Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Terry Riley, hippie. 1968.

I picked up Music for “The Gift” and other pieces, a CD of early tape manipulation pieces by Terry Riley today, stuff before “In C” and Steve Reich’s tape loop pieces. I’d never heard any of it before.

One word: Stupendous.

I’ve loved Reich’s tape loop pieces “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out” since I first heard them in college. (I’ve only once heard his slightly earlier, far less well-known tape-splicing piece “Oh Dem Watermelons,” which takes a recording of Stephen Foster’s song of the same title and cuts it up.) I’ve read of Riley being dissed by fans of Reich and Philip Glass because his music is hippie-ish. That might be why I prefer it to Reich and Glass’s, on the whole.

Three of the four pieces on the Riley CD use tape looping -- “The Gift,” “Bird of Paradise,” and “Mescaline Mix.” (The fourth might too, but it didn’t make a strong impression on me -- it sounded like a live recording of a performance art piece that depended heavily on its visual element for its impact.) His approach pre-figures Reich’s (and therefore hip hop and modern dance music), but his feel -- or should I say his “vibe” -- is very different.

“The Gift,” from 1963, is perhaps the most impressive of the 3 pieces: Live improvisations by a jazz trio fronted by trumpeter Chet Baker, with Baker’s licks looped and stacked into thick buzzes of pulsing sound. (The CD credits a trombonist in addition to the trumpet-bass-drums, but I didn’t hear the trombone -- will listen for it.) Riley’s use of looping and sound-stacking feels improvisational, not doctrinaire; impulsive, not compulsive; intuitive rather than rigorous. I like where his intuition takes him -- what he does with the music. It’s all about the gorgeous surprise, not about the theory. I still love those Reich pieces too, but I hear them a different light now that I’ve heard Riley’s earlier stuff.

“Bird of Paradise” is harsh and garish and beautiful -- late night free-form noise-improv college radio could play it this week-end and it wouldn’t sound of date. From 1964.

“Mescaline Mix” from 1960 is sweeter and dreamier, with hiss-heavy loops of people talking and laughing and Riley playing dreamy piano.

Inspiring stuff.

* * *

In an African import store today looking at masks with my son -- who loves masks -- I buzzed on an Oumou Sangare disc the store was playing. One song had a rippin’ polyrhythm going that took me a few minutes to parse: a highly syncopated 6 in the bass and guitar over a very fast, straight 16 on the shaker, with the 2nd 16th note in each group of 4 on the shaker a rest, like so:


Once I felt how the two rhythms related, it was great to dance to. And great riffs and melodies too. I might have bought the CD, but I’d already spent my limit on the Riley disc.

So much tremendous music.

Hello, John.

I picked up that same disc at the Terry Riley concert a couple of months back and whole-heartedly agree with your review. His early material is outstanding. The whole Organ of Corti label's "Terry Riley Archive Series" is pretty outstanding.

I also grabbed some more recent Riely at the concert as well. "Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles" is a short - but stunningly beautiful duet with Stefano Scondanibbio on bass.

The appeal of Terry Riley is that he's such a strange and ingenious hybrid of so many influences and ideas. Reich works with a much smaller bag of tricks (phase changes, pulse, pitch-tracking spoken words, etc.) and has written some great music in the process. But I find Riley conceptually more interesting because he's been such a moving target with so many unexpected layers.
I feel silly for 2 reasons.

First, listening again to "The Gift," the trombone is definitely there. Don't know what I was drinking when I didn't hear it before.

Second, I love some Reich and Glass pieces, and it's silly to rank an enthusiasm for Riley's music by disparaging something else in the process.

Definitely want to check out some more Riley.

By the way, I once heard some bootleg La Monte Young recordings from the early '60s. The saxophone improvisations over drone were astounding, and snippets of an early version of "Well-Tuned Piano" sounded gorgeous. A record store on Capitol Hill was selling the bootleg. I hesitated, didn't buy it, changed my mind a couple weeks later & went back -- it was gone.
You have a point. The disparage/ranking of one against another is silly. And it's a habit as Reich and Riley are so frequently paired under the minimalist label. The fact that they've both written amazing music is easy enough to support.

Perhaps when doing the compare/contrast between Riley and Reich it's hard not to notice that Reich's tighter focus on a smaller number of influences/events has made him somewhat easier to "market" and perhaps drawn more attention over the years. Whereas Riley has been more of a moving target and fewer people realize just how much great material he's composed.

I've had more incidents like the one you've described than I can keep track of. It's hard to pounce on every gem one finds at the CD store. And those LaMonte Young recordings are a treasure. Be sure to check out his "Forever Blues Band" if you get a chance.
Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?