Perfect Sound Forever


Riley performing a late night solo organ concert at the Saint Roche Cathedral in Paris around 1975
from the Terry Riley website

At Play in the Fields of the Mind: 1968 - 1986
Part II by Mark S. Tucker

Many years later, Riley did indeed come back to his beloved Sufism and the Mid-East, this time deciding to abandon the dusky brocaded Persian tents for deserts and caravans in Shri Camel (1978). Another solo work, this time on a modified ('just' intonated) Yamaha YC-45-D electronic organ, there are a number of similarities to Dervishes but far more differences. Where the earlier LP had been the sedimentary thickset bottom of an aging wine, Shri is an exotic soda, a bubbling and frothy refreshment set down in the middle of the baking desert, glowing with effervescent life. Wending our way across the Sahara in gaudy colors and a panoply of noises, we saunter to the melody of bazaar shenais, flags and saris flapping in the wind, insects buzzing in the glazed air, the lurch and plod of camels particularly noted beneath fat merchants.

As in Dervishes, it's obvious Shri was a fundamental idea upon which Riley elaborated as the mood struck, blazing away in the studio. In this new environment though, he had 16 tracks to play with, so the listener gets a lot more density for his listening bafflement. The ten-year interval had also seen incremental increases in playing prowess. Now, those frequent falters and missteps which had been slightly behind the time signature are greatly reduced - though not erased - along with most of the indecisiveness heard throughout early opuses.

There's a new problem, however. Though small, it's this: it's impossible to see what all the fuss is about 'just intonation.' The system, not only here but elsewhere, sounds thinner and less contrasty than the wrongly semi-reviled Western style of equal temperament. That's always been the case, no matter who you listen to (La Monte Young being only one practitioner), and it's never much made difference who utilized it. The problem is that the tones in the "just" system are too relative. Sure, this obtains a more exotic aspect overall, but not so much that it flip-sides anything. It may even have been the favored mode of musicians and composers from the obscure Harry Partch to the much obscurer Jon Catler, but there just isn't all that radical a departure happening there. It's certainly not worth the fuss one hears from idiosyncracy-hunting critics and musicians. More than one astute mind has suspected that, had Riley played this four-part work in equal temperament, we may well have been even happier with it than we already are.

Shri palpitates with a lot of twittering and spangles rioting about in each song - not to mention what sounds like an array of flats running equally crazy - weaving thready patterns athwart labyrinthine dunes. There's a hell of a lot to hear newly each re-listen, but let's play the devil's advocate for a moment and comment that, even with his newly augmented capabilites, the composer's yet too much the non-perfectionist and his recitations of his own work are not comparable with the superior takes others (Kronos Quartet, etc.) invest him with, or that orchestral stagings properly imbue. To these ears, he's always been the extremely talented amateur who, thankfully, squeeked through the pro door and stayed there, occupying a mindset that saw no reason to hone skills to glimmering perfection. Fair enough, and a benefit no matter how you argue it, but this also shows why his contemporaries and competitors are far more widely known and lauded, persistent and more apparent in their fame.

Songs for the Ten Voices of the Two Prophets (1984) continued the hypnotic fascination with the Mid-East in a work as exotic as anything he'd ever done, creating three deeply structured songs, all concerned with enlightenment and delivered in the most resonant tones Riley had yet manufactured, dripping with leviathan depths and shrouded mysteries. Putting aside the electronic organ for a Prophet 5 synthesizer, an instrument still prized by the knowledgeable for its landmark sound, he discovered and fully exploited the greatly broadened horizons such a sophisticated keyboard bequeathed.

Right from the opening moments of "Embroidery," the 22-minute A side, we hear keening wails issuing from deep in the earth, rising up mournfully from caves frighteningly burrowed beyond measurement- places that no spelunker or National Geogaphic expedition ever hazarded. This isn't one of Riley's serialist ventures. It contains a wealth of repeating motifs but none of them stick around for long, liquidly transforming into highly revised editions of themselves from measure to measure, constituting the continually self-renewing base of the song's structure, writhing with energy and dark light. Beneath them, almost unheard but readily felt, are throbbing bass lines systolically pulsing out a dimly glowing platform for the burble above. If rapid motifs are the tune's eerie representation of near-life energies, bass lines are the murkily omnipresent earth-heart, the solid shelf of rock upon which the rest of song dances and broods.

For the first time, we also get to hear Riley's voice recorded. He takes the poetic part of a priest high in a temple spire calling the faithful to prayer, ululating in the wobbly slurred form peculiar to this, Balkan, and Indian musics. Wandering further to the East, the lyrics concern Chinese wistfuls dreaming in memory, and the philosophy is Tao-istic, calling attention to the nature of bliss and its dualities. Riley not only has the disposition to handle this singing well, but possesses a tone situated between gruff and soothing. He drags words off into the wind, transforming them in mosaicked scat native to the form, counterpart to the sliding wailing synth leads.

Those top-lines are amongst the best he'd ever done. No longer are heard the not-quite-there hesitancies and unpolished attempts at a fluency just beyond reach; this LP settles in beautifully to properly honed abilities. Part of that derives from the natural progression of any musician but a more important segment issues from the settling process itself: Riley seems to have located his true home. "Eastern Man" repeats the verity. As laconic as its predecessor, it nonetheless has a sparkling radiance firmly painted by extremely well-chosen patterns. The lead work flows from that warm source, manifesting almost unnoticeably, ghosting off tiny suns. Once more, the composition is a call to wake up, to become aware, and perhaps in that is hidden the slight chagrin that a composer feels in calling the listener to harken to such a necessity.

Riley was closer to Klaus Schulze territory than had ever before been the case, holding a looking glass to the German's inspirations. That these songs are recordings of performances only reinforces the similarity. Riley's as firmly in his element as Schulze, playing with confidence, skill, and an ever-increasing creativity. Only the last song, "Chorale of the Blessed Day," is disappointing. More a leaf from the Yogananda canon, and a return to an electronic organ sound, it's too queasily familiar as the sort of churchy semi-propagandistic paean the laity of any religion are all too familiar with. Listening, you get the increasing anxiety that a collection plate is about to be passed around. The only question remaining is: who are the two prophets and what's this 'ten voices' stuff? Even Tuva throat singers can't brag like that.

Cadenza on the Night Plain (1985) turns the instruments over to the Kronos Quartet, shoring up the earlier assertion that the composer's most complimentary manifestation is in others' recitals of his genius. A thick complex work, it looks to the American deserts and to pensees, whimsical and otherwise, upon various myths, events, and ideas arising from the rich soil of the land. A good deal of the material was written specifically for the Quartet and they, in turn, influenced parts of the developing compositions, which the writer had brought unfinished to the table.

Spirituality was ever the keynote but Riley injected humor in a lampoon on the idea of aging hippies cast into the foreseeable future, muggle-stoked and stumbling in "March of the Old Timers Reefer Division," the same hippies, it should be wryly noted, which were most responsible the rise of Eastern religions in the West he despaired were ignoring them. Perhaps a toke or two at a doob would've expanded that awareness for him. But he makes a wise choice in composing a tributary song, "Tuning to Rolling Thunder," to the native spiritualist of the same name (Rolling Thunder), a stunningly common-sense individual also caught for posterity on tape by Roy Tuckman (KPFK's fossilizing radio personality, "Roy of Hollywood") in an extended series still occasionally played on air.

One expects the best from Kronos and is only rarely disappointed. This is not amongst the rueful moments. Each player displays masterful dexterity and tone, completely sympathetic with every square inch of the terrain, nimbly shifting from sprightly chases to moody backgrounding, catching every last scintilla of meaning. The entire work, however, can't help but amble back closer to classicalist realms, to the land of Carter, Kanchelli, and other modernists, preserving the essence of the past while retooling it to speak freshly. Most all Riley's previous efforts had very few real antecedents in classicalism. They were progressive in every limb and pore, paying scant attention, if any, to jazz as well, but any classicalism - save perhaps as a part of the Schoenberg reaction - was pretty effectively squelched. This one, however, squatted squarely in the upper crust's milieu, somewhat as orthodoxly heedless to tradition as Benjamin Britten's operas (start with Billy Budd and see).

In many ways, Cadenza is a bacchanal for violin, though not as vaultingly expansive as what Michael Galasso and Paul Giger have issued (different intentions). Formal structures sit chockablock with weirdly gelatine passages, though. Liner writer Mark Swed somehow sees the marches as being performed by gentlemen with two left feet, yet there's a definite sense of liveliness, elegance, vitality, and the oft-remarked loopy dislocation, this time commenced after a certain passage melds into a swerving solo imparting drugged perambulations. As all blend together, the demarcating lines are sometimes difficult to determine.

1986 rolled around and Riley apparently decided an instrumental version of Mel Torme was the cat's pajamas, or so it seems, given the mellow, croony, oozy, nightclub atmosphere ventured in the opening to The Harp of New Albion, a 2-LP magnum. Hard to credit, frightening in the very dandling of such an idea, especially emerging from the previous clime of zephyrs and simooms, but there it was. Never had the composer been so laid back and urbane. Was this the same Terry Riley, upsetter of tradition and psychic point-man from the far hinterlands? Had age crept up and begun to transpose the solipsist into Terry Como?

Fear not, he'd only lulled us into false expectations... kind of. Screwing around with preconceptions, a set-up that holds more than one might expect, Riley'd taken a turn for the traditional in several respects. Harp is solo piano and vastly more satisfying than might be suspected, interblending a number of established genres, synthesizing a wrinkle in New Age that differs significantly from other attempts. Add the fact that the inevitable and, for him, well practiced allure of jazz seems to have crept out from under the cellar door again and there arose a distinct departure from the catalog. First, the composer just flat-out lounges things up big time here, making one look quizzically to the skies and ask "What the hell??" Then the atmosphere is slowly bent to tilt toward trademark permutations, subtly slipping in odd chords, fragments, small dissonances. It doesn't happen right away nor in large amounts; the pacing is superb. Riley teases, then sweeps the listener up in a beautiful allegro, sparkling with lightbeams, before settling back down and re-pondering the opening statement. Slightly mottled colors sneak in, peculiar shades, and the slow conversion re-commences.

But, even at its most violently abstract, the sense of his opening equanamity echos underneath everything, and it's to that establishing shot that Riley inevitably returns, time after time after time. Most striking amidst it all is the use he makes of semi-jarring dissonant strikes, prepared in a Cage-ian manner. There's something about them not completely discernable, even after several listens, but the oddness doesn't interfere with a strange appropriateness, somewhat like a lone elm in a stand of birch - how'd it get there? What does it mean? Well, who knows for sure, but it looks very cool in contrast.

Riley's insufficiencies on the electronic organ had been shown a number of times, so one wouldn't be remiss in wondering how they play out on piano. Happily, he's a superb pianist. Only a few very small errors are discoverable in the entire set but his timing and palette variations remain marvelous. Note is made of his long-time friend and apparent master (his words, not mine), another musical trouble-maker, La Monte Young, and there seems here particularly to be much influence from Young's work. Looking back, one can see it lurking in earlier compositions, just not so easily as from this new perspective, where it shows its milkteeth.

The work is titled after Sir Francis Drake's leaving of a harp in Nova Albion (San Francisco), where a native medicine man stumbled across the many-stringed device unknown to the New World's natives. Drake, a merchant explorer probably had no use for such fiddlesticks as music - there was a man's work to be done for that fickle-assed queen half a world away! - and so cast the thing aside after surveying the environs. The native thought the harp sacred and placed it on an altar atop a cliff at land's end, where the wind created its own mysterious tunes, blowing fitfully through the strings, turning the instrument aeolian. Riley was interested in how the effects of weather and the passage of time might change the tonalities of the instrument. Those conjectures evidence themselves plentifully throughout Harp. It's helpful to know this as you listen, hearing the zephyrs, breezes, gusts, and sloughs all the more engagingly - sharing heady apprehensions of what the lonely instrument might have been creating as time and circumstance turned it to continuingly new restatements of itself. Normally, we shouldn't pay too much attention to the preparatory histories behind any music, but this vital interpretive work is so dependent on such a thing that attending the piece unprepared robs one of a good quarter or more of the ability to interact with the wistful pictorialism. Once the knowledge is acquired though, the reasons for all the choices are exceptionally vivid. As usual, Riley never failed to find new dimensions to put before us.

Also see our Terry Riley interview

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