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East, West and Improvised

Terry Riley is a musician in the trenches--composer, pianist, raga singer-- pursuing the 'moment . . . when music is vitally alive.'

March 23, 1997|Josef Woodard | Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Calendar

FAIRFAX, Calif. — It's a typical Saturday morning in this small town in mid-Marin County, with Range Rovers vying for parking spaces and a line at the local coffee bar. At a retreat tucked away in a wooded area outside town, another proto-Marin crowd is gathered. This one is small, rapt and, almost to a person, sitting in variations on the lotus position.

In front of them, composer Terry Riley, wearing a high-necked tunic and exercising his sonorous voice, is the centerpiece in a session of classical Indian raga singing.

"Raga singer" is a semi-secret niche in Riley's unconventional musical career. What he's best known for is a revolutionary 1964 work called "In C." Of flexible length and instrumentation, marked by pulse-driven rhythm and repeating, undulating patterns, "In C" is considered a seminal landmark of the music that would later be dubbed Minimalism.

Not that Indian music doesn't fit into the picture. Riley planted a seed with "In C," and then moved on to other interests, including tape loop pieces, electronic music and piano improvisation. And in 1970, he decamped for India to begin a lifelong study of ragas with his guru and sometimes collaborator, the late Pandit Pran Nath. (On Monday, Riley will bring most of these interests to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a duet concert with Italian bassist Stefano Scodanibbio.)

After the Fairfax concert, and lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant, Riley settled into the kitchen of fellow Indian vocalist Shabda Kahn to talk.

With his bushy, mostly white beard drawn into a small braid under his chin and his fanciful collection of hats (today an embroidered affair covers his hairless head), the 61-year-old Riley seems less like an elder statesman of American contemporary culture than a musician in the trenches. And, because performing and improvising are key for him, the trenches are the right place to be.

"I'm mainly an improviser who composes," he said, "whereas a lot of composers don't even improvise at all. They don't feel the need to. Performing, for me, is one of the major concerns of my music activity. If I couldn't perform, I think I'd shrivel up.

"I enjoy writing, but I somehow don't feel like I can do the same thing through writing that I can do through playing, which is to get to the moment and let it go anywhere that it will. To me, that's what Indian music and jazz and other music is all about, when they're really vital and alive."

Neither ragas nor jazz nor the musical avant-garde were necessarily indigenous to Colfax and Redding, Calif., where Riley was born and grew up. But piano playing was, and Riley became a self-described "big fish in a small pond" because of his keyboard skill. He had a concert career in mind, until he arrived in the big city of San Francisco to study at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley.

"I realized that I wasn't top-flight concert pianist material," Riley said, "so I decided to switch to composing. But the thing was, I loved to play. Of course, I could always improvise and play my own music and nobody could tell me I was doing it wrong."

At about that time, Riley found a comrade in conceptual composer--and Minimalist forefather--La Monte Young, who was also dealing with new modal ideas, which is to say, tinkering with conventional major and minor scales. "We were both going in this direction--immersing yourself inside the tone so that the tone becomes everything. You're inside the tone."

For Riley, the all-important tone was C. "It's almost like fractals," says Riley now of "In C." "If you take the same shape and repeat it many times and then you stick them together, they create a vibrancy in space, which is something that I don't think I'd heard in music before I created that piece.

"That was my big fascination--this vibratory body that happened with patterns interacting. It was kind of like what Escher was introducing in the visual arts or what some of the Op Artists were doing in the '60s. It was about creating a kinetic music."

After "In C," Riley turned more toward solo work, improvisation and recordings, creating music that, once again, anticipated trends, from new age noodlings to the current sample-based ambient craze. He attracted fans from all over; the Who's Pete Townshend wrote "Baba O'Riley" in his honor; Minimalist hero Steve Reich played in the premiere of "In C," and professed to be influenced by it. In 1969, the now classic "Rainbow in Curved Air" was released, and then in 1970, Young introduced Riley to Pran Nath, and he unplugged from the West for a while.

"I sort of dumped my career in America," he said with a grin. "I was getting telegrams in India saying, 'Please report to the studio in New York for recording on such and such a date,' and I was just laughing.

"But then, at one point, [Pran Nath] said to me, 'You can't just do this.' He felt that it was important to keep my so-called Western career going along with my Indian classical music career. Since that time, I've done both."

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