I had the immense pleasure of attending a Terry Riley concert with a few friends back in October 2010. Riley, a pioneer of the classical field of minimalism in the 1960’s, was so influential that The Who partly named their landmark song Baba O’Riley after him. Since the 60’s he appears to have lost his prominence in the field of minimalism to contemporaries like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and at the time of the concert I was unaware of any of his work besides his most famous 60’s works In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air. In fact, I didn’t even know he still toured. I went eagerly but not enthusiastically; I really had no idea what to expect. What I experienced was truthfully the best live music experience I’ve ever had, and I’ve seen BOB DYLAN live.
Riley was on piano, accompanied by George Brooks on saxophone and Mercury Prize-winning percussionist Talvin Singh. The result was an astonishing fusion of eastern and Western music. Singh switched between jazzy drumming on a drum kit and furious Indian rhythms on the tabla, Brooks played some fairly straight jazz while Riley alternated between minimalist tinklings and furious expositions on the piano reminiscent of McCoy Tyner. The man was 75 and he was whizzing up and down the keys with incredible dexterity. On a few tracks he also contributed some Indian classical vocal chanting, adding yet another ingredient to the East/West soup of music. The concert lasted about 2 hours and it was not a minute too soon. Yet the best was still to come, as my wonderful friend Katharine, thought we should at try our luck asking to see if we could meet the musicians. I’d never thought of the idea, but she asked and it was no problem whatsoever. We spoke to the musicians for about 5 minutes – about what? I don’t know. Something about the music, but that’s all I can remember. I was pretty mesmerized, as unlike Steve who enjoys the privilege of meeting and talking to brilliant musicians all the time; this was my virgin and so far only such experience. Living in the such a technical world, and loving to make lists and rank and all that sort of thing, I tend to judge a person’s fame or influence on whether or not they have a Wikipedia article, and if they do, how big it is. Riley’s article is fairly substantial and even has a nice little picture, so I still think it’s pretty remarkable that I got to meet him. It was an utterly fantastic night, topped off by a celebratory glass of Bailey’s at a quaint Irish pub.
Naturally after this enlightening experience I endeavored to try and hear some more of Riley’s music. This particular work, Songs For the Ten Voices of Two Prophets, was not at all what I expected. The title is a pun (He utilized 2 Prophet V synthesizers, each capable of 5 different “voices”) and the music is weird. It falls neither in the camp of his earlier synth based works, which were rich in overdubs and additional personnel, and the concert, which had strong elements of jazz and a sense of rhythm. No; Songs for The Ten Voices of Two Prophets features Riley and Riley alone, leading the proceedings by creating some swirling, mysterious Eastern melodies on the two synthesizers and singing – yes folks, singing. His singing is a little rough admittedly, but it was inspired and coached by the great Pandit Pran Nath, and owes a great deal to him. The vocals are in the Indian classicalist style, using eastern scales, glissandi and microtonation, weaving their way through a loose narrative. It can’t quite be pigeonholed – it’s greatly improvisational, using Western Instruments in an Eastern Style, and this adds to its enigma. Regrettably it doesn’t quite capture the same energy as I experienced at the concert, but it does capture an artist at the height of creativity. Few have done further to truly advance the technique of synthesizer playing than Riley, and his improvisations here are first class; brooding and experimental without delving into self-indulgence. I must mention too that these are all live performances. If the opportunity arises to see Terry Riley live, I wholeheartedly endorse it – he won’t be around forever.
Words - Adam