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HotWired: Club Wired

Thursday, 8 June 4 p.m. PDT Terry Riley, minimalist composer

"You can get high by getting in one groove. You can get high by staying on one note, there's different ways but that's definitely a way to ecstasy," said Terry Riley in The Wire.

Composer Terry Riley launched what is now known as the minimalist movement with his revolutionary classic In C from 1964. His all-night solo concerts in the late 1960s were early experiments in trance improvisation and meditative music, which have foreshadowed today's rave movement.

Over the lengthy span of his career, Riley's innovative compositions have inspired the works of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams, as well as such rock groups as The Who and Tangerine Dream. Riley's solo keyboard and piano concerts have become somewhat legendary because of his unique blending of eastern and western styles. Terry Riley joins Club Wired on Thursday, 8 June at 4 p.m.

HotWired: Club Wired - Excerpt from Altered Statesman by David Toop

Altered Statesman by David Toop

Terry Riley is speaking on the telephone from his home in California, his voice strangely reminiscent of Henry Fonda. . . ... Essentially modest, Riley downplays all of this. After all, his contribution to the late 20th century mix emerged out of collaborative work and improvisations with LaMonte Young, Pauline Oliveros and Chet Baker. After the first flush of enthusiasm for minimalism and systems music, Riley and Young tended to be dismissed as old hippies, past their peak, while Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams and Michael Nyman slid with varying degrees of compositional credibility into a new orthodoxy of avant garde populism. But as Riley says, life goes in cycles. Suddenly, the open works of Riley and Young seem more expansive, more useful to the fractured nature of music in the 90s...

I am asking Riley about a 1960 composition called Mescaline Mix, mentioned in passing In the explanatory notes for a recent piece, Cactus Rosary. Was there any great significance in the title? "Oh yeah, the psychedelic movement was just beginning then," he says, "but it was definitely happening. I remember Richard Maxfield brought me my first psilocybin mushrooms in 62 or something like that. He was very into psychedelic drugs before he died. Well, all kinds of drugs, unfortunately. He took some very strong things and maybe his death could be explained by that."

A pioneer of electronic music in America, Maxfield took his own life before achieving any kind of recognition for his remarkable work. He inspired LaMonte Young, Riley, Yoko Ono and Joseph Byrd, who went on to form a psychedelic rock band named United States of America. Riley met him at Berkeley, where Maxfield impressed everybody with his resourcefulness, using simple tone generators and spliced tape to create imaginary landscapes. He patiently edited pieces for Riley, displaying the obsessive, perfectionist nature that goes hand in hand with the skill like a curse. "He would make several splices per inch," says Riley. "He was a very top notch editor at CBS. That's what he did. He spliced together performances of Horowitz and all these classical artists. That's where he developed his technique."

Mescaline Mix was a piece made when Riley was music director for the Ann Halprin dance company. It was used to accompany a dance called The Three Legged Stool. "It was recorded tape loops that were all mixed from people playing the piano, laughing, different sounds I'd collected here and there, explosions. I did it all by overlaying tape loops," he explains.

After a lengthy period of composing solo piano works in Just Intonation and string quartet compositions for The Kronos Quartet, Riley's 1993 recording of Cactus Rosary seemed a return to his sources: jazz, blues, electronic keyboards, ritual. Towards the end of the piece, a blues emerges, like a microtonal, instrumental version of John Lee Hooker's 'Boogie Chillun'", a trumpet peeking out from the shuffling rhythm every now and again. Riley tells me about the piece.

I've been a very close friend of Bruce Conner, the artist, for many years," he says. "He sent me this magazine which had an interview with him and Robert Dean. Bruce started out the interview with Robert Dean by holding out two peyote rattles. They were both made by an Indian shaman. One was made with a pepper shaker, an aluminium can, and one was a traditional gourd-type rattle made by the same shaman. He said that something would be signified by shaking each rattle, instead of him giving an answer sometimes, which I thought was a very nice way to structure the interview. Then I started writing this piece and I thought of making the peyote rattle the centerpiece and having the piece kinda having the feeling of what it would be like to be at a peyote ritual, or at least some kind of experience like that. I notated it differently and I put it in a special tuning, using the timelag effect, which I used to use in some of my earlier music. I was thinking of a pyramid shape when I wrote it. The conductor shakes the peyote rattle. He's sitting in the center in a transparent tent, which is lit theatrically, and then the other players are gathered around him."

Fond of the music of Bach, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and John Coltrane, Riley was a piano player originally. "I started out learning honky tonk and ragtime with Wally Rosen," he says, "a very good dixieland player." He played solo piano in bars, learning how to engage an audience and expand outwards from familiar themes into flights of imagination, taking the innocent listener with him without causing too much discomfort in the process Improvisation is important," he insists "Being able to create music on the spot and to keep it open. That was the message that kept coming through to me from John Cage: keep it open."

His contemporaries_Terry Jennings and LaMonte Young_had both played saxophone since their youth Under the influence of LaMonte Young and John Coltrane, ... Riley took up soprano to play the pieces he was writing: Dorian Reeds, Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band and later film soundtracks such as Les Yeux Fermes. The straight horn has close affinities to the Indian double reed shehnai and nadaswaram, or the Middle Eastern flute, the ney, all of which are played with strong vocal qualities. "When I started studying Indian music," Riley says, "I abandoned the saxophone because I wanted to sing."

With his Persian Surgery Dervishes album, two live solo performances for electric organ and tape delay system, recorded in Los Angeles and Paris in 1971/72, Riley became the guru of trance improvisation and meditative music. 'You can get high by getting in one groove,' he says. "You can get high by staying on one note, there's different ways but that's definitely a way to ecstasy. Things come around in cycles. I'm sure this has happened other times in history too, even in the West, when people try to organise their music so it can be experienced in a different way. For instance Satie and Vexations. It probably happens every once in a while. It's a real need to experience music in a deeper, more continuous way, rather than as wallpaper, or a very quick hit. I've been having young kids come up here to talk to me who are involved with the rave, full-moon events here in California. They seem to think there's a big connection between the things I did then and the things they're doing now. I think it's fine. I think there is a connection."

From The Wire, May 1995