Magazine article Gramophone

Terry Riley: Pwyll AP Sion Listens to Two Multi-Disc Releases Exploiring the Music of the Maverick American Composer, Who Turns 80 This Year

Magazine article Gramophone

Terry Riley: Pwyll AP Sion Listens to Two Multi-Disc Releases Exploiring the Music of the Maverick American Composer, Who Turns 80 This Year

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Can you think of another living composer who has been saddled as much with the success of a single composition as Terry Riley with his In C? It has probably been performed and recorded more times than the rest of the composer's oeuvre put together; but Riley's music has moved on a lot since the heady days of the mid-1960s, as chronicled here in a set of recent recordings issued to mark his 80th birthday.

The good news is that the focus has been primarily on Riley's post-1980 output. During the 1970s the composer had evolved a unique improvisatory style through his study of North Indian raga. But a chance conversation with David Harrington, founder and leader of the Kronos Quartet, inspired Riley to embrace notated composition once more.

The result, as documented on the five-CD box-set One Earth, One People, One Love, is a collaboration that has spanned 35 years and almost 30 compositions for the quartet. As with all truly synergetic relationships, influence worked dynamically in both directions. For Kronos, collaborating with Riley took the performers away from the notes on the page to a much keener experience of sound itself. For Riley, it compelled him to take a step back from the moment of improvisation, re-evaluate his music and shape it into something far more concrete.

Of course, the two areas of composition and improvisation were not mutually exclusive, as witnessed in Riley's first exercise in the medium, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector (1980). Its modular construction looks back to In C but the lines and shapes echo the composer's improvisational language. Dating from the same year, G Song comprises a series of variations on a descending ground bass which spiral outwards from a harmonic core in ever-widening circles of melodic figuration, only to arrive full circle at the end. It confirmed Harrington's view that Riley's musical DNA was predisposed towards quartet composition. But even the violinist could not have imagined what was to follow.

Almost 30 minutes in length, Cadenza on the Night Plain (1983) was Riley's first major attempt in the medium. It still ranks as one of his most compelling works. Riley decided to incorporate solo cadenza-like sections in four of the piece's 11 interlocking movements. It intensified his focus on each instrument's individual character and role within the ensemble and set the tone for Salome Dances for Peace (1985-86)--a vast, ambitious five-movement cycle lasting over two hours, which surely ranks as the composer's magnum opus. …

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