Terry Riley

Going Deeper with Terry Riley

Jason Victor Serinus on December 2, 2014
Terry Riley, image by smcwebdesign


One of the founders of musical minimalism, composer and musician Terry Riley has spent half a century at the cutting edge of musical exploration. After studies at Shasta College, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and UC Berkeley, he began working at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, where his colleagues included several equally legendary musical pioneers: Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, and Ramon Sender.

Less than a decade after Riley’s In C changed the course of modern music, he began studying with Indian master musician Pandit Pran Nath. From this evolved a teaching position at Oakland’s Mill College, which in turn led to a long and continuing association with the Kronos Quartet — Riley met its founder, David Harrington, at Mills.

It is impossible to speak of Riley’s music without referencing his energy and world outlook. There’s something unique about the man — a transcendent joy at the wonder with which life constantly unfolds — that infuses his musical explorations. It’s not something you can pin down, but it inevitably brings a smile and sense of affirmation. 

Shortly before his return to the UC Berkeley Art Museum where, on December 5, he closes out L@TE: Friday Nights at BAM/PFA music series that he inaugurated five years ago, Terry Riley engaged in an increasingly rare phone interview about his work.

So you’re turning 80 on June 24. Are you composing at the same rate as when you were younger?

Well, you know, it’s a world without time. I really don’t divide my categories up too much like composing and playing. Everything seems to be fuller and richer than ever. I’m doing quite a bit of writing; I’m just heading to Japan to play a few concerts. As long as you have your health, that’s the main thing. When the health goes, everything goes. And the mind is definitely a part of health.

You have a history of performing at the Berkeley Art Museum. Do you have plans for a program that encapsulates your history there?

I really don’t plan these things too much. My son Gyan is going to come out, and he’ll be here for the week before we play in Berkeley. Probably we’ll work out some things to play that night together, and we’ll each do some solo things. But what the explicit content will be, I don’t know. As for the length, it depends on how things unfold. It will probably fall between two and three hours; that’s a pretty good energy level for me right now. 

In the middle of this highly regimented world, where everything has a place and a time that’s carried around on calendars on people’s mobile phones, your attitude feel like a blast from the past.

I’ve always worked this way. Before I got into raga, which entered my life in 1970, I was already doing concerts where I was pretty much in the moment. Of course, the training in raga trains you for that, because you observe yourself into the ragas and practice them every day, and then whatever happens, happens.

It’s like life. What can you absolutely control in this life? I’ve seen over and over again that whatever I’ve planned out to the nth detail usually collapses along the line and turns into something else. So the best thing I think you can do in your life is keep yourself as loose as you can. It’s a world without time. I really don’t divide my categories up too much like composing and playing. Everything seems to be fuller and richer than ever.

Do you do a regular yoga and meditation practice?

It’s all wrapped up in music for me. To me, music is a complete and total path of spirituality, physical exercise, joy and ecstasy. It’s got everything in it, so I really haven’t branched out into meditation or other adjacent practices that much. From time to time I’ve tried them out, but I find music is a totally satisfying and fulfilling path in life.

This leads me to think of all those students in conservatories and music schools who take courses in “branding” and how to put your artistic “product” out there. To what extent do you run across the branding mindset, where people are trying to find the right way to package themselves in the musical marketplace, and what do you feel about it?

In today’s world, it must be really difficult to build a career. There’s just so much activity going on, and so much input from all the media in the world that for a young person trying to establish an identity in the arts, it’s much more complicated than it was when I was young. I do think it’s the concern of a young artist to have his own voice, because that’s what it’s about. I see it with everybody, and you hear it in various stages of originality. Some people have a little of it, others a ton of it. But I think it is a big concern.

There’s also the financial concern of establishing a voice so that people can recognize you and start throwing enough money at you to keep you from starving to death. [But making all your artistic decisions based upon money] is definitely putting the cart before the horse. In fact, you probably shouldn’t even have that cart.

But I do see the need for people who want to do the arts to survive in the world, even if they’re doing it totally out of love (and, of course, it has to be that way, because why else would you work yourself 16 hours a day to do something unless you really loved it?). There’s this big Capitalist Monster out there, ready to suck money out of whatever arises. Young and old people do get caught up in it. You have to have some sort of spiritual base to sustain yourself through all that. 

I think a lot more people know your name than know your music. To some, hearing the term “minimalism” means the endless repetition of patterns, nothing more. I’ve certainly heard enough of your music to know that it goes far beyond repeating patterns. What would you say to people about what you’re trying to do or express?

That’s a very difficult question to answer. I always view it as working through the music: doing the music and putting it out there. It’s like when you’re talking to people: some will get what you’re saying, and some people won’t. I don’t think what I’m trying to say in music is for everybody. To me, it’s found its way to the people who really want to connect with it, and I get a lot of emails that prove to me that it’s been very meaningful for some people to connect to my music.

In terms of numbers and being a household word and all that, that’s something that does not concern me at all. I think my music is in the process of reaching people who would like to hear that kind of message.

In terms of really broad recognition of my work, you’re probably right: people know my name, but don’t know much about anything that I’ve done. Which is okay. Norman Mailer was The Naked and the Dead for years. It’s all wrapped up in music for me. To me, music is a complete and total path of spirituality, physical exercise, joy and ecstasy. It’s got everything in it … a totally satisfying and fulfilling path in life. 

Your music takes so many forms. There’s the jazz and improvisational side, and then there are the through-composed pieces. Some of those are so joyful, and others are deep emotionally. As you’ve gotten older, have you found yourself going in any different directions?

If I work day-to-day, I find myself going down little side alleys and tributaries of ideas, but they still seem to be coming out of the mainstream of what I seem to be after. It has a lot to do with depth and deeply engaged emotions with music. I always like to have that as basis of attraction, and something that’s really pulling me somewhere.

I don’t think so much about conceptual ideas, or something that will be very mental but maybe won’t have much emotional impact. The main course of the river that I’m on is, I hope, depth. Yet, I like depth that has a bit of irony, and depth that has humor in it. So I’ll do stuff with my music that is occasionally loony toony. I think that’s part of cosmic humor and the trickster in us. Once in a while, you have to express the whole gamut, from very deep and profound thoughts to loony toons.

Gyan is just one of your children. How many kids do you have, and what are they involved in?

We have three children, but they’re not children anymore. My daughter, who’s the oldest, must be about 56. She’s a physician, and she’s now a medical director at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. I have a son who’s older than Gyan; his name is Shahn, he lives in Indiana, and he teaches high school Spanish. And then there’s Gyan, who has followed a lot closer to my path, and has established a totally unique and original voice in his own music, which I’m so happy to see. 

What is it like to perform with Gyan as compared to performing with some of the other musicians whom you’ve worked with for years?

It’s so natural. I have some very great collaborators, though, which is not to say working with him is better or worse. But with Gyan, there is of course the biological connection, which I think gives us a stronger intuitive base. When we play together, it’s a very unified kind of yoga. If I’m playing, and he’s doing the piece simultaneously going in the same current I am, if I decide to suddenly move into a different direction, he always seems to be there.

In a sense, since he’s the better musician than I am, I have to lead. He’s got more skills than I do, so he’s able to do all the backwards dancing, and I’m able to go forward. It’s kinda nice. It gives us both roles. But then he’ll occasionally take an idea and run with it, and then I have to play the other role. It’s a very interesting dance to do that with him, because he’s a surprising musician. He comes up with ideas that always excite me and stimulate my own imagination.

It’s interesting to hear you say that he’s a “better” musician than you.

I shouldn’t say that, because being a musician means many things. He’s a better-trained musician than I. He’s conservatory trained, and his skills and vocabulary in music go beyond mine. I can write symphonies and orchestra pieces, but I always need to work with an editor who more or less straightens out all my quirkiness in writing – not the actual musical content, but the notational ideas and stuff like that.

I didn’t accept Western musical training when I was young. I was getting some, but I wanted to be a kind of renegade and outlaw. I resisted learning in an academic way, and I’ve always kind of resisted academia. It’s something that I felt was a danger to me, so I avoided it. But he went through the Conservatory and was a straight A student on full scholarship all the way through his Masters. He really has wonderful skills that I’ll never have.

In the end, music is not something that can be defined by just some of its elements, such as technique. There’s so much more to it.

Are there younger and newer musicians coming on the scene who excite you?

I just had the chance to work with Cameron Carpenter, who is a really interesting young musician. I wrote a concerto for him for large orchestra and pipe organ, which has just been getting played this year. Again, he’s conservatory-trained, but he’s also a wild man. I like the combination of his showbiz side plus the deep shamanistic feelings that he can project in his playing. His energies are almost diabolical, which is strange on a pipe organ. It’s not like a piano where the harder you hit it, the louder it plays. You can slam a pipe organ, but it’s only going to be the pressure of the air on the pipes that creates the energy. Yet Cameron gives the feeling in performance that he’s creating that energy right at the keyboard.

I just went to a concert last night of a wonderful guy, Christopher Taylor, who was playing the Goldberg Variations on the two-manual Steinway. Gyan used to be in a band with him, Jennifer Culp [former cellist in the Kronos Quartet], and some other musicians. Music is always a living thing, and he was bringing things out in Bach that I hadn’t heard. Through his musicianship and skill of turning a phrase, his Goldbergs really impressed me.

I’m hearing a lot of hope in music. Because it’s a living thing, there are always going to be young people joining into the current of what’s going on, and new people with something to say. It never dies. That’s what excites me. The main course of the river that I’m on is, I hope, depth. Yet, I like depth that has a bit of irony, and depth that has humor in it. So I’ll do stuff with my music that is occasionally loony toony. I think that’s part of cosmic humor and the trickster in us.

What about living composers?

It’s a long list. But I always feel that when I get in this water, I’m always going to tread on somebody’s toes. So I’ll stay away from this subject.

Does your history of performance at UC Berkeley hold any special resonance for you?

My history is actually across the street from the university. I played in the Berkeley Art Museum for the first time in the ‘70s. I played my two-manual electric organ there one night, and a carpet company on Solano Avenue donated enough carpets to cover the whole downstairs main gallery for people to sit on. It was of those floating magic carpet nights when I played really late into the night.

It sounds as though you hope to take people on another magic carpet ride in this concert.

Yeah, even if they’re sitting on cement. Which is the world today, right?