The spiritual minimalism of Terry Riley

Terry Riley was born in California on June 1935 and was a pioneer of the American minimalist music movement in the 1960s. He was influenced by the music of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and also by jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, but his most influential teacher was the Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath, who also taught La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela.

Riley was involved in the experimental San Francisco Tape Music Center, a group founded in 1962 to study and perform with tape music, working with Steve Reich among others. The Gift (1963) was an early tape loop piece featuring the trumpet playing of Chet Baker.

In 1964 Riley composed In C, a work based on interlocking repetitive patterns and scored for any group of instruments. The piece consists of 53 separate modules, each with a simple musical pattern in the key of C. One performer beats a steady C pulse on the piano to keep the tempo throughout the duration of the performance. The others, in any number and on any instrument, perform these musical modules following a few loose guidelines, with the different patterns interlocking in various ways as time goes on. Each member must play the 53 patterns in sync with the pulse and consecutively, but decides how often and how long he rests when he moves from one pattern to the next one. The performance ends after all the players have arrived at pattern 53. The first performance of In C was given in 1964 by Steve Reich, Jon Gibson, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnick.

Riley met La Monte Young at the university in 1960, and they worked out some common ideas. Riley performed with La Monte Young in the Theater of Eternal Music in 1965.

The electronic album A Rainbow in Curved Air, recorded in 1967, inspired many later works in electronic and ambient music, progressive rock and even electronic jazz fusion. The work begins with a simple drone but quickly evolves to more complex structures with percussion and keyboard layering. Riley played all the instruments in this recording, using overdubbing.

In 1967 Riley started touring with his All-Night Concerts, where people could stay and relax, listen to music or sleep in hammocks and sleeping bags. These performances included strobe lights and other visual elements too, like the Dream House environments of La Monte Young.

In 1970, Terry became a disciple of the Indian Raga Vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, and made the first of his numerous trips to India to study with him, along with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. Terry Riley appeared frequently in concert with the master as tampura, tabla and vocal accompanist until Pran Nath's death in June 1996.

Like Young, Riley has composed music in just intonation. He played a modified electric organ tuned in just intonation on the solo concerts recorded in the album Persian Surgery Dervishes (1972). Next came the album Shri Camel, released in 1978 for solo electronic organ tuned in just intonation and modified by studio digital delay, and The Harp of New Albion was released in 1986 for piano tuned in just intonation.

Terry Riley held a long term collaboration with the Kronos Quartet and composed many string quartets for them. Cadenza on the Night Plain (1984) is the longest work on the album of the same title, which was the first studio album recording of a collaboration between de quartet and Riley. Another popular collaboration is Salome Dances for Peace (1989).

Currently Terry Riley is teaching and performing as an Indian raga vocalist and as a solo pianist. He regularly conducts raga singing seminars, and performs solo piano concerts of his works.

More information about Terry Riley can be found on his official website:

If you liked this article you may wish to read my series on minimalist music: American minimalist musicEuropean music connected with minimalism and Precursors of minimalist music.

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