Terry Riley: Accidental composer
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 22, 2004) – Had Terry Riley been a more gifted pianist, the shape of contemporary classical music might have looked very different than it does today. Riley, after all, is widely regarded as the pioneer of minimalism. His mid-1960s compositions, including the most famous one, “In C,” had a huge impact on composers who followed in his wake, including Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, building on his experiments and shaping the sound and feel of modern music along the way.

But as it turns out, composing was a fallback position for Riley, a related field to which he turned when he realized that a career as a concert pianist just wasn’t in the cards.

“I started composing out of the necessity to have a career,” said Riley in a recent phone interview from Mass MoCA, where he has been in residence this week as part of the Bang on a Can Summer Institute of Music, and where his music will be showcased in tomorrow’s six-hour, Bang on a Can Summer Marathon concert that starts at 4 and features members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars performing alongside the institute’s faculty and fellows.

“Composing was kind of an accident,” said the soft-spoken Riley, who was born in 1935 in Colfax, Calif. “I started out trying to be a concert pianist, and found out at one point that I wasn’t going to get anywhere if I kept on that path. There were too many people better than I was. I still wanted to do it, so I decided if I composed my own music, I could still be a pianist and play my own music and nobody could say I wasn’t doing it better than anyone else.”

Riley credits a variety of influences for feeding into his minimalist approach and his work incorporating Indian classical music. Early on, he listened to a lot of Debussy, Ravel and Bartok.

“Bartok had a big impact on me when I look back on it,” said Riley, whose resume includes work with everyone from the Kronos Quartet to the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. “I think he was one of my connections to the east, even though it was Eastern Europe. The music he transcribed, Balkan music, was very sourced by Turkey and the Middle East. I think that was what I was hearing in there, and that made the connection for me to that part of the world. He was the first to bring that and synthesize it into contemporary music. That really opened my eyes to possibilities and sounds that I became very interested in.”

Riley also credits the great bebop jazz pianists like Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Bill Evans, and his fellow experimental composer La Monte Young, for helping to shape his unique approach.

“My association with La Monte Young opened up a lot of viewpoints about what I call stasis in music -- large static forms that don’t necessarily have dramatic content but are slowly changing,” said Riley. “In C” is the most dramatic example of this, with its interlocking, repetitive figures and 53 separate patterns from which the musicians can draw.

“In C” was the result of several years of experimenting with new compositional ideas. “The actual piece itself was very spontaneously composed,” said Riley. “Like everything else, you prepare yourself and a good idea will come along. You don’t know when it’s going to happen. You spend long periods just working. You know there’s something you’re trying to get at and one day it just falls into place.”

When he came up with the strategy for “In C,” did he realize he had stumbled onto something of a paradigm shift in western compositional strategy?

“I was aware that it was a major step, because I’d never experienced anything like it, and other people around me thought so too,” said Riley, who allegedly inspired “Baba O’Riley,” the Who song written by Pete Townshend, another fan and devotee. “We did have a sense of that, but I couldn’t have imagined the kind of future the piece would have.

“‘In C’ put the whole context of this idea in a way that people could easily get. I was getting these ideas from La Monte Young and Indian classical music and classical music from Japan -- large vertical forms that don’t go forward but freeze time. Most of the works I did in the Sixties were like that. After the Sixties my work broadened out.”

Riley was particularly influenced by what he learned about Indian music – not only the content, but from the process itself.

“I felt from childhood where music can take you,” said Riley. “It can remove you out of this earth-plane existence and transport you. And I loved the way it affected me. When I began studying Indian music, here was a culture where this was the common viewpoint --that music was a devotional path. It was the only thing you really needed. In India, they say musical sound is God. That really confirmed it for me, because I experienced it so strongly. For musicians in India, this is their spiritual path. They don’t need anything else. They’re not necessarily involved with the temples and churches. The practice of music is it. It’s one on one, you and the universe.”

Riley admits to some ambivalence about being known primarily for “In C” and being labeled “the father of minimalism” to the exclusion of all the music he created before and since.

“I can live with it,” he said. “You could be called worse. But I think everyone likes to think of themselves as having more depth than that, or being labeled for just one style. And I think that over the years it’s lost a lot of meaning in my case.

“I think I’d probably rather be known as someone who created beautiful music.”

[This article appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 24, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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