gyan riley

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.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Fabulous February

Composers, composers, composers! ...and a jazz festival

Classical weekend

This weekend, you can take your pick of classical music concerts: choral, chamber, or orchestral (or all three, if you have the stamina). On the 7th and 8th, Portland Lesbian Choir celebrates the ratification of the 19th Amendment (guaranteeing women’s right to vote) with their “Born to Celebrate” concert at Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland. The most exciting thing about this concert: a premiere of a new 19th Amendment-themed work commissioned by PLC from Portland composer Joan Szymko, whose music has been a highlight of recent Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers concerts.

Also on the 7th and 8th, at local theater company Bag & Baggage’s cozy Hillsboro venue The Vault, Northwest Piano Trio performs Shostakovich’s second piano trio as the live score for playwright Emily Gregory’s intimate end-of-life play The Undertaking. In this unique collaboration with B&B and director Jessica Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions, the trio will be onstage with the actors. On the 8th at Portland State University, PSU violin-piano duo Tomas Cotik and Chuck Dillard will perform Mozart, Schubert, and Piazzolla–three of the four composers Cotik specializes in (the other, of course, is Bach). And if you already have tickets to Portland Opera’s An American Quartet, don’t forget that it opens this weekend–and if you don’t have tickets yet, you’d better hurry!

Also this weekend, the Oregon Symphony relegates two more living composers to the Fanfare Zone. Their “Pictures at an Exhibition” program (concerts Friday in Salem and Saturday-Monday in Portland) manages to make room for twelve minutes of Missy Mazzoli and thirteen minutes of Gabriella Smith between the half-hour blocks of decomposers Mussorgsky and Paganini. I get that we’re supposed to be grateful to OSO for playing anything at all by living composers and women composers, and we really are grateful that they commissioned a new work from Smith: living composers need to eat! But we’ll never tire of complaining about the Fanfare Zone, and we won’t stop until the ratios are reversed and decomposers have to compete for their token opening spot on concerts dominated by Zwilich concerti and Tower tone poems.

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