Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Born in Colfax, California, Riley studied at Shasta College , San Francisco State University, and the San Francisco Conservatory before earning an MA in composition at the University of California, Berkeley, studying with Seymour Shifrin . His most influential teacher, however, was the late Pandit Pran Nath, a master of Indian classical voice, who also taught La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela . Riley made numerous trips to India over the course of their association to study and to accompany him on tabla, tambura, and voice. Throughout the sixties he travelled frequently around Europe as well, taking in musical influences and supporting himself by playing in piano bars , until he joined the Mills College faculty in 1971 to teach Indian classical music.
Also during the sixties were the famous "All-Night Concerts", during which Riley would perform mostly improvised music from evening until sunrise, using an old organ harmonium ("with a vacuum cleaner motor blower blowing into the ballasts") and tape-delayed saxophone. (When he finally wanted a break, after hours of playing, he would play back looped saxophone fragments recorded throughout the evening.) He continued to put on these concerts for several years, to which people would come with sleeping bags, hammocks, and their whole families.
Riley began his longtime association with the Kronos Quartet by meeting founder David Harrington while at Mills, and over the course of his career has composed 13 string quartets for them, in addition to a few other works including string quartet. He wrote his first orchestral piece, Jade Palace, in 1991, and has continued to pursue that avenue, with several commissioned orchestral compositions following; Riley is also currently a performing and teaching Indian raga vocalist and solo pianist.
Musical style and techniques
While his early endeavors were influenced by Stockhausen, Riley changed direction after first encountering La Monte Young, whose Theater of Eternal Music he performed in 1955 and 1956. Riley has referred to him as "the freakiest guy I have ever met in my life," stating that it was Young's ideas that were at the heart of minimalism, though more composers would come to name Riley as an influence. The 1960 String Quartet would be his first work in this new style, followed shortly thereafter by a string trio in which he first latched on to the repetitive short phrases he (and minimalism) would be known for.
His music is usually based on improvising through a series of modal figures of different lengths, such as in In C and the Keyboard Studies. In C (1964) is Riley's best-known work, and one that brought the minimalistic music movement to prominence. Its first performance was given by Steve Reich, Jon Gibson, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnick, among others, and it would go on to influence their work and that of countless others, including John Adams and Philip Glass. Its form was an innovation: the piece consists of 53 separate modules of roughly one measure apiece each containing a different musical pattern (but each, as the title implies, in C). One performer beats a steady stream of Cs on the piano to keep tempo. The others, in any number and on any instrument, perform these musical modules following a few loose guidelines, with the different musical modules interlocking in various ways as time goes on. The Keyboard Studies are similarly structured – a single-performer version of the same concept.
This format, with a collection of minimal musical elements coming together to form a complex and cohesive whole, launched a movement that was a step away from the increasing academicism in Western classical music. The complex formal structures of the Second Viennese School and the neoclassicists had been dominating the musical landscape throughout the middle of the 20th century; the minimalistic movement abandoned that formalism. Riley often further denied strict structure by introducing improvisational elements into his compositions (though he had long been improvising in solo performance); one of the primary pieces to use this was the 1968 A Rainbow In Curved Air. This work and Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, its companion piece on a 1969 recording, are intended to give a (necessarily truncated) impression of the sound of Riley's all-night concerts.
For a time Riley had stopped notating his works at all, focusing on Indian classical music and solo performance. Working with the Kronos Quartet has led him back toward more structured, notatable music, but improvisatory elements remain an important part even of the works composed for them.
Being on the leading edges of music was nothing new for Riley; in the 1950s he was working with tape loops, a technology then in its infancy, and has continued working with manipulating tapes to musical effect, both in the studio and in live performance, throughout his career. He has composed in just intonation as well as microtonal pieces. Collaborators of Riley's include the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Pauline Oliveros, the Kronos Quartet, as well as Michael McClure, a playwright with whom he has written music and collaborated on an album. A Rainbow In Curved Air inspired Pete Townshend's synthesizer parts on The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley", the latter partly named in tribute to Riley.
- A Rainbow In Curved Air
- The Harp of New Albion
- In C
- Shri Camel (1980), for solo electronic organ tuned in just intonation and modified by computerized digital delay
- Salome Dances for Peace
- Chanting the Light of Foresight, with Rova
- Terry Riley's home page
- Otherminds.org score of In C
- Interview with Terry Riley
- Epitonic.com: Terry Riley featuring tracks from The Book of Abbeyozzud and The Light of Foresight (with Rova)
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