Terry Riley’s Magical Mystery Tour

by Jesse Hamlin

Kronos Quartet celebrates the 80th birthday of esteemed composer Terry Riley.

David Harrington, the founding first violinist of the famously adventurous Kronos Quartet, was a fan of Terry Riley’s expansive music long before he met the composer in 1979 at Mills College in Oakland, where Riley was on faculty and Kronos in residence.

He knew Riley’s seminal 1964 Minimalist masterpiece “In C,” and his ecstatic “A Rainbow in Curved Air,” the head-spinning 1969 recording Riley made by overdubbing his multi-hued electric organ and harpsichord improvisations and percussion parts. Harrington couldn’t have known when he met Riley at a Kronos rehearsal at Mills that the man who’d created those mesmerizing works would write 27 pieces for the quartet over the ensuing 35 years. But he knew right away Riley was a rare bird and felt compelled to work with him.

“I immediately felt this immense friendliness and gentleness and love of life. Very little string quartet music at the time had those characteristics,” Harrington says. “I had the feeling that this guy was an old soul connected to something profoundly wonderful. He had such a free attitude about what music is, and what it might be, it just seemed like the world would be a better place if some of those qualities were in our music.”

It took Harrington a year to convince Riley to start notating music again after years of not writing it down (a disciple of the great North Indian raga vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, he’s an unbounded improviser whose music is deeply informed by Indian music and jazz). Once Riley started writing string quartets he didn’t stop writing, creating a vast world of music for Kronos and other artists that continues to expand as he approaches his 80th birthday this month amid a flurry of musical events celebrating the occasion.

Kronos has cooked up a humdinger June 26-28 at the SFJAZZ Center that covers a rich range of Riley’s music and brings forth new pieces composed by others in his honor. The repertoire includes several of the Riley works Kronos has commissioned over the years, including 1980’s "Sunrise of the Planetary Dreamweaver," his first for the quartet; the closing “One Earth, One People, One Love” movement from the 2002 NASA-initiated multimedia work Sun Rings; and the first complete performance by Kronos in 20 years of Riley’s 1985 epic, Salome Dances for Peace, a two-hour opus that fills the festival’s final evening.

The programs also feature a spate of new pieces—including five, minute-long “musical postcards” to Riley, as Harrington describes these birthday gifts—commissioned from composers such as Serbian-born Aleksandra Vrebalov, Mills’ Maggi Payne and Polish musician Aleksander Kościów. Riley’s guitar-playing son Gyan is writing a piece for Kronos, himself and his dad. Travis Andrews and Andy Meyerson of the local electro-classical group The Living Earth Show are creating a new work inspired by “A Rainbow in Curving Air,” performing it with Kronos (The Who’s Pete Townshend, one of many artists influenced by the piece, once told Riley he’d worn out 30 copies of the original LP).

Other guests include tabla wizard and longtime Riley associate Zakir Hussain, playing a solo piece and devising a tabla part for “Sunrise of the Planetary Dreamweaver” and pipa (Chinese lute) virtuoso Wu Man, featured in the opening movement of Riley’s “On the Cusp of Magic,” commissioned by Kronos for the composer’s 70th birthday and premiered by them and Man.

“Terry has given Kronos so many new musical experiences, incredible colors and roles we get to play in the quartet. Each of the pieces he’s written for us has its own constellation of feelings and musical colors, very distinct from one another,” says Harrington, on the phone from Yerevan, Armenia, where the group was performing at the Yerevan Perspectives International Music Festival. In addition to premiering the young Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Silent Cranes, commemorating the centennial of the Armenian genocide, the quartet was playing the blissfully exuberant final movement of Salome Dances for Peace, “Good Medicine.”

“That is one of the most joyous pieces in the entire string quartet literature, and one of the great joys to play,” says the violinist, who wanted to offer a counterbalance to the “sad and wrenching” piece preceding it. “It seemed this concert needed ‘Good Medicine,’” adds Harrington, who’s been prepping for the challenge of playing the full Salome.
He likens the experience of hearing it to seeing “all of Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ panels together. It’s so huge and beautiful and vast.”

Kronos is about to put out a boxed set of Riley’s music for his birthday, and when people hear it, Harrington says, “they’ll start to realized the immensity of his contribution not only to Kronos but to the world of music.”

Hussain heard about Riley from the composer’s guru, who was a friend of Hussain’s father, the late tabla master Alla Rakha.

“Terry so deeply understands the Indian modes and the classical Indian way of improvising that when I play with him, it’s like playing with an Indian musician,” says Hussain, on the phone from his San Anselmo home. “He’s one of the greatest visionary composers of our time, and it’s always a blessing to step onstage and experience the music one more time.”

Gyan Riley hadn’t yet written the piece he’s premiering with Kronos and his dad June 27, but he plans to leave spaces for his father to improvise rather than assigning him notes.

“My dad doesn’t really like to read music onstage and play through-composed music, even his own,” says the Brooklyn-based Riley, on the phone from his folks’ spread near Grass Valley, talking over the distant buzz of the weed wacker Terry Riley was wielding. “Whatever I do for him, I’ll say, ‘play whatever you want.’ I thought of titling the piece like that. He’d like that.”

Riley senior has appeared at celebratory concerts for him in Boston, Amsterdam and Grass Valley, and is creating a new work for children’s choir that will be put together in public view and premiered at the Barbican in London during his July residency there. He’s looking forward to hearing Kronos and his other old friends here.

“Every time I hear Kronos play one of my pieces, they take the music up to another level,” he says. "It’s just getting better.”

He and the quartet, he continues, “have learned a lot from each other. David and I have this magical relationship. You get together, and suddenly the sparks and ideas start to fly. When he comes up with an idea or setting for a quartet he wants me to write, we always try to hang out and talk about it. That’s really launched me into projects at full velocity.”

At 80, Riley still considers himself “a student of the field.” “Composition is a process of trying to learn something new,”he says. “The great thing about music is that it’s a magical mystery tour, you never get to the end of it. It keeps me going.”

June 26 → 28


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