Interview by Jason Gross (March 1997)
Being a legend and an innovator isn't all it's cracked up to be. You get all these crazy interview requests like the one you find here. Terry Riley definitely caused a stir with IN C from 1964, launching the minimalist movement in music. Later, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and a host of new age artists took up the banner of his ideas. Even in rock music, you'll find bands like the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth who have been well-versed in his work. Like any good artist, he isn't content to rest on his laurels though as his work has been heard in a Carnegie Hall anniversary, been nomiated for a Grammy, and performed by numerous artists and ensembles. And of course, this restlessness has also meant continued recording and touring, including a series of solo piano concerts.
Special thanks to World Music Institute
PSF: How did the idea for your all-night concerts come about?
I was asked to do that by the Philadelphia College of Art for the first time around 1967 or 1968. They wanted to have a concert in an art gallery where people could bring their families and sleep in hammocks and sleeping bags. They could relax, listen to music or sleep. After that I did a tour with Intermedia '68 in New York and there were a lot more after that.
PSF: How did you find that kind of experience?
I was into doing that kind of thing anyway. It was something that I really wanted to do and had been doing it in different contexts.
PSF: Usually concerts are given for a hour or two. An all-night show kind of went against the Western concept of breaking time into short, managable pieces. Was this sort of an Eastern concept of time that you pursued through these shows?
It had that element in it but those concerts were visual too. I was working with a visual artist. There were strobe lights and different things being used also. It would create an effect.
PSF: I had heard that composers like yourself got more recognition from art galleries and museums before music magazines and critics were willing to take minimalist music seriously. Did you find that to be the case?
This kind of music in New York was generally considered to be 'downtown music.' Uptown was where you had the large halls. It was often performed in galleries. Other artists were always interested in it. There was a movement that was happening between painters, sculptors and musicians that developed into kind of a community. During this time in New York, when I did the Intermedia '68 tour, I met John McClure and David Behrman of Columbia Records. They had recorded me and that started out a wider audience for me.
PSF: Since you had worked with Behrman, LaMonte Young and Jon Hassell by that time, did you feel that you were part of a movement or a supportive group of musicians/composers?
Yeah. I knew a lot of people that were working in this field. It wasn't necessarily independent. A couple of times, it would involve other composers. When I was a Creative Associate at Buffalo, I worked with Jon Hassell and David Rosenbloom, for example.
PSF: How do get ideas for songs?
It really varies. Sometimes it just comes from being asked to do it. Then I would start thinking about it and that would generate a piece. Other times I'm rehearsing or playing and an idea will come to me.
PSF: Could you talk about the work you were doing with Khayal?
That group grew up slowly over the years. It started out when I was working with a sitar player from Berkeley around 1980. We did a lot of concerts together, based on my compositions that were based on Indian classical music. He would play tabla and sitar. We did some collaborations together. Later, other members started joining too like George Brooks who played saxophone. Then around 1989, I formed a larger group and that's when it was called Khayal.
PSF: How was that different from the original group?
The first group had ten musicians and I had to do a lot of arranging for that because there were many people involved. We added vocalists and other percussionists and other saxophones. The final version of the band was with about five people. The last tour that we did was in 1993.
PSF: That was around the time that you started working with the Travelling Avantt-Gaard?
Yeah, that was just before I started working on the Wolfli opera. I had to actually drop Khayal to work on the opera.
PSF: How did that come about?
I was asked to do a piece for a show at the Los Angeles County Museum called 'Parallel Vision.' But I decided to do a theater piece using the writings and drawings of Adolf Wolfli. We did shows in Los Angeles and Atlanta. We did two shows in France in the following year. The next year, we did some performances in Switzerland. There was a total of about seven performances.
PSF: What kind of works did you after that?
I was doing solo piano concerts after the opera. That's really been my focus now- solo piano. I've also done some duet concerts with an Italian bass player named Stefano Scodanibbio. We've done some shows in Europe and we'll be doing some shows in the States.
PSF: Since you play a number of instruments, is there anything in particular that draws you to the piano?
I've always played the piano. I like the expressive quality of the piano. It allows you to control a lot of ideas, more so than a synthesizer. I find that harder to control. You can control the expressiveness much better with a piano.
PSF: That's interesting since you used to play electronic instruments a lot before.Yeah, I do a lot less electronic stuff now. Mainly, it's because I'm getting more involved with Indian classical music. I seem to be drawn back to acoustic music. I find myself liking to work in that a lot better.
PSF: For long term plans, what kind of performances or compositions do you think you'll be doing?
I want to do some writing. I'm writing a work for a guitar ensemble. I'm working on some piano pieces also. Also another string quartet for the Kronos Quartet. Probably various small things. I'm mainly interested in small ensembles and ensembles that I can work with directly.
PSF: Do you know about some of the rock bands that have been influenced by your music? The Who named a song after you ('Baba O'Riley') for instance and early music of the Velvet Underground really had a minimalist approach.
Sure, I knew about this. In the '60s, the work that I was doing was more parallel to the work that was going on in rock. There was the similarities and the kinetic energy that both musics had. I think it was only natural. I was also very interested in the '60s in rock 'n' roll and the developments there at the time. I liked all the great bands of the '60s like the Beatles and the Stones. I liked the Velvet Underground. I worked with John Cale later (CHURCH OF ANTHRAX, 1970).
PSF: Have any of your own works become personal favorites?
I have so many favorites that I don't know that I'd chose any one in particular. I like a lot of what I've done. I don't usually listen to music I've done after it's composed. I like to go on and clear the boards for something new to happen. The 'Concerto For String Quartets' is one of my favorites. I like some of the stuff I did in the '60s- RAINBOW IN CURVED AIR. It's actually an old piece but when I hear it, I still like it. Also, SALOME DANCES FOR PEACE for string quartet.
PSF: What are your thoughts about the minimalist movement today?
The main tendancy now is for younger people to use minimalism but in a bigger gesture. I think the main thing that minimalism did was to focus on modality again. In contemporary music, you could be a serious contemporary musician and still write in a tonal or modal style. I think that this influence is still being carried through today. But people need continual change in music. At the moment, there's many different kinds of activities going on in music. You could find every style in a single piece by a composer today.
Also see our article on Riley's early career
See the rest of Perfect Sound Forever
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