Take a look at the picture below. That's Terry Riley on the organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall. On Saturday night he looked like the biblical God, white beard flowing as he conjured huge sound out of the Frank Gehry-designed machine. And to a certain segment of society, Riley is the Creator. His massively influential work stretches back 45 years to the release of “In C,” the hypnotic modernist mantra that stacked sound upon sound in neatly piled rows. The sheer heft of the aggregate would have been unsupportable had its underlying ideas not been so structurally magnificent.
Riley performed during the opening night of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's 'West Coast, Left Coast' festival along with Kronos Quartet, Matmos and Mark Einziger, all of whose work has been somehow influenced by the ideas that Riley has set forth. Over the course of three-and-a-half hours, the musicians stacked their creations atop one another like some sort of musical exquisite corpse, and though there were moments of wobbly unsteadiness, there weren't any collapses.
The evening followed a unique template: each artist performed a solo work, then was joined by the next artist for a collaboration, who then performed a solo work. Kronos Quartet began the evening with a new piece by LA-based film composer Thomas Newman entitled “It Got Dark.” A series of ten seemingly distinct miniatures, the piece moved from soft and plaintive string quartet/electronic hums to bursts of rushed energy. (The LA Phil will perform an orchestrated version of the piece with John Adams conducting next week at Disney.) The quartet, which has had a long collaborative relationship with Riley, were then joined by San Francisco electronic duo Matmos for a massive, jaw-dropping version of their composition “For Terry Riley.”
The piece began rather gently, with Kronos and Matmos creating sounds with toy hammers, percussion, and whistles. They banged on their music stands and stools, and gradually the chaos morphed into a patterned rhythm. This approach is Matmos' stock-in-trade: from randomness to order, while above a video screen projected images of, first, a close-up of a sink drain, then leaves and grass, then trippy patterns that recalled Brion Gysin's hallucinogenic Dream Machine. The original version of “For Terry Riley” featured the team sampling a Kronos rehearsal of an early Kronos/Riley collaboration (“Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector”). At Disney, they didn't need to sample; Kronos performed it live. This first part of the night was by far the highlight, but, then, for a certain segment of geek society (specifically, me), the idea of Kronos and Matmos onstage together is something of a dream come true, and carries with it the hope of further collaboration.
Matmos then performed “Supreme Balloon,” the title track from their 2008 album. It's an epic instrumental meditation that draws from early Kraftwerk (they use similar early modulators and synthesizers) and Brian Eno's ambient work, builds to a mid-track crescendo before gradually landing in a wide open field. To hear it in Disney's vast space is to experience a very specific kind of bliss.
Mike Einziger, best known as the lead guitarist for Incubus, joined Matmos for a fifteen minute instrumental that was less memorable, though not without its moments. Matmos then left the stage and on filed a dozen guitarists, an equal number of string players for “Forced Curvature of Reflective Surfaces,” a piece that Einziger introduced as “inspired by the shape of this building.”
On his Wiki page, Einziger expanded the thought:
“[Disney Hall] is obviously a solid, immobile structure, but it looks like a series of reflective waves that have been frozen in a specific state at a specific place in time, and I wanted to try and imagine what it might sound like if that idea were to be expressed as waves of sound. Adding a 4th dimension of time to the picture would force the structure into a Minkowskian space-time manifold, and it would therefore become directional. It would be as though time itself were forcing the curvature of the reflective material in a forward-motion, because time appears to be directional.”
Which is cool in theory, but as performed at the hall, it was less intriguing than the ideas it represented. Notes and clusters moved around the ensemble liked a bowed row of dominos falling, but it seemed more like an exercise than a whole, as though the weight of performing in Disney Hall had incited him to create something “serious.”
The final piece of the night — notwithstanding Terry Riley's solo organ performance — was a collaboration among all the musicians in which they played a medley of Riley's oeuvre; it meandered and moved as the octet wandered among serialist dots and messy clusters, dropping phrases and quotes with insistent grace. It was surely a sight to see such a strange collection of musicians gathered in one place, but the sight was much more magnetic than the sound.
Terry Riley's all night performances are legendary; he's been known to sit down at an instrument and play for ages while audience members nestle in and let sound wash over them. At Disney, you got the sense as he sat at the massive organ perch above the stage the he could do this all night, and were it not for time restrictions, he probably would have. He performed three extended organ improvisations that my colleague Gustavo Turner captured best when he said that it seemed Riley was more “playing with the organ than playing the organ.” It was magical to hear a master examining such a grand creation, and it really did feel like some sort of omnipotent being was explaining in some non-verbal language the secret of the universe. But three hours into the show, the audience had become restless, and as he conjured spirits and made the organ moan, the crowd gradually thinned.
Riley second piece was the most magical, a gentle bit that floated through the hall as though each note was hung with a parachute; bells and tings whispered, Riley dropping gifts into our ears that landed with grace. Drifting in and out of sleep and approaching 12:30 a.m., the crowd continued to thin until only a few hundred souls remained in the hall. The diehards remained through the third piece; these were the lovers who couldn't imagine abandoning a master in his element, which indeed he was. To see him lording above was a sight, and to hear him send sound cascading into such a grand space was a momentous occasion. It's a vision that will remain with many for years to come: Terry Riley making sonic architecture that rivaled the building that (barely) contained it.