Terry Riley (born 1935)
A native Californian especially beloved in the San Francisco Bay Area, Terry Riley is the composer that broadly introduced the world to “minimalism.” Inspired by the original work of fellow music student La Monte Young, Jazz and North Indian Raga, Riley bucked the dominant trend of intellectual serialism and pursued a new musical aesthetic with tape loops, repetitive rhythms, static harmonies, and accumulating layers of sound producing slow but gradual change within a matrix of mesmerizing stasis. His famous break-through piece was the 1964 work “In C” composed for an indefinite number of performers on unspecified instruments playing through a series of 53 different melodic / rhythmic fragments with the timing of the progression left to the aesthetic discretion of each performer. Soon thereafter, Riley, a piano virtuoso, abandoned notation in favor of his own freely improvised and overdubbed keyboard parts yielding some remarkable and influential recordings dissolving the boundaries between classical, jazz and rock. A decade later, Riley met the fledgling Kronos Quartet and a fruitful artistic relationship was born. Of their first collaboration, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, Riley writes:
This work first came about as a minor key extension of Rainbow in Curved Air (1968), and some of the material appeared in a 1973 recording I made as a soundtrack for Lex Yeux Fermés, by the French filmmaker Joël Santoni. The ancestor to this version for string quartet, with this title, was composed in 1975, and premiered in a series of concerts I gave at RIAS in Berlin the next year. The title occurred to me one morning over breakfast during a conversation with Delphine Santoni, Joël’s seven-year old daughter: we talked about how there might be a collector who came around every day and gathered up all the dreams so that they could be redistributed the next day.
In 1980, when David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet asked me to compose some music for what was then a very young group, I chose this work as a starting point. It had been over ten years since I had written any music on paper, as I was occupying myself at that time with keyboard improvisation and the study of North Indian raga. But I felt the atmosphere of this work would be very appropriate for strings. I was convinced that the modular construction of the music would allow the quartet members freedom to use their performance skills to enhance its basic melodic and rhythmic framework, and to give it a shape that would reflect their insights regarding its musical content and feeling. The way I envision it, the work should always be able to be reformed or reconstructed. Even though there’s a written score, it is very much like what you’d have with a jazz head arrangement.
As the Kronos Quartet explains:
At that time, Terry hadn’t notated his music since 1965. Nonetheless, David had a strong feeling that Terry had a special relationship to music and could write great music for us. He had to convince him to return to notation, and that notating music was valuable as a means of community so others could play his music. It took months of persuading, but eventually he went back to earlier unnotated pieces, and discovered new ways to approach them. Sunrise was the first piece to emerge in 1980.
We eventually traveled up to Terry’s ranch, where we rehearsed in his studio. In the first rehearsal, Terry gave each opus many slips of paper on which he had written the modules of Sunrise. We collectively talk about the numerous possibilities of how to order and play them. To be a part of the process of creating of this work gave us enormous insight into how Terry worked as a composer.
Sunrise has had a very import an influence on Kronos because the piece by its nature encourages each member of the group to think like a composer. Every choice by each player affects the piece, and we found pleasure in the communication required to make group decisions.
The fascinating nature of Riley’s music with its “open ended” possibilities and its implicit artistic freedom and collaboration with the performers is clear from the instructions found in the score:
Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector allows performers to “co-compose” a version of the quartet matching their own individual sensibilities. The piece is composed of 24 modules. How these modules are performed is left up to the musicians.
There are 24 repeatable modules lettered A to Y. All but E, G, U and Y are 14 beats long. However, all modules are some multiple of seven beats.
The performers are asked to design the overall flow of the progression from A to Y in advance. Any module may be repeated as many times as desired. Any module may be returned to from any other module. Any module may be played as a solo, duo, trio or quartet. In specified instances, parts from different modules may be exchanged.
Octaves may be transposed up or down when possible. Bowings, phrasing, dynamics and special string effects are left to the discretion of the performers. Tempo changes, accelerandi and ritardandi are permitted when they enforce musical continuity. The overall duration is left to the choice of the performers.