Terry Riley on giving up self-publishing and his new concerto for electric violin, being performed this weekend
If only on the merits of his abiding influence, Terry Riley should be one of the most acclaimed American composers of the twentieth century, and his chamber and symphonic music some of its best-known. Yet that's not exactly the case.
“Well it’s not well-known because it isn’t played very often!” Riley told me on the phone last week, with precisely the cheerful lilt that any fan of his blissed-out music might expect in his voice.
His landmark piece, “In C,” written in 1964, did as much as any single work to launch the style of minimalism in contemporary music. And so long as the hippies were clambering to hear the improvisational jams that followed it—with Riley behind his keyboard, blending the spirit of Indian ragas with jazz and rock textures—Columbia Records proved happy to release them. Around the same time, The Who halfway named a song after him, as a way of acknowledging the originator of the synth sound used in “Baba O’Riley.” Even to this day, when Big Boi spotted the composer and instrumentalist at a Burger King (near a festival where they were both on the bill), he knew to pose for a picture and put it out via Twitter.
In this way, you might think of Riley as a blue-chip modern-art stock. But once a listener moves beyond Riley’s sixties-era work, and the enduring pop-culture legacy it has earned him, the composer’s efforts can seem surprisingly ignored. Though his chamber music champions are notable, they have not been large in number (if not for the Kronos Quartet’s commissioning and performance activity, Riley’s latter-day catalogue might not amount to much), while his symphonic works are largely absent from the modern repertoire.
This counter-intuitive, outsider aspect of Riley’s persona is what makes this Saturday’s concert at Carnegie Hall such a must-see event. By bringing his new 35-minute concerto for electric violin—titled, with characteristic idiosyncrasy, “The Palmian Chord Ryddle”—to town as part of their “Spring For Music” concert, the Nashville Symphony will be providing New Yorkers a rare opportunity to get at the Riley beyond “In C” (which Carnegie-ites heard as recently as 2009). A brief hint of the piece’s sound is given in a recent promotional video for the Nashville players, who are taking Riley’s latest work around the country.
Speaking on the phone last week from Nashville, where he was attending rehearsals, Riley placed some of the blame for his contemporary anonymity on himself, given that he handled all his own publishing—a rarity in the classical world—until 2011.
“We were having a lot of fun self-publishing; we had a little Internet site, and we were sending out C.D.s and scores. It just got to be a little too much for us to handle, and to do all our other work, too. So I thought it was time to let a publisher take it all over.” (He went with G. Schirmer.)
Riley said he thinks of his symphonic music in much the same way as his celebrated works for keyboard.
“If I do a multi-track work for synthesizer, I’m using software to create instrumental colors. An orchestral piece I view much the same way: I’m trying to design the orchestration so that different things stand out at different times.” And if his orchestral pieces are less popular, he says that’s only because they’ve been heard so rarely.
“I have about six orchestral pieces—or maybe eight with the string orchestra pieces—and I don’t think my music’s really on the orchestral circuit as well as it should be, for sure. Some of the pieces have only had one performance. … I think now that I have a publisher, there’s a little bit more chance of my [orchestral] work reaching a wider audience.”
If you can’t make it to Carnegie to hear the local premiere of “Ryddle,” you might not be totally out of luck, either. According to Riley, this piece—unlike many of his recent orchestral pieces—is going to be recorded at each stop during the Nashville players’ current tour, with an eye to a future release.
“I have a violin concerto for acoustic violin, too, that I wrote in 2009, called ‘Zephir.’ And I think what we’re going to try to do is have [soloist] Tracy Silverman play them both, and make a release of those two together.”
About the title of his electric violin concerto, Riley says: “I started with a mode, or a chord, of about 10 notes that seemed to generate the ideas for the opening, so I call that the ‘Palmian mode.’ It isn’t a real mode, like a Latin or a Greek mode, but it’s one that I made up. And the ‘ryddle’ is the idea that, when you compose, you’re really trying to solve the implications of that mode as you go along through the piece.”
And so far, Riley thinks his commissioning ensemble has done an admirable job solving the mysteries endemic to the piece.
“Giancarlo Guerrero is a young conductor who’s really passionate about bringing lots of new music to Nashville. And he’s got a young and very good orchestra. For me, it’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had.… These young performers are coming into these orchestras [at a time when] orchestras are struggling to survive.… And I think a lot of young players have feet in both worlds: rock and roll, jazz and symphonic music. So, to me, that’s the way it’s gonna survive.”
While he’s in town this weekend, the future of the orchestra won’t be the only musical matter on Riley’s mind. He’s also due at Le Poisson Rouge, where he’ll be performing alongside his son (on guitar), Silverman (again on violin), as well as percussionist David Cossin.
“It’ll be definitely improvised, because we won’t have any rehearsals before we get there,” Riley said of Sunday’s set. “It’ll be about as spontaneous as it can get!”
Yet precisely because it’s this improvisational side that has been better served on record—including on this year’s fine double album, Aleph, from the Tzadik label—it’s the Carnegie Hall show that offers the greater chance for the modes of mystery and exploration that we tend to think of whenever Terry Riley’s name is spoken.