Essential albums: Terry Riley

The Californian-born Terry Riley is one of the founding fathers of a 20th century music style known as minimalism - along with Philip Glass and Steve Reich - whose innovations in the 1960's paved the way for much of the ambient, psychedelic, new age and neoclassical music that has arisen since.

Terry Riley

country of origin:

Minimalism, world music, orchestral, psychedelia

decades active:
60's - 10's

some essential releases:

  • In C [performed by the Shanghai Film Orchestra] (1964/1989, Celestial Harmonies)
  • A Rainbow In Curved Air (1969, CBS)
  • Descending Moonshine Dervishes/Songs For Ten Voices Of The Two Prophets (1977/1982, Kuckuck)
  • Harp Of New Albion (1984, Celestial Harmonies)

Reviewed by Mike G

The Californian-born Terry Riley is one of the founding fathers of a 20th century music style known as minimalism (see also Philip Glass and Steve Reich), whose innovations in the 1960's paved the way for much of the ambient, psychedelic, new age and neoclassical music that has arisen since.

New ideas, new sounds

By the mid 20th century, establishment classical music has grown cold, academic and something to be endured rather then enjoyed. Minimalism was an outgrowth - and in many ways a rebellion against - the dominant modern classical sounds up to the 1960's. Sometimes called serialism, these sounds tended heavily towards dissonance and atonality and were militantly championed by composer Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples. Tonal composers such as Sibelius were dismissed or ostracised, and serialism dominated the "serious" music curriculum of Western universities for many decades.

Minimalism change that, and equally important was a parallel development centred around American avant-garde composer John Cage. His radical notion that any "sound" can be regarded as music gave a new generation of composers freedom to do absolutely anything they wanted in performance. Taken to its extreme this could mean absolute silence (like Cage's absurd composition "4'33") or complete randomness (such as Cage's compositions using random permutations of the Chinese oracle the I-Ching). But while Cage confronted and infuriated the serialists, in the end many of his ideas were intellectual exercises rather than music. Cage opened the gates, so to speak, and it was composers like Riley who poured through and brought a sense of melody back to Western classical music, albeit in a totally new way.

Repetition and drones

While much work by the minimalist school since the 60' and 70's has outgrown the minimalist tag, it’s still useful in understanding the basics of their style - repetitive, additive, cyclic music which sometimes uses unusual tunings.

Also uniting most of these composers - including Riley's close contemporary La Monte Young - is their hugely influential discovery in the early 60's of the melodically rich music of North India, at first through the recordings of Ravi Shankar. This especially inspired Riley - not to mention many later rock, pop, ambient and new age musicians - whose droning pieces for organ show a clear lineage to the tamboura sounds of India.

60's classics

Riley is most famous for In C, written in 1964 and a highly influential work. It was one of the launching pads for minimalism as a recognisable style, and its use of interlocking repetitive phrases would go on to inform a good deal of modern classical, ambient and experimental electronic music that was to follow.

The piece consists of 53 musical fragments that can be played by any number and combination of players and instruments, in order and at any speed. The result? Self-indulgence for some listeners, liberation for others; it partly depends on your sensibilities although it's far less chaotic than you might imagine. The particular album version of "In C" listed above from 1989 is a performance by the Shanghai Film Orchestra, mixed by Riley with help from ambient pioneer Brian Eno.

Of the original minimalists, it was Riley who was most popular with rock audiences in the 1960's. His classic A Rainbow In Curved Air (1969) became something of a cult item amongst the 60’s counter-culture with its droning, hypnotic organ lines, sustained bursts of saxophone and rapidly repeating melodic patterns. It's intoxicating trance music, though like Philip Glass’ earlier music some listeners may not be able to handle the intensity of the repetition. If you’re among them, then you’re directed beyond this period to some of Riley’s more recent and accessible works.

The 70's and beyond

Songs For Ten Voices Of Two Prophets (1982) and The Harp Of New Albion (1984) are vintage middle-period Riley and make excellent introductions for newcomers to his work. The music on both albums is based on intensive studies he undertook with Indian musicians.

Songs For Ten Voices Of Two Prophets features Riley on vocals and playing two Prophet-V synthesisers. His beautiful singing is based on native Indian vocal techniques, and coupled with the richly textured keyboards the resulting music is mystical, expansive and at times utterly compelling. The double-length Harp of New Albion features a specially prepared 'muted' piano - an idea first practiced by John Cage - from which Riley pulls a remarkable range of sounds, performing compositions that are primarily ambient in nature. The CD version of Two Prophets listed above is paired with another essential Riley album Descending Moonshine Dervishes (1977), an intoxicating two-part piece for organ and synth based on long, pulsing major-chord drones beneath lively spinning melodies with a spicy Moroccan flavour.

After the 1980's Riley's recorded catalogue veers between interesting live recordings, experimental keyboard works and almost conventional-sounding classical music like the guitar and violin music of The Book Of Abbeyozzud (1999). This period is best left for hardcore fans; his seminal works all date from before 1990.

Influence and legacy

Like the repetitive music of Glass and Reich, Terry Riley's music requires some patience and at times a redefinition of notions of musical progression and development. But if you doubt the importance of the minimalists to contemporary music, then compare A Rainbow In Curved Air to the repetitive parcels of sound found on Mike Oldfield’s groundbreaking hit album Tubular Bells (1973). Without the inroads made by people like Riley, Oldfield’s popular two part opus may never have been made. By popularising the idea of drones, repetition and cycles in Western music, the contribution of Riley and his peers has been to have us re-examine music, break it down into its simplest forms and, in a way, start all over again.

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