In the new issue of The Stranger’s Arts & Performance magazine, I have a feature about the legendary American composer/keyboardist Terry Riley, who’s performing with his son, guitarist Gyan Riley, at Benaroya Hall on February 19, 2020. In it, I cite Riley as “one of the most influential musicians of the last 50 years among artists seeking to tap into that ocean of sound at the intersection of minimalist composition, drone, and tape-based experimentation…. Riley has emerged as one of the world's most ingenious improvisers, a minimalist who possesses an unerring knack for the tones and chords that trigger the most powerful holy and healing forces—regardless of your religion, or lack thereof.”
Earlier this year, the Rileys released an album titled Way Out Yonder, which I didn't mention in the article, but it's worth checking out. The LP proves the elder musician hasn’t lost his acute ear for tantalizing timbres nor his ability to improvise with exquisite inventiveness. I had the good fortune to interview Mr. Riley, but not until after the aforementioned feature went to press. So, in the Q&A below, I tried to extract as much crucial information as I could from my favorite musician during our 20-minute talk.
The Stranger: What work of yours brings you the deepest aesthetic satisfaction?
Terry Riley: That would be hard for me to answer because it’s usually the one I’m working on at the time, as it’s unfolding and starting to reveal itself to me. That’s where the deepest satisfaction comes. I can’t cite one particular work.
Do you not dwell on your past works? Are you always looking forward?
Not necessarily. I feel like composing music is on a continuum. Essentially, they’re all kind of unfolding in a sequence for me. It’s a continuous process going on. It’s not like it’s past work, because I can feed off of those early works still today and create something new.
Listening to your music is the closest I come to experiencing religious feelings. Do you feel something similar while you’re creating it?
Yeah. I always feel music is a spiritual activity, if you want to treat it like that. For me, it is the path to reach out toward the unknown.
Don’t laugh, but do you think that your music has healing powers?
Because we’re made of vibrations ourselves, when we relate to musical vibrations, they can have an effect on us, either positive or negative. If we want it to be positive and focus on that way of doing music, it can be healing for both the people doing and listening to it. But I would make no claims about my music having healing powers. [laughs] That would seem a little absurd.
Well, on me and a lot of people I know, your music has a powerful effect that makes us feel better than we have any right to feel.
Well, I’m happy for that. My approach is, if it moves me and feels really good to me, then I should do it, because it’ll probably feel good to somebody else.
You’ve already done so much over the last 60 years. What more do you want to accomplish on a musical level?
Music is a process of learning for any musician who’s curious and is using music for personal growth. I don’t know if I have a goal for something I want to do. Every day I have a new opportunity to improve as a musician, to go deeper, to improve technically, to improve my communication with my muse. That’s always going on.
What was the most important thing you learned while studying under [Indian classical music singer and teacher] Pandit Pran Nath?
The awareness of the power of raga was one. Ragas have all these emotional and psychological aspects to them. He was a master at shades of pitches that create these shades of pitches in between our notes of the Western scale that actually create these psychological moods and deep feelings. It was like a science of creating moods and atmospheres. His attention to detail in these pitches was maybe the most important gift he gave me.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by “psychological moods”?
Ragas are based on melodic types and those melodic types conform to certain microtonal series of scales. Slight shifts of those scales can make us feel differently. You were talking about being moved by music; a lot of that we don’t analyze while we’re being moved by it, but it’s actually due to the way these microtones are affecting our physical being. So the ragas were created in an almost scientific way to have different shades of feeling and emotional content.
It’s hard to explain in a short time. You’d have to spend a long time with it to see how it works. For casual readers, what does that mean? But it really is true in simple Western forms. The blues, which is a kind of Western raga, always carries a certain kind of emotional content. Within the blues, you have many shades of different kinds of feelings that can happen, right? Blues would be just one raga in India, and it might spawn whole other families of similar moods.
Why do you think so many American composers studied with Pran Nath? Was it a word-of-mouth thing? One person did so and said, “You have to meet this man. He’ll change your life.”
Yeah. The first disciple and the person who brought him here was La Monte Young. La Monte’s music was very similar to Pandit Pran Nath’s in that La Monte was really into long tones. Of course, Pran Nath is a master of slow, evolving movement in music. Through La Monte, word spread through his family of friends, including me and people who’d worked with him, like Jon Hassell and Jon Gibson, Don Cherry, Lee Konitz.
[Pran Nath] was very accepting of students coming to him. He would take even beginners and amateur musicians and give them something to work on and improve.
Speaking of Don Cherry, how did you two meet and can you talk about the 1975 recording in Köln, Germany?
I was introduced to Don in New York by Walter de Maria, who was a great sculptor/land artist/conceptual artist. Don was actually living around the corner from me in New York. I met him later in Sweden when I went there to do a project with a children’s orchestra and choir, and wrote a piece for them [Olson III]. Don was really curious, because he’d never heard anything like my music before. So he was coming to all the rehearsals and we hung out quite a bit. I went down to his place where he and Moki and his kids were living. I’d run into him in Europe on tours and things. We eventually got invited by Köln Radio to do this project together. That recording has been bootlegged and pirated endlessly. [we both laugh]
Has it ever been released legitimately?
No. Not to my knowledge. Köln Radio was very strict about releasing copies of concerts. I was very surprised when I saw these bootlegs. It must’ve been an inside job.
There’s certainly a big demand for it.
But that’s so prevalent today. It’s kind of a free-for-all out there now… people grabbing stuff off of YouTube and releasing it on a label. It’s kind of crazy. One of my friends who keeps track of these things is saying that’s kind of a prevalent thing now. Some labels will just slap a new cover on one of my releases and put it out as their edition.
That speaks to how high the demand is for your music, but it’s also not cool to take potential money away from you. The way I look at it is, your music should always be in print. Even your most obscure works should never fall out of print. But that’s getting into the business side, which is not your foremost concern.
It isn’t, actually. But I don’t have to worry about that too much anymore. I don’t worry about income being stolen—as long as I have enough to survive on. [laughs]
Your soundtrack work seems like an overlooked aspect of your career. Is that something you wish you’d done more of, or are you content with how things worked out?
I think I’ve done enough of that. I prefer performing myself rather than creating soundtrack for movies. I like music just as an abstract form that can be listened to; it doesn’t necessarily have to accompany dance or film. Although I do enjoy it occasionally. My main objective is to create music that stands on its own and that listeners can just close their eyes and go on a trip with.
Do you have any favorite soundtracks that you’ve done?
I like the one I did for Les Yeux Fermés a lot. I did one with Krishna Bhatt for Alain Tanner called No Man’s Land. I like that one a lot. A couple of years ago I did a soundtrack for François Gerard in Montreal for a film called Hochelaga, Land of Souls. I collaborated with my son Gyan on that.
In February, you’re coming to Benaroya Hall for a performance. Can you talk about the program for that?
Gyan and I play a lot of shows every year. We don’t plan our programs. So I have no idea what we’ll be doing there. We do a lot of improvisation, we do some work based on his tunes and some of my tunes, and some things that are created right on the stage. Those are some of my favorites, when we find something new to do together, which just arises spontaneously from our playing.
So it’s not going to be a career retrospective; it’s going to be you and Gyan creating in the moment?
Yeah. It’s going to be what’s happening today with our duo. He lives in Brooklyn, I live in California, so we don’t get a chance to get together, except onstage or when we’re on tour. We’ve kept it loose like that so we can meet without any rehearsal and do a concert. We’ve been playing together for 22 years, so we’re pretty tuned in to each other by now.
Do you have a favorite version of In C?
I don’t think about it too much. There are a lot of versions out there. There are some that are really well done—Ictus Ensemble created a great one years ago. Bang on a Can has a great one. I like the In C in Mali [by Africa Express], which is very free and loosely based on In C. Walter Boudreau in Montreal has done kind of an In C opera, which is really cool. The greatest In C moment for me was when we did it in Carnegie Hall for the 45th anniversary with an ensemble of 65 musicians that David Harrington of Kronos Quartet put together. That was a sold-out crowd and there was a 15-minute standing ovation after people had been listening for two hours. It was an extraordinary experience. I decided that that would be my wrap-up of my involvement with In C, because it couldn’t go any better than that.
Do you have any regrets with regard to your career?
Not really. I’d be wasting my time regretting what I didn’t do. I like to focus more on what I could possibly do. I like to keep my mind forward-looking. I feel very fortunate that I’ve had a long and fruitful career. I can’t really complain about anything.
I just wanted to say that you’re one of my favorite musicians. I always place you at the top of my pantheon, with Miles Davis. You are the closest thing I have to a god-like figure. I hope that doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable.
I really appreciate you saying that. Thank you very much. I’m always happy when what I do is received deeply by other people and becomes something in their life that they value.