 -

Riley returned to New York shortly after Reich in fall 1965 and lived there with his wife and daughter until early 1969.

Typed by C. Vega jan 7 1996


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