Like a Rainbow in Curved Air: An Interview with Terry Riley

Legendary composer-performer Terry Riley is the creator of such groundbreaking "Minimalist" works as In C, A Rainbow In Curved Air, Poppy Nogood and, with the Kronos Quartet, decidedly un-Minimalist works as Cadenza on the Night Plain and Salome Dances for Peace.

He'll perform solo and in collaboration with Kronos and Matmos at the November 21 opening night of the L.A. Philharmonic's West Coast, Left Coast events that run through December 8. Riley talks here about the origins of his music, where it's going and what he expects to find there...

Like a Rainbow in Curved Air: An Interview with Terry Riley

L.A. WEEKLY: Given the theme of the "Left Coast" events at Disney Hall -- that there is something about West Coast composers that might indicate a different way of thinking about music and art -- how do you see yourself fitting into that?

TERRY RILEY: I guess I fit in as well as anybody. I was born up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where I live now. I've lived all my life in California, and worked here, and whenever I go anywhere and do anything, that's what I'm known as. I don't think there's a stylistic link between all the people who live on the West Coast, but I think what this festival does is put everybody out there and let the audience decide themselves if there's any common thread going through it all.

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How did your physical environment shape your experience of music?

Well, I grew up in the country, and just the fact that I got used to relating to nature a lot as a kid does maybe affect the way you feel in the rhythms of music and even the tones of music. I didn't spend much time in an urban environment. I think that shapes it some way, but I can't say exactly how, because you can live in a very nice urban environment and make quiet, peaceful music if that's what you want to do. In general I'd say that there's something in these environments which definitely affects the way we perceive music.

Prior to your immersion in Non-Western music, as with your studies with Pandit Pran Nath, what sort of music was giving you ideas?

I was heading toward Asian music in my own work before I met Pran Nath, and that was one of the reasons I was attracted to him. I was working with modal ideas and with cyclic ideas, which fit very well with the ideas in Indian classical music. I was preparing myself for an immersion in Indian classical music in the years previous to meeting him.

Had you drawn inspiration from the European serialists, or electronic music composers such as Stockhausen?

Oh yes, when I was a student at UC Berkeley, at the composition department there, I was introduced to his work by Lamont Young, who was a fellow student there. And I became very fascinated with Stockhausen's work and studied his scores that I could get ahold of, especially Zeitmasse; I actually wrote an imitation Zeitmasse. But yeah, I was very attracted to what he was doing, especially that period of the late '50s, early '60s.

I think of what you and LaMonte Young were doing in the early '60s as having obvious overlapping concerns, but largely being a case of creative confluence.

Well, I think that Lamont brought with him a whole musical concept which was not necessarily in the air yet; he was sort of a seer in that way, a prophet, in that he saw a certain direction music was going to be going, and his own feeling toward music was very unique at that time. People weren't writing pieces made out of long tones in those days, at least I wasn't aware of any other people doing that kind of thing. I think Lamont was very influential on the whole of music in this century, and probably beyond; I think his work's going to have significance.

Regarding your most well-known piece, In C, can you tell me where you were personally at that time? What was your thinking about the right path to pursue?

I was interested in music using pattern and formations of patterns that had the same shape or similar shape, and had been doing some pieces prior to In C that involved tape-looping processes -- especially the music I did in Paris just before I came back to the U.S. in about 1963. I worked with Chet Baker there, and we did a production for the Theatre of Nations, and I started to work in the French radio studios. It was kind of laying out a form for a piece that would have repeating modal patterns, and the patterns were very interactive, creating a kind of sound field.

How does In C work?

Well, there's a lot of things about it. But the piece is layed out in 53 repeating cyclic patterns, and the players all play patterns 1 to 53, but they relate to each other freely, I mean they don't have to be playing the same pattern; they can be be a pattern or two away from each other. So it forms an interlocking grid as they move through the piece, and gradually as they go through the piece there are slight shifts in tonality, also, so you get these kind of sound washes of tonality in different areas -- there's one tonality taking over from another.

And it's a democratic piece, there's no conductor, so it really relies on the musicians' spontaneous judgments to make it work. The best performance is when everybody is really listening well and hearing what's going on around them and relating to it in a meaningful way.

What sort of non-Western sources informed that piece? What particular ideas about repetition or working in cellular form would've come from Indian or North African music, for example?

At that time I didn't have a lot. I was beginning to get interested in the music of Morocco when I lived in France, and of course that repetitive dervish music in Morocco was I think very much a shaping force in my thought about music. But I hadn't discovered Indian music yet, or Indonesian music, which In C sounds the most like and works the most like. The music of Indonesia at that time I didn't know, so that was a coincidence.

Was there a backlash among the new-music types against In C, for its non-pursuit of indeterminacy or serialism or other de rigeur modernist ideas?

Well, I suppose, but it's always true that, even today, people align with stylistic camps and they feel that their path is the true path. It's almost like religion! [laughs] So there probably was. I wasn't too involved or aware of it, but I know that there was a lot of comment about In C, that it was a joke, it wasn't taken seriously.

It didn't take long for that piece to be taken seriously, regarded even as a modern classic.

I think it was just popular support, of many groups playing it and validating it with some good performances.

The first work of yours I heard was A Rainbow in Curved Air. Can you tell me what is going on in that piece?

Rainbow was written four years after In C, and at that time I was trying to get myself a solo keyboard program to perform around, so I wouldn't have to rely on a lot of other musicians. I wanted to be a little independent that way, so I could play as many places as I could.

Rainbow was one of these pieces that I wrote for solo keyboard concerts; before Rainbow, I wrote a few pieces called the Keyboard Studies, and I took some of the ideas from them as its model. But there are some new things that I introduced into the process of Rainbow. It's actually simpler than In C. I use a lot of different patterns, but what it builds on one repeating 14-beat pattern, which goes through the whole process of retrograde and inversion and augmentation and dimunition. So it uses these kinds of techniques with just very little material, in many different ways. And then on top of that there's a lot of free improvisation.

Early on you became identified with the Minimalist tag, which has followed you throughout your career. How do you feel about such a categorization?

Well, [laughs] I always say that I wasn't thinking about Minimalism or never have thought about Minimalism in terms of my work. It was something added on by music critics to term music that had certain kinds of limited parameters, and there were certain composers who were lumped into this. But I like to feel free of this. I like to feel that every time I start a piece it has something that is going to be contributing to a new concept.

I think that if you get stuck thinking about Minimalism and think you're a Minimalist, it puts you in a box in a way that I wouldn't want to be in artistically.

What did you learn in your studies with Pandit Pran Nath?

An enormous tradition of Indian classical music, for one. He introduced me to this very rich tradition of north Indian classical vocal music, which has traditions hundreds of years old and stretching right up to modern times. So that was one thing. The other was, I wasn't a singer when I came to him and he taught me about singing and voice production and how to build a voice. And the other thing he did was -- [laughs], he did many things for me, this could be the whole interview -- but it was kind of like he gave me a more disciplined way to approach the way that I worked in general, because he was very disciplined in his approach to practice.

Regarding the individualism of Southwest composers, did you identify with the likes of John Cage and Harry Partch or Lou Harrison?

I'd say all of those people. I never met Harry Partch, but I was friends with Lou Harrison, and John Cage I'd met and worked with on a few occasions. John Cage's music came into my life when I was still in high school, he was one of the early influences of modern music for me.

How does the impact of jazz figure into your story? I.e., did figures such as Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane impact your views on composition?

The periods of jazz when I was listening the most or most involved was the time of the really great chamber music groups of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and Gil Evans. There was a lot about their approach that I studied and I found very useful in my own work. One of them was taking just a very simple chart and building a very comprehensive piece out of it. It sounds like it might be all written out, and they were all doing just because they were great improvisers.

So what really impressed upon me was that you can start with very limited means, and if you have great players you can evolve into quite an engaging structure.

You work in so many different forms, including solo piano. A particular favorite of mine among your recorded works in that area is The Lisbon Concerts. What would have been going on in your head while playing music like that? Were you empty, or perhaps terrifyingly full?

Well, probably all of that. You know, at different parts during the concerts, your mind and your spirit go through a lot of different states as you're falling through the music. But I'd say the best states for me are when I'm the most empty; as soon as I start thinking about what I'm doing, it can limit the scope of the way the music is happening.

When the mind is turned off when you're playing, you're just like somebody out in the audience being played through.

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