Terrence Mitchell Riley, born June 24, 1935, is an American composer who's principally associated with the minimalist school of western classical music. He was a pioneer of this movement. His work has been deeply influenced by both jazz and Indian classical music. Two of Riley's early albums have now been reissued by Esoteric Recordings: In C (1967) and A Rainbow In Curved Air (1969).
In C is Riley's second album after the debut Reed Streams (1965). He composed In C in 1964 for any number of people, although he suggested 'a group of about 35 is desired if possible, but smaller or larger groups will work'. His work is a response to the abstract academic techniques used by composers in the mid-twentieth century and is often cited as the first minimalist composition. In C consists of 53 short, numbered musical phrases, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats; each phrase may be repeated a number of times. Each musician has control over which phrase he or she plays: players are encouraged to play the phrases starting at different times, even if they're playing the same phrase. The performance directions state that the musical ensemble should try to stay within two to three phrases of each other. They must be played in order, although some may be skipped. As detailed in some editions of the score, it's customary for one musician to play the note C in repeated eighth notes, typically on a piano or pitched-percussion instrument like the marimba. This functions as a metronome and is referred to as 'The Pulse'. In C has no set duration; performances can last less than fifteen minutes or several hours, although Riley indicates that 'performances normally average between 45 minutes and an hour and a half.' The number of performers may also vary between any two performances.
The original recording of In C was created by eleven musicians of whom Riley played the saxophone. In addition he got Darlene Reynard (bassoon), Jerry Kirkbride (clarinet), David Shostac (flute), Jan Williams (marimba), Lawrence Singer (oboe), Margaret Hassell (piano), Stuart Dempster (trombone), Jon Hassell (trumpet), Edward Burnham (vibraphone) and David Rosenboom (viola). When you listen to the album it's difficult to understand that people really like it, because you're actually listening to a swarm of bees! No more, no less! It's just the C-note you hear continuously played by these musicians at the same time or separately without any variety whatsoever. Well, some people considered this bee humming to be music and they even called it a true masterpiece! Well, I guess that's what minimal music is all about...
A Rainbow In Curved Air was Terry Riley's third album. By making use of overdubs, the composer played all the instruments on the title track for which he used an electric organ, electric harpsichord and several percussion instruments. When you listen to the title track you get the idea that you're listening to one piece of music, although it contains three distinct sections or movements, like a classical sonata or concerto. The first fast section gives way to a more contemplative slow movement, while the final movement has more rhythmic passages. The B-side of the original album is called Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band. It also consists of overdubs with Riley again playing all the instruments. This time he used a soprano saxophone and an electric organ. Again the music sounds as a whole with hardly any variety. The organ keeps going on and on in the same key and is only interrupted by the saxophone several times. However, the music on this album is more enjoyable than the music on In C and it certainly influenced rock music. For example the progressive rock band Curved Air named themselves after this album. It also inspired Mike Oldfield for Tubular Bells and Pete Townshend's synthesizer parts on Won't Get Fooled Again and Baba O'Riley by The Who. Even Riley's name became a part of the song title! A Rainbow In Curved Air also had a significant impact on the development of minimal music, ambient music, jazz-fusion, new age, progressive rock and electronic music.
Riley's work has influenced many others in various genres, including Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Philip Glass and Tangerine Dream. However, it has to be said that the music he composed and recorded is most certainly not everyone's cup of tea, so to say! Well, some people like it with milk, others only with sugar or with sugar and milk and some drink it black. Do not all things depend on a person's taste?
** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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