If you checked out “Electric Earth,” Doug Aitken’s huge, immersive midcareer survey at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA this weekend, you just might've run into a musical legend. From Jan. 4 through this evening, composer Terry Riley is creating improvisatory performances throughout the museum space, bouncing his musical ideas off of Aitken’s visual ones.
The idea, Riley explained in an interview earlier this week at MOCA, was for him to play whatever he wanted in the space, much as the octogenarian composer does at home at his ranch in the Sierra foothills. “When Doug came up to my place last summer, we talked about the show,” Riley said the night before his first MOCA performance. “He knows I just play at night for myself at the ranch. He wanted me to come down here and just play like I’m playing for myself, so that it has a kind of informality to it. It won’t be like a concert.”
On Thursday evening, the first of Riley’s improvisatory events at MOCA felt a bit more like a concert than Aitken and Riley had perhaps initially envisioned. Riley might have been playing for himself, but a crowd of more than 570 avid fans filled the space, listening with total attention and devoted admiration and giving the event a slightly more formal air.
There’s a reason Riley draws a crowd wherever he plays. He solidified his place in music history textbooks in 1964 when he composed “In C,” a piece that launched the minimalist movement in America, inspiring composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass to explore the boundaries of harmonic and melodic repetition. Since then, Riley’s experimentations with technology and his diverse compositional output have expanded the sound world of traditional classical music. He has influenced popular music, too. Bands like The Who have mimicked his sound directly, and his exploration of jazz and classical Indian idioms have extended his fanbase beyond the world of classical music.
But Riley’s appeal reaches beyond the contributions outlined on his Wikipedia page. The soft-spoken, grandfatherly composer radiates a warm, calming aura. His music is experimental, yes, but it resonates with so many diverse music lovers not just because of its innovations but because of its emotional depth and distinctiveness.
As a boy, Riley’s mother made an effort to keep him in music lessons, even when times were tough. He started with the violin, moved to piano, and always enjoyed singing. “My mother recognized that I was crazy for music and she had to do something about it,” he says.
He kept up his music lessons throughout school and dreamed of a career as a classical pianist. But when he arrived at college in San Francisco, he quickly realized that career path wasn’t for him. He was turned off by the restrictions and competitiveness of traditional classical performance. “It’s a great world if you can fit into it,” he explains, “but I realized it wasn’t me, and you want to really be able to be who you are as much as possible at all times.”
Riley saw his classmates, with their heads in their scores, as missing the point. “I like music that communicates directly, heart to heart,” he says. And so he followed his heart and explored music his own way, using LSD and marijuana to open his mind along the way and learning to practice in a more meditative manner. He would take a simple four-note pattern, for instance, and play it for hours on end, over and over. “By doing that, things would start sprouting out of it,” he recalls. “It was like having a little musical mantra.”
Riley’s music evolved along with the technology around him. “When I discovered tape loops, I was really turned on,” he says. He made thousands of tape loops of all sizes, running them out into his garden, around bottles and back to his simple tape recorder. He got into synthesizers in the 1980s (a little late, he explains, especially since he knew the people who were inventing them). His interest in technology is, and always has been, in the pursuit of new sounds, although these days he’s finding himself drawn mostly to his first love, the piano. He says the piano is very basic to his everyday life. “If I’m not around a piano for a while, I get withdrawal symptoms and start feeling kind of bummed out.”
At MOCA, Riley is using both a Steinway grand piano and a laptop with a USB hookup to an electric keyboard. On Thursday night, he was set up in the room that hosts Doug Aitken’s “Migration,” a large multiscreen video work that features a variety of wild animals exploring empty, nondescript roadside motel rooms. The video shows beautiful close-ups of a pair of albino peacocks, a horse’s hooves pressing into the motel room’s faded carpet and a fox scurrying into the bathroom.
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There are similarities between Atiken’s and Riley’s aesthetics. Both are California natives. Both draw audiences into distinct, immersive worlds. Both deal with technology, expanse and the manipulation of time and space.
Situated between two large screens, his bushy beard in profile against the flicker of the video, Riley began his improvisation with “Migration” Thursday night at the piano. He sang, too. He still loves to sing, he says. And when he sings you can hear the bending, winding, microtonal techniques he picked up during the years he spent studying music in India. Midway through the performance he moved to his laptop, generating music that grooved and pulsed with the lights of the screens surrounding him.
Riley may be in his 80s, but he is strong and sharp. He still likes to get stoned. But he also likes to play the piano sober and “get high on the music.” He buried his wife last year, which was tremendously difficult for him. He set aside composing for eight months to deal with his wife’s death. He lives by himself now. But, he jokes, he has plenty of neighbors and friends who check in to make sure he’s still breathing.
What is clear in conversation and during his performance is that Terry Riley is a man who knows himself well and has mastered the art of communicating that self through music. He may have switched out his tape recorder for a laptop and his hand-rolled joints for a vape pen, but as a performer, improviser and composer, Terry Riley’s voice is as distinct as ever.