Perfect Sound Forever


Riley Performing Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band 1968
Photo by Robert Benson, from the Terry Riley website

At Play in the Fields of the Mind: 1968 - 1986
by Mark S. Tucker
(October 2007)

Colfax, California, 1935. Who in that NoCal hamlet would've guessed that a major influence on modern music had just been christened? Unlike religious icons, angels don't appear when artists leave the womb and commence their slog through the muck of the world, but that's where Terry Riley nonetheless saw his advent, soon trafficking along a childhood not terribly dissimilar to that of most other young males in America. He did, however, display early on a strong bent for music. Still, little reveals itself historically with very much clarity in his first decade and a half. Colfaxians did as adolescents tended to do since time immemorial: goof around, have fun, discover a little bit of the world, and try to figure out why the hell anyone was even put here in the first place. It was that last part which would prove prescient, in and outside music. When the time came to leave the halls of lower academe, Riley went to study at both the San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley, under a number of well-regarded teacher-composers, including Robert Erickson.

It was at Berkeley that Riley met and took up with fellow student La Monte Young, sharing a background in jazz, working his way through the ivied halls by playing clubs. An enamorment with expression and performance would eventually lead to a throughly unique hybridization of classicalism and the much freer elements of jazz. The two studied improvisation and non-western musics while organising "happenings," collaborating for Anna Halprin and her dance theater, among others.

Leaving Berkeley (1961), Riley involved himself temporarily with the Fluxus movement in New York, a unique group led by George Maciunas, who was drawing together disparate art genres into one expression, acting as temporay home to many nomadic notables: John Cage, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, even Genesis P-Orridge, among a galaxy of others. Apprenticeship accomplished, he decamped for Europe, wife and daughter in tow, osmosing the elan of southern Spain and Morocco, finding there a connection that would sit forever in his work. Riley wasn't quite ready to shake the world though, continuing to make a living tapping jazz piano in U.S. Air Force nightclubs. This led him to Paris in '63, where he worked with playwright Ken Dewey until JFK was assassinated. Bases closed in commemoration, forcing Riley back to America, out of work.

It wouldn't be accurate to say that the murder of the esteemed President was the reason for Riley's radical shift, but it might be appropos to suggest that the inconveniences posed by it may well have contributed to the pianist's understanding of possible problems in continuing life in the same old way. It took only one year beyond this interval to crystallize a new course, composing the piece that would tectonically skew the music world. That bomb-burst would have to wait a bit though before getting into public hands.

While it's subject onto itself (and worthy of another article), it's worth noting that Riley's first recorded work streches back to the beginning of the '60's. 1966's Reed Streams (his first album proper) boasts his first use of Revoxes but even before that, there were several archival recordings which first saw the light of day in the late '90's courtesy of the Organ of Corti label:

* Music for the Gift, which features La Monte Young and Chet Baker (!!!) and is a treasure trove of tape manipulations, delay, fragmentation, attenuation, return time, and looping footage through twin-tape recorders, covering 1960-1965

* Olson III, claimed as the most powerful composition from Terry, with chorus (Riley wouldn’t conduct the piece, letting students anarchcally find their own pace), from 1967

* You're Nogood, a November 1967 live show from Philadelphia where Riley performed as Poppy Nogood, looping a sample of an R&B record (in an early example of sampling) along with a Moog synthesizer and feedback for one of his all-night shows

* Poppy Nogood & The Phantom Band All Night Flight, a live recording from a 1968 concert dubbed "Purple Modal Strobe Ecstasy with the Daughters of Destruction," disgorging a trance state typifying the composer’s nocturnal concerts

While this material went out of print, it's been revived again within the last year by the Elison Fields label (which offers these CD's and the others mentioned below in this article at Riley's website). There are many pieces extent beyond all this. Whether or not some or most - or all - have remained only in manuscript form will fall to another to discover, but the tantalizing prospect of unearthing or producing much more Riley music for years to come, either rescued from archives or staged newly (should someone be willing to shoulder the task), is like having Christmas appear more often that is normally the case and a cause for even humbugs to turn cartwheels over (now, if only someone could be convinced to exhaustively mine the repertoire...).

For our purposes here, we move on to 1968, when Riley split an LP with Pierre Marietan. His half was "Keyboard Study 2" and Marietan's was "Initiative (+ Systemes)," on the french Actuel label. One of the most pristine and basic examples of what truly represents drone music, Riley's piece was coyly simple yet stultifyingly complex within an illusorily static environment. There are only two players on the recording (Gerard Fremy and Martine Joste) but it seems as though there are ten. One suspects some kind of loop system but tends to doubt it: '68 wasn't seeing much of that kind of activity. It may not even have been a possibility at the time: Erickson had been a pioneer in manipulation with looping a concept yet to be born (the question may well be answered by the French liner notes, but personal command of the tongue is about as fluent as my Sanskrit, Urdu, or Martian). Maybe they're playing against a recording. In any event, there are just too many phalanges for only the four hands credited. For the entire 24 minutes, Fremy and Jost wrestle frantically, though not over-emphatically, in closely clustered fingerings, matching ranges, setting up an atmosphere as aroused as a hive of angry insects circling ominously overhead, a thick buzzing cloud of malevolent intent. The clusters billow and gyrate, creating endless variations of incidence and coincidence, with accidental secondaries, inadvertant overtones, all manner of weird events. Remember, this was when Cage was operating, so indeterminacy colored a good deal of contemporary thinking. Every so often within the exercise, another "melody" line opens up, offsetting the hornets and their patterns until the hive-play's matched and the register's upped, enriching various colorations.

Especially like Reich's early work, this music flirts with the listener's attention, succeeding on many levels, from background ornamentation to meditation aid, but close scrutiny opens up a hell of a lot more than half-distracted attention. This is precisely what Cage and the lions of the time intended: spirito-intellectual dimensions. When engaging with music intentionally created to either sophisticatedly nullify or unify awareness, the result is dramatically different from what might be obtained elsewhere, a form of exercise unique to, and existing only within, the individual listener. The same can't be said of, say, Ted Nugent's ouevre.

For his part, Marietan, in his opus on the LP, created a marvel of free neoclassicalism, but the notion of 'free' needs a moment of clarification: when applied to jazz, it connotes improv situations in which anything might occur, subject to the moods and abilities of the players, a manifestation often atonal and abstract, instantaneously "composed" but possessing attractions bedded in freedom from orthodoxy, from maintained structural concepts.

Oddly enough, where the idea of "free" music usually begins to conceptually muddy up is in the work of composers like Sun Ra. What he did sounds like anarchy to the Nth degree but it is actually the result of an exceedingly painstaking and very deliberate creative process, firmly engraved and inalterable. The question that arises is: what, really, is the difference between anarchic music forms purposely constructed to be as non-moded as possible and free music made up on the spot, if both result in essentially the same end? The answer, for those wishing to find a shade of difference or magnitude, can only be a highly debatable point.

Equally arguable is the topic of improv. Like many things, this is actually a semantic dilemma, a matter of what constitutes improvisation, to what degree, and in what manner. The root word here is 'improve,' an attempt to upgrade an existent something, in music's case: a note, a measure, a segment, or an entire work. There's room aplenty for exercise of choice and ambition there. Improvisation nowadays tends to do away with the oneupsmanship aspect, the hidden meritocratic insinuations, and merely calls up the fact of individual deviations away from score. Bring the subject up in a mixed company of critics and any response to inquiry will be amusing, if not hilarious.

Some will maintain that improv within a song calling for it is not improv at all but rather fidelity to a text. This is called pedantry. Others will say that only a solid section of freely personal changes to existing notation is improv. This is admirable, if a tad greedy but understandable. Pop enthusiasts aver that the 'middle eight' is the only improv section, and this, true to the pop mentality, is boneheaded. Then there's the reductio ad absurdem crowd, holding forth on the value of a single note shifted as improvisation in "minimalist" style. Yawn...

In truth, improv is where you find it, but is always something other than the exact notes codified on paper. This means any deviation; hence, a note, a measure, a stave, or an entire song can be viewed this way, though one would have to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged inkpots everywhere should one cleave to the "single note theory." Nonetheless, linguistically, the assertion holds. So, to what degree improv may be said to dominate a composition is now entertainable.

The far end of that, of course, is completely free music, where everything is spontaneous, and there's no score whatsoever. After that would be lightly composed songs, where a certain baseline dictates a modicum of restraints but allows most anything not completely inharmonious within those bounds. This is the zone which Riley occupies and the degree to which the foundation for his fascinating perambulations beds itself varies slightly in percentage but never to a degree that could rob his marvels of the tag of 'improv.'

This will be comforting as our chronicle proceeds.

What you have in the neoclassical smithing Marietan excels at is what could properly be called "incidentalism," referring to a process of crafting naturalistic non-moded compositions (some of the better exemplars begin to sound extraordinarily Noh) rife with unexpected incidents, intriguing developments distanced from the norms of Lydian composition and similar exercises. Thinking about it, there's a good deal in such a process that is especially in common with the best psychedelic musics (Pink Floyd, Amon Duul II, etc.). New dimensions are desired, then hunted for, and, in works like "Initiative 1," excavated incandescently.

The long cut's a masterpiece of alien honking and squawking, abstract landscapes, dirges, paranoia, strange repetitions, and a small catalog of bizarre devices, at times edging deliciously close to parts of Ralph Towner's Solstice work, summoning eerie disembodied beings and winds, all observing and lamenting unnervingly on the human experience, feeding the listener unsettling concepts for the sake of dissociation from the everyday. Events swirl and eddy, horns blare out warnings and alarms, and a disquieting banshee wail drifts in the background, trapped in tableau, crying for egress. A piano pounds and tinkles, tapping up spines of inflamed nerves. A trumpet burbles and sputters, then warps into a flaming spear floating in the sunset. The overall feeling isn't dissimilar to Jasun Martz's Pillory, though that latter work is concretely aimed more at Abrahamic phantasmagoria while this, Marietan's, is far less desert-oriented.

The composer's name was never a familiar one; thus, he didn't gain appreciable recognition for this or other works. Too bad, as "Initiative" is thoroughly engrossing, a masterpiece, as captivating as Xenakis or Penderecki. One secretly hopes there's a trove of his stuff hiding somewhere in the record shops of Europe or in dusty studios.

But if you're looking for the Big Megilla of serial minimalism, that's exactly what Riley finally saw published in 1970, though it had been created in '64: the justly famed In C, making the composer the great godfather of a modern movement which turned out to be a reaction against what Arnie Schoenberg had spawned in his dodecaphonic principles. It may have taken a while for the composition to wend its way to the public ear, but the very first performance, well before publication, had been undertaken by a core group that would make moderns gasp: Steve Reich, Jon Gibson, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnick, amongst others. When the piece finally saw print through a different ensemble, the LP boasted Jon & Margaret Hassell, Riley himself, David Rosenbloom, and several others. One listen lavishes the ear with the sureness that Riley was destined for greatness.

A little messy and just a trifle clunky against what we now enshrine, this seminal piece nonetheless holds treasure aplenty, listen after listen, abundanty justifying its foundation niche in the canon. Morever, In C illustrates where Reich, Glass, and nearly the entire generation of composers following him missed one very important point in Riley's credo: intelligently subtle personal improvisation as an integral part of the score. Cage, too, had been adamant on this point in his own work, and this kindred insistence separated C from most everything that followed from others.

There's a tribalism within the recitation that was hallmarked in the rebellious creativity of the '70's. The players, though gifted, weren't of the caliber Glass would later parade to blown minds and dropped jaws worldwide, but such a "lack" wasn't a deficit, as Riley allowed himself and his flankers more slack than the Glass-pack would ever be cut. What you get in the recording then is the densely-set arrangement of a straight take on the central composition, with briefly important riffs lifting the intent of the measures, making the player a secondary writer or arranger, solo or in unsion with whomever's vectoring his movements. The articulations move above, below, and with the main score, often hiding, sometimes blaring. Volume's extremely important, and in places, the vibraphones are practically non-existant. When discovered though, they become enormously surprising, delineating the profundity of using covert tones.

Aggregates of the performance's instruments oft sound like third party interlopers themselves. Frequently, the marimbas, xylophones, and trumpets combine to become sleigh bells, achieving a diffusion melding sounds and resonances not attainable individually. Then, of course, there's the delightful mathematical shifts and locks, fragmenting and joining endlessly, occurring in so many layers that the work's never the same no matter how frequently enjoyed, every new listen providing a novel way in which to integrate with the transmutational panoply.

In C slows and speeds up with discretion. Several times, the main section decelerates while the underslung xylophones quicken, giving contrary indications, an ambiguity explained when the front ensemble slowly recesses and a set of uptempoed vibes step forward, re-translating the section. Is it really a transformation as such? No, because nothing altered in nature, only in place. Riley shows us where inversion alone can confer magical powers.

To listen to these players is to marvel at the maintenance of equanamity in such a bewildering array of distractions, yet each player manages it with consummate aplomb, themselves becoming half the power of the work. The clear crossplay of conversations weaving through a forest of kindred babbling creatures is both sublime and maddening. Steve Reich would duplicate it later in Music for 18 Musicians, though much more refinedly and sans the improv. It hasn't, however - other than these two pieces - been done nearly so well again, not even by Philip Glass. Those who find their pleasures in the prog-baroque intertwinings of Gentle Giant and Sammla Mammas Manna would do well to heed this work and its residency as being amongst the last words in complexity.

A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969) was so logical a successor to In C that it was impossible it shouldn't manifest. Casting off the entourage, Riley was documenting a favorite live presence: just him and keyboards engaged in all-night concerts. The title cut was practically Mike Ratledge's (Soft Machine) textbook and an exercise in repeating and morphing lines forming shimmering clouds singing with rondoed energies chasing one another through looping skies. The whole became a frantically joyous exaltation of experience and perception on an altogether different plane, definitely not the go-to-sleep affairs later synthesists would engineer, perhaps even one of the opuses the condescendingly priggish Steven Halpern would later sniff about regarding his "anti-frantic alternative" recordings (read: excruciatingly boring New Age Pastel Puffery) of solo pianistic torture. There is, however, what appears to also be the inclusion of perhaps the very first non-Cagian example of "glitch" composition, where what appears to be a flapping papery something occurs within the song, an odd and mildly nettling but intriguing sidestream.

Side B launched, for all extensive purposes, Jon Hassell's post-Earthquake Island career, albeit many years later. "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band" was more blockish and slower but hardly moribund. Plainly constructed on a blatantly repeating base for organ and sax, we also clearly see the germinal seed for Fripp & Eno's No Pussyfooting LP, especially in some of the more sharply contrasting loops. In fact, one couldn't be too hastily dunned in at first positing that Mssrs. Robert and Brian had even constructed their whole LP to be an echo of Rainbow in toto: two songs, each side-long, one mellower, one a bit more abrasive (Bobby & Bri shot that over the mountain with "Swatstika Girls"), with repetition and variation the heart and soul of the entirety. Of course, the resemblance was miles from mirrorlike, yet the contours are there and broader than mere suggestion.

Pete Townsend has readily attributed this LP as heavily affecting his "Baba O'Riley" tune (the intro VCS3 synthesizer section) and it takes no more than a single listen to Rainbow to understand that, of all the electronicist canon, this is the disc that had the broadest effect on rock and roll. After all, long before he was futtering around with Fripp, Eno injected all manner of Riley madness into Roxy Music, especially the For Your Pleasure issuance, with "The Bogus Man" and such.

Three years later, Happy Ending (1972) saw the shaggy Mr. Riley soloing (with overdubs) for the soundtrack to a French film - Les Yeux Fermés, an art flick, one would suppose, since the thing is impossible to find. We also find why the keyboardist was never formally admitted to the minimalist's public peerage: the guy's not quite a virtuoso. He may have had the brains and vision but not quite the chops. No amateur though, he understands well how to handle his instrument... while never putting the icing precisely on the cake. This opus stations its groundwork with synths and organ in the composer's usual serial chases and circularities, then trowels on melodic leads and further rondos, though not as groundedly as one might expect. In places, in fact, they shade off a little embarassingly.

That this was probably the inspiration for Franco Falsini's Cold Nose is fairly evident. It has that same self-repeating style, heavy with reverb, forlorn vistas, choppy stutters, spookily bubbling backgrounds, drones, and glides. Unlike most of his later work, Les Yeux has no direction, taking you anywhere, entering swirling realms and looking around, music made as much for headtrips and therapy as for internally voyeuristic impulses. It's also the kind of recording that gains a certain preciousness for period eccentricities, embodying the timelessness every collector and aficionado searches earnestly for. Any LP sounding just as good 30 years later is a rara avis, a grail.

This album is more relaxed than In C and Riley's other works, but that's not to say it's less substantial. Where one is a complicated exercise in group interaction, the other is more (Klaus) Schulzian, carrying inspirations that would later help spawn Mario Schonwalder and Bernd Kistenmacher, providing the platform for composer-musicians to clone themselves while working through entirely solipsistic flavors. An ensemble may speak in interpretations of such things, accomodating each musician's perception of score and music, but an individual always crafts himself from personal idiosyncracy (which is why a listener can tell one player from another in most any setting). That, of course, is what you get here.

That same year, Persian Surgery Dervishes (1972) emerged. There are a couple of inadvertantly humorous aspects to the LP. The first is that it's a double, purportedly documenting two performances of the title cut. Well no, it isn't, not really. What it is, is two LP's of improv cut from the same mood but most definitely not two recitations of the same pre-existant song, though there may have been a germinal pre-written seed. However, back in '72, it seems the idea of multiple takes on a theme was a fairly new thing, so no one was quite sure how the reference should be made.

The second is that Riley's credited with playing an electric organ and "feedback," yet there's not one second of feedback on the entire 2-LP set. What they're not terming correctly is the fact that he's using an open reel deck for some sort of looping. Again, in '72 (pre-Eno), this was not a familiar habit. Still... 'feedback' = 'loop'? There is a degree of sense to it. As Fripp has shown, the recorder grabs the input, cycles it, and feeds back into the song; however, 'feedback' was even then a term used for microphone howl and etc., so the term's a trifle clumsy. A small point.

Dervishes represents Riley's forays into a subdued, dark, arabesqued music floating between his serial tendencies and improvisation, although, in truth, one must suspect the serial patterns are equally improv'ed. Listening to the two performances (one in Paris, one in L.A.) reveals little faithfulness of one to the other. Noting previously that Riley is not a consummate musician, the fact again shows as much here as in previous releases. It's not a problem, as what he's valued for is originality and the perceptions that urge the visionary to create the musics he does. Executory skills are sufficient to not only get those ideas across but to also provoke interest in the playing itself. The only slight problem is that he presents a number of "mistakes," fumbles, and inabilities (chopswise).

Listening to Persian is akin to viewing the complex tapestries of the old Ottoman Empire itself: delicate, involved, self-chasing, gilten, and subtly florid. The song has a continual background pattern shifting as things progress, though not by much, the anchor from which Riley lets down a chain to explore the waters, searching but always rooted. This inalterable steadfast is the truest serial element in the song, but it has a brother.

As a player, he pursues (with the other hand) another set of motives similar to the baseline but suspended between it and the lead. This most frequently tends to a second-level serialism, often enough ratcheted up to interplay with the first hand, which speaks almost exclusively in improvs. How this is accomplished is: the first level is the loop, the second level is what would be the pianistic left hand lower-register (except that it's playing the lower tier of a two-tier electronic organ), and the third level comes from the upper tier, where the meatiest part of the song is pursued.

The entire work's lively in a lower-case fashion. The lead line bounces and hops, though the restrained volume and muted attack of the electric organ keep it ruly, intelligent, and urbane. For timbral contrast, Riley occasionally brightens the tone and jumps above himself. For the most piercing sections, he brings the left hand up to match so the two can interlock and chase each other without either prematurely overpowering one another. Especially in the second disc, this comes thru and provides a few of the most energetic and interesting portions of the set. Another cluster of measures puts a computerish spin on the right hand, employing that clicky harpsichordish sound, eliminating almost the entire decay.

Anything Riley does solo is going to be a meditational sortie and this is no exception. Eastern religions and philosophies had such a huge impact on his generation of music rebels that they inevitably surfaced in the ouevre. Sufism's the flavoring here, but the variations inlaid among identifier traits are spacey and soporific. Once again, we see where Falsini was probably Riley's most ardent rock-oriented student. New Agers who refer back to Terry as one of their guiding lights missed most of what he was doing, overflying, landing on Kitaro, thinking they'd found terra firma. This kind of music is extremely rare and no amount of goopy David Arkenstones are ever going to be able to pitch a pebble into its waters.

See Part II of this article

Also see our Terry Riley interview

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER