.New Music Trailblazer Terry Riley Gets Santa Cruz Concert

If you’ve heard the intro to the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” you’ve heard the influence of Terry Riley.

In the wake of his genius with tape loops and interlocking repetitions came Philip Glass, Brian Eno, Riley’s many commissions for the Kronos Quartet, and inevitably, countless rock feedback loop knockoffs. Unlike Glass, whose minimalism explores process-based abstraction, Riley pushed onward, interweaving electronic cycles and jazz tropes with serious engagement in world music, notably the hypnotic rhythms and melodic improvisations of Indian raga. As inventive as Bach and audacious as Miles Davis, the California-born new music guru has soared into the mystic ever since.

Riley shredded the musical status quo with In C in 1964. Loosely controlled improv met jazz swing in Tread on the Trail (1965). After completing an MFA in Composition at Berkeley, Riley headed for the jazz clubs of Paris, where he played piano for rent money with greats like Chet Baker. Transformed by psychedelics, his musical quest went supernova with the much-adored A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969), with its droning organ and bubbling melodic patterns that defined the future of layered electronica. Suddenly there were no boundaries, either to what his generation wanted to hear or what he was willing to discover.

Now, the world master of the restless arpeggio will bring his voice, keyboards and sense of wonder to Santa Cruz on Feb. 2 for a plunge into electronic invention. The headliner for the next New Music Works 40th season concert, Riley, now 83, will join the NMW ensemble for a concert devoted almost entirely to his music.

Riley’s performance will display his long immersion in Indian classical music and why, as new music aficionado Sarah Cahill puts it, “the classical music establishment has never known what to do with his music, and how freely he moves between Indian raga, jazz, minimalism, ragtime, and other genres.” The concert will conclude with a NMW ensemble performance of Riley’s Tread on the Trail, one of his improvisationally bold and most widely interpreted pieces, in which his jazz origins break open new territory.

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“The object is to free yourself of all set composition,” Riley told me in a recent phone interview. “That takes the aliveness out of the music. The point is to surprise yourself as you go.”

‘Trail’ Blazing

Tread On the Trail was born after Riley heard a concert with the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins in San Francisco. “It was an interesting night,” Riley has said, “because he just sat up on the stage, and he would start improvising something with his horn, and he would kind of glance at the musicians and expect them to interact with the music he was playing.” Riley then concocted his jazzy canon of six repeated lines for a San Francisco State University band he played with.

The version he’ll perform in Santa Cruz will include flute, clarinet, tenor saxophone, violin, cello, double bass, piano, vibraphone, drum set, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar. Tread‘s title page reads, “For any number of instruments.” NMW’s arrangement has never been heard before.

New Music Works
DARE TO ‘TREAD’ Bassist Stan Poplin (left) and New Music Works director Phil Collins have re-imagined Riley’s classic 1965 composition ‘Tread on the Trail’ for the Feb. 2 NMW event. PHOTO: JULES HOLDSWORTH

As with his tradition-shattering In C, Tread invokes world music influences as well as intuitive collaboration among the musicians, who are free to negotiate duration and repetition of the piece’s six lines of notation. Each time this piece is played, it is refreshed through the tempo, placement and instincts of the performers. Overlapping improvisations add depth and playfulness to a piece that is free to explore within the composer’s very loose parameters. Lightly structured freedom of form is Riley’s signature. Compelling intensity is the result.

The score itself is fascinating. A single page of musical notation, six lines of 12 bars, plus one pivot bar. Each line is a palindrome—at bar six, the sequence of notes reverses itself. The performance notes Riley provides encourage variation and play. “The six lines may be performed in a variety of ways,” the composer suggests. Musicians may play each line many times, enter and exit at any point—indeed, Riley’s notes specify, “any performer can decide at any time whether to play the line or the drone part that goes with the line.” Any number of musicians may be involved, and while Riley suggests that an ideal performance could last 10-12 minutes, “longer and shorter performances can also be considered.”

Player’s Perspective

“There’s lots of freedom in Riley’s work,” says Stan Poplin, the double bass artist who will perform in Tread. “But freedom that requires far more boundaries.” NMW director Phil Collins proposed the idea to Poplin, who then found Klub Katarakt”s version on the Internet. “That gave me some direction,” he says. “But then I saw the music and that changed everything.”

Poplin began forming a vision of how the piece might be performed, and will work on the “proper jazz feel,” thanks to Riley’s instructions for a swinging 1/16. (In lay terms, the 1/16 note is played in slight syncopation ahead of the beat. Essentially, the feeling of music being “swung” is what makes jazz sound like jazz). Once that’s established, “We can work on a plan to present the material and how we will work through it,” Poplin says.

Poplin’s approach to the music is to “go through it very slowly, learn the notes and figure out the fingering.” After decades as a professional musician, Poplin is comfortable improvising.

“I find this kind of music exciting,” he says. “It’s the excitement of not knowing exactly what will happen, combined with the freedom to move in unexpected directions that makes this music particularly interesting to me.” Poplin, who leads UCSC’s jazz ensemble, also plays with Nicole Paiement’s Opera Parallele performing classical music that is fully composed. “The result of that kind of musical setting is very much shaped by the composer’s intention,” he says. “Tread offers a different result—the excitement of the unknown and an opportunity to be freely playful in the process.”

Poplin will act as what he calls the “traffic conductor” of the ensemble during the performance. “The tempo is easy to show,” he says, demonstrating for me by breathing and raising his head as if indicating the start of the performance. “Then we could go into different grooves, like Latin, more jazz, or straight interpretation.”

Poplin, a 40-year NMW veteran, has worked with all the players who will be involved in this performance. Three rehearsals are planned, plus meetings with NMW director Collins, mapping out ways to explore and interpret the piece. “I want the audience to feel that what we’ve done is not simply to indulge ourselves as performers,” says Poplin. “But to present it in a way that widens their ears and hopefully they’ll enjoy. A small town like Santa Cruz supporting new music for all these years. That’s incredible.”

The Long Vision

Collins—composer, conductor, guitarist, and world music educator—founded New Music Works 40 years ago, and has since worked with avant-garde pioneers like Lou Harrison, Aaron Jay Kernis, Pauline Oliveros, Philip Glass, Sarah Cahill, and Larry Polansky. A protege of Harrison’s, Collins had met Riley several time at his mentor’s estate. After Riley sent a donation for NMW’s 39th season benefit, Collins decided to make contact. “He’s part of the California experimental tradition, and after some negotiation he agreed to come,” says Collins.

Riley and Collins share world music interests. “Improv is at the basis of classical Indian music—that’s what you hear in his music,” Collins believes. “When he performs, as we’ll hear, he lets himself go where the material takes him. Fearless.”

In a recent note to Collins, Riley suggested, “As far as Tread on the Trail goes, the one piece of advice I would offer is for the group to try to coalesce into a unison occasionally after treating the lines canonically. I don’t want to say too much because part of the fun is for the players to get creative and have fun with the chart and I love to be surprised by the solutions different groups come up with.”

DIFFERENT BEAT From Paris to India, a young Terry Riley collected musical influences from around the world. PHOTO: BETTY FREEMAN
DIFFERENT BEAT From Paris to India, a young Terry Riley collected musical influences from around the world. PHOTO: BETTY FREEMAN

A performance note like this is a musician’s dream—a few guidelines, and then permission to get creative.

“As musicians, we look forward to seeing how it manifests,” says Collins. “After each line is introduced, the players are encouraged to experiment canonically, which makes everyone’s different points of entries sound wonderfully unexpected and off-kilter.”

Collins calls Tread for the Trail “a fascinating piece to address. It’s the most jazz vernacular I’ve encountered in Terry’s music, and a unique rhythmic application of repetitive cell improvisations,” says the NMW director, who will play amplified acoustic guitar in this piece. “Like In C, everyone plays from the same single sheet of music, six lines across an 11×17 sheet. We enter a new neighborhood on each line. We’ll begin by working through each line several times in unison, and then it starts to tweak away.”

Riley is “a perfect fit for Santa Cruz,” says Collins. “He erases all boundaries, both within his musical works and in terms of his openness to musical traditions. He started with rock ’n’ roll and jazz roots—he seemed to come to the table somehow already ready.”

Swing Shift

Asked about his own performances, traveling all over the world from his home base in the Bay Area, Riley laughs. “I’m old now, and every day is a gift. Taking chances is easy—I have nothing to lose.” Riley’s mystique among professional musicians is built upon his sheer performance courage. Armed with a cross-cultural lifetime of virtuosity and favored tropes, the experimental master tends to approach the keyboard with only a sketch of a map. He is willing to lean way out on the edge and see what shows up. “Improvisation means you’re willing to crash and mess up in public. Putting yourself out there, that’s where the great moments are.”

Of the repetitive structures that ripple through his work—“a path toward ecstasy,” as he calls it— Riley says, “It happened accidentally. I was living in Southern Spain and I went to Morocco, where the repeated musical cycles to achieve an altered state were an old tradition.”

Traveling onto India, where he eventually lived for several years, Riley found that, “Repetitive principles were millennia old. So I studied there, and now I do Indian classical vocal music as a daily practice.”

Asked whether he made music for the performer or for the listener, Riley responds: “The performer is also a listener. They make decisions according to their ears, not a set of notes on the page. I’ve tried to get further away from a written score. But,” he says with a wry chuckle, “I find that musicians need some architecture.”

These days, Riley says he lives with music day in and day out. “Indian classical vocal music, which I practice daily, hones your senses. Almost all guided spontaneity taps into the free-floating universe of music out there,” he says.

He often performs with his guitarist son Gyan, but Riley says he no longer composes. “It’s much more real to have my existing music performed over and over. I keep hearing new aspects each time. I work on improvisation daily, to keep sharp, like sparring with a partner. I practice every day as if it’s for a performance.”

For the new music innovator, every concert is a unique experience. “I like what happens with each interpretation,” Riley says.  “I like to see it from the now, from fast to slow, the colors and shapes that emerge.”

He refuses to be labeled a conceptualist or a minimalist. “That’s not me,” he says. Riley’s also pleased that audiences find emotional and expressive content in his work. “There’s no way to pin down a composing style. Everything is a hybrid now because of availability of recorded music and the internet.”

Spontaneity defines his solo piano pieces. “Playing a concert is always affected by where I am, and how it feels that day. What the crowd is like. I like to keep it open.” He says he uses, “the known and familiar to launch into unfamiliar territories. I am happiest as a performer when surprising directions in the musical flow occur that allow me to see and hear things from an unexpected angle.”


An Evening with Terry Riley and New Music Works

Saturday, Feb. 2. Peace United Church of Christ, 900 High St., Santa Cruz.

Pre-concert talk with Terry Riley 6-6:45 p.m., concert 7:30 p.m. newmusicworks.org

The program includes Riley’s works for piano four hands, Waltz for Charismas (2003, commissioned by pianist Sarah Cahill) and Jaztine (2000), as well as Terry Riley in  Performance, voice, keyboard. Eighteen-year-old Alice Jen makes her debut with Sarah Cahill, premiering Phil Collins’ going places (2018). To honor Frederic Rzewski’s 80th birthday, To the Earth (1985) will be performed by percussionist Henry Wilson. Tread on the Trail (1965) will be performed by an 11-member ensemble of NMW all-stars.

Preview this piece on Saturday, Jan. 19th, when Stan Poplin and Cary Nichols will play a version of Tread on the Trail at R. Blitzer Gallery. 6-8 p.m. rblitzergallery.com


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