From Jazz to Minimalism to India and back

A profile of pioneering composer Terry Riley, performing with son Gyan in Portland tonight

What’s one of the 20th century’s most influential and widely accessible contemporary classical composers doing at a jazz festival? Terry Riley’s jazz roots and cred might surprise classical fans who know him as the principal pioneer of minimalism, the dominant contemporary music of the past half century or more, or even as one of the first so-called “world music” figures or as an influence on psychedelic rock. In fact, jazz lies at the heart of all those innovations, and Riley has continued throughout his long and starry career to play the kind of improvised piano he’ll perform in Portland.

Composer Terry Riley at the keyboard. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Jazz Roots

Growing up in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills during World War II, Riley naturally imbibed the jazz and crooner pop of the time, and taught himself to play piano by picking out the tunes he heard on the radio. He helped pay the bills at the University of California by playing ragtime piano in a San Francisco bar.

One of his UC music school classmates, La Monte Young, was a jazz musician who introduced him to the glorious small combo post bop music of Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane then happening in the late ‘50s and early 1960s. He even played his way around Europe in piano bars, joining Chet Baker’s touring ensemble there and collaborating with the avant garde Fluxus artists.

Riley also did pioneering work in electronic music at San Francisco’s legendary Tape Music Center. He’d stage late night concerts improvising on solo harmonium, organ or even saxophone until the sun rose, setting the stage for the all night raves that emerged decades later. And at choreographer Anna Halprin’s legendary San Francisco dance studio, and later in mid-’60s New York, he worked with Young to invent what we now call minimalism. 

Making Minimalism

These influences, especially modal jazz, converged in the most influential music of the second half of the 20th century: Riley’s In C, composed just after his return from Europe. Composer David Lang has called its November 1964 San Francisco premiere his generation’s Rite of Spring. Embracing rhythmic influences from jazz and the repetition of his tape loop music, Riley added repetition and pulse to Young’s long tones and drones, creating ever-evolving patterns, launching minimalism as we know it. Riley imbued minimalism with the repetitive pulse and swing that made it so popular with audiences far beyond the chilly academic modernism that dominated postwar American classical music until Riley’s breakthroughs. 

But even In C and the minimalism it spawned owe much to jazz. Its philosophical concept, which allows the performers to choose when and how many times to play any of its interlocking repetitive 53 short phrases or “cells,” based on what they’re hearing from the players around them, derives from Riley’s experience with jazz improvisation as much as strictly notated classical music. Riley’s In C bandmate Steve Reich, who took Riley’s ideas to even greater minimalist heights, was also heavily influenced by the modal jazz of Coltrane and Davis.

A few months later, Riley joined Young in New York, and spent the rest of the decade turning the concepts behind those all-night improv performances into recordings like 1969’s A Rainbow in Curved Air. Riley’s intricate trippy keyboard explorations influenced influenced everyone from early ambient composers to generations of pop musicians (including Dan Deacon), most famously, The Who’s Pete Townshend, who used Riley’s ideas (and name) in 1971’s classic “Baba O’Riley,” the celebrated opening track to their 1971 classic, Who’s Next.

Indian Inspiration

By then, Riley had moved on, into Indian music through study and then decades of performing with the great singer Pran Nath (coincidentally around the same time Townsend found his own Indian guru, Meher Baba, the other half of “Baba O’Riley.”) He wanted to plunge even deeper into improvisation and melodic patterns, and Indian raga is the ultimate expression for both (Philip Glass’s brand of minimalism also had Indian roots, courtesy of his work with Ravi Shankar.)

Pran Nath and Riley. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Raga singing, which is also heavily improvised, naturally appealed to Riley’s jazz-spawned improvisational nature, and also increased his facility at making music in the moment, whether with his voice or with keyboards. His decades of hard study and practice have continued to this day, as do his concerts of Indian music (original and traditional), and he returned to India often.

“One of my real interests is working with musicians from different backgrounds,” he told me in an interview a few years ago. “Today, musicians are part of a big international community, now that the world has been tied together through all kinds of media and airplanes. When I wrote In C, that was not as possible. Now, there’s more chance of interaction.”

Natural Sounds

After he’d reached what he thought was the apotheosis of the improvisational minimalism whose development had begun with In C and culminated with Rainbow, Riley was ready for another change. At a New York Christmas party, shortly after completing work on what became the album Church of Anthrax with ex-Velvet Undergrounder (and fellow bandmate with Riley in Young’s ensemble) John Cale, Riley smelled the pine scent of a Christmas tree.

Riley in 1968. Photo courtesy of the composer.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to get back to that smell, pine trees,’” he told me. “That’s what brought me back [to the West Coast]. Nature was the Bay Area—pine, eucalyptus, the romantic smells I was used to out here. I wanted to be back in the pine trees.” He also cherished the closer connection to Asian music and culture he found in California. He moved to a ranch in the Sierras not far from where he grew up. 

Riley’s journeys tracked the earlier path of his fellow West Coast pioneer composer, Portland-born Lou Harrison, who two decades earlier fled New York urbanity for his earlier California natural settings and its Asian connection–and, like Riley later did, plunged into study of Indian and other Asian music and the intricacies of tuning. Riley, too, was entranced by the purer natural intervals that Harrison and later Young introduced into contemporary classical music, making several albums of “just intonation” keyboard music in the 1980s. It’s no surprise they became fast friends.

And like Harrison, Riley drew inspiration from the West Coast’s natural beauty. “When you’re in nature, you start noticing all kinds of movement,” he recalled. “Where I live at the ranch, the birds come out and I watch the way they fly: the way a quail bird will go up and down, or wild turkeys will fluff up and do this dance. The rhythms of nature have a lot to do with music. Everything I see out there is some kind of musical form. I realize we’re so connected to other beings on earth. I feel like I’m internalizing the sounds they make, and learning their rhythms, like learning a tabla rhythm.” 

Those patterns, too, found their way into his music, including his next monumental achievement: the two-dozen plus string quartets he wrote for San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet, beginning with a 1979 invitation from their leader, David Harrington, when he and Riley were both teaching at Oakland’s Mills College. Riley’s work with Kronos constitutes one of the great continuing partnerships in the history of music. Many consider his quartets to be the finest set by a single composer since Bartók’s, whose genre-shaking quartets inspired Riley’s.

“He’s been inspired by so many forms of music that the idea of him being labeled as a minimalist has always seemed really bizarre to me,” Harrington told me, “because when you’re working with him, what he’s doing is bringing together so many aspects of the world of music. The essence of so many limbs from the tree of music enters into his imagination and then forms new limbs.”

Riley performing a late night solo organ concert at the
Saint Roche Cathedral in Paris around 1975. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Back to the Piano

Nevertheless, it may be Riley’s improvised solo keyboard music (like what he’ll play at PDX Jazz Festival Friday) that most purely expresses his musical essence. After he shuffles deliberately to the piano bench, once he places his hands on the keyboard, Riley seems to summon musical vitality, and the notes and ideas quickly unfurl. Even when I last saw him perform, at Kronos’s 80th birthday tribute in San Francisco, Riley remained a formidable improviser and preternaturally powerful pianist. In his solo piano performances, Riley displays his roots in rag and barrelhouse piano that made his brand of minimalism swing more than any other. 

“I like to improvise onstage in front of an audience, where you’re in intimate communion with yourself and you discover what happens within you. Improvisation is a big part of my musical process,” even for compositions that he later notates. (You could say the same for many composers, including Bach and Mozart.)

Riley will be performing with his youngest child, guitarist/composer Gyan, the only one who’s followed him into musical life. Though he lives in New York (Terry says Gyan draws on both East Coast energy and West Coast expansiveness), they’ve been performing together for more than a decade now. “With Gyan, there is of course the biological connection, which I think gives us a stronger intuitive base,” Terry told San Francisco Classical Voice. “When we play together, it’s a very unified kind of yoga. If I’m playing, and he’s doing the piece simultaneously going in the same current I am, if I decide to suddenly move into a different direction, he always seems to be there.”

Gyan has collaborated with many other musicians, including jazz guitar great Julian Lage and Indian master percussionist Zakir Hussain and has accrued his own share of awards and accolades. (His duo Probosci performed in Portland a few years back.) “He’s a better-trained musician than I,” Riley continued. “He’s conservatory trained, and his skills and vocabulary in music go beyond mine, so he’s able to do all the backwards dancing, and I’m able to go forward. It’s kinda nice. It gives us both roles. But then he’ll occasionally take an idea and run with it, and then I have to play the other role. It’s a very interesting dance to do that with him, because he’s a surprising musician. He comes up with ideas that always excite me and stimulate my own imagination.”

Gyan once recalled one of their earlier duo concerts when they strolled on stage to perform a totally notated piece—and Terry realized he’d left his sheet music in the dressing room. “And then [he] starts playing something I’ve never heard before and I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be interesting.’ And it was. It was tons of fun and those are usually the best things that come out of [the duo], and sometimes they’re accidents.”

The magic that sometimes emerges from the kind of informed improvisation that fuels jazz also inspired Terry Riley’s trail blazing minimalism and other music. So when he performs at PDX Jazz Festival Friday, he’ll be bringing his beyond-category music full circle.

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