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MUSIC REVIEW

Otherworldly

Terry Riley rides Hurricane Mama into cosmic depths.

May 27, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

At 4:53 p.m. Sunday, NASA's Phoenix spacecraft landed on Mars, and two hours later pictures from the dusty red planet arrived at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to prove it.

But sound doesn't travel as fast as light, so it took a half-hour longer before we had an indication of extraterrestrial life stirring. That is when Hurricane Mama awakened and began to make miraculous music a few miles from JPL at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Terry Riley -- a Space Age Prospero dressed in black, wearing a black skull cap and in striped stocking feet, his long gray beard flowing -- walked to the organ consol. The hall was darkened. The wooden pipes were illuminated deep purple. No longer "French fries," a nickname Riley told the audience he felt inelegant, the pipes were newly dubbed "radiant columns of Orfeo." Hurricane Mama is his name for the Disney organ.

For the next two hours, Hurricane Mama howled and roared. Orfeo's columns traced the shapes of swirling galaxies and accompanied accelerating quanta as they collided releasing astonishing quantities of energy. They strung out strings of space-time and hymned drones of mystical oneness with the universe. All of that came before lift-off, which occurred in a long-held ground-shaking, gravity-defying final chord.

Riley and the organ are a match made on the other side of Mars, namely heaven. As the composer who launched Minimalism in 1964 with "In C," he was an obviously crucial figure in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Minimalist Jukebox" festival two years ago. At that time, the orchestra invited Riley to create a new work for the organ. "Universal Bridge," which began with an Anthem for Disney Hall and concluded with nature unleashed in "Hurricane Mama Blues," was the result.

"Minimalist" is a strange tag for Riley. It suits him in that he has never lost his love for interlocking repetitive figures imbued with the strength to send the brain into psychedelic reverie. But Riley is really a musical accumulator.

Years of study in India have made him a master of raga, played on the keyboard and sung. A virtuosic pianist and inspired improviser, he began as a jazz player and, at 72, remains a brilliant jazz player. Hardly remaining in or anywhere near C, he roams through modes and microtones continually enriching his harmonic palate. Melodically and rhythmically he flows naturally between East and West, ancient times, recent music history and the present.

Although he has performed before on the pipe organ, Riley's main instruments are piano, electric organ and synthesizer. To prepare for Sunday's concert, he made several trips from his home in Northern California to spend nights familiarizing himself with the Disney organ, typically practicing from midnight to 6 a.m., a period when he could play in the dark uninterrupted with only the night watchman looking on. His original idea was to give an all-night concert, from around 11 to dawn, but he had to scrap that when the Philharmonic put him on its regular organ series.

For the first half of his program, Riley revised two classic pieces, first updating "Persian Surgery Dervishes," a study in whirling repetitions for electric keyboard and tape delay. (A famous performance of that was given and recorded in Los Angeles in 1971).

Sunday's new "A Persian Surgery Dervish in the Nursery" made his performance on the old electronic technology seem downright primitive. On Disney's instrument, Riley achieved a sense of awe-inspiring vastness with thick church-like diapason textures. For an arrangement of a few themes from his epic 1985 string quartet, "Salome Dances for Peace," Riley began with spellbinding rumbling of low notes and then traced trilling fanciful melodies, at one point adding raga-like vocalization.

The "Universal Bridge" premiere was after intermission. Its opening Anthem for Disney Hall proved an embracing celebration of succulent chords in grand progression. The second movement, "The Bull," began with Middle Eastern melodic figuration over an arpeggiated ostinato base that had a faintly tango feel and slowly evolved into Bachian exuberance.

In the next movement, "The Shape of Flames," calm, soft-grained Mexican-like figures radiated into musical styles from near and far, with occasional long dissonant blasts, as it built into the rapturous, overpowering, indescribable "Hurricane Mama Blues."

On a personal note, I am not a disinterested observer of Riley's music. I have been attending his concerts since the '60s. I lined up with other students waiting for a Berkeley record store to open to buy "In C" the day the first recording of it was released. I attended Mills College in Oakland when Riley taught there in the '70s (although I didn't study with him). I got goose bumps watching him receive an honorary doctorate at CalArts this month.

My expectations for Sunday's concert were impossibly high. They were exceeded.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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