New Work Notes: The Life of Riley

Terry Riley in Drogheda and Benjamin Dwyer's Guitar Concerto No. 2

Terry Riley secured himself a place in the history books in 1964 when In C was first heard. His name is inextricably linked to the birth of minimalism, and the potted histories will tell you that he ‘once performed in La Monte Young’s ensemble’ in the early sixties. In the time that has passed since then, the word minimalism has become harder rather than easier to pin down, as the composers associated with its beginnings have gone their separate ways (it is debatable whether or not they were ever musically close to begin with). Now, more than ever, the question of what was minimalism is in need of examination. There is little debate on the personnel and the major pieces of early minimalism; the word will remain associated with these and with a certain time and place: America in the sixties (California and New York). What is not much commented upon is the extent to which the word denotes a movement rather than a style, and, more importantly, the extent to which some of its major figures have moved away from it. A good debate could be had around the question: ‘Where is minimalism today?’ Personally I think that some of the major names (Reich, Riley, Glass and Adams) are not writing minimalist music any more; they are now writing conservative concert music that trades on credibility that they banked back in the sixties and seventies. The styles they find themselves in nowadays have already been termed post-minimal.

So what was it? The two essential markers seem to be (1) a savage reduction of the amount of material present in a piece, and (2) in the background, a support system stemming from a focus on non-western music and its attendant ideas. Anything that didn’t have both of these bases covered tended not to be ‘minimalist’. After that, the stylistic surface of the music could vary enormously depending upon which music you took inspiration from (African drumming for Reich, Indian Ragas for Riley, etc.) and on core musical issues such as the presence or absence of pulse.

Whatever about its past or current state, proper discussion of which would be too lengthy here, perhaps the true importance of minimalism is best indicated by the extent to which it affected composition outside of itself. Before it came along there was an excessively cerebral tendency in serious music and much of it was convoluted to the point of randomness: for younger composers who came along afterwards, even if they rejected minimalism as boring, they found themselves in a composing world that had undergone regime change, and could enjoy a certain freedom that was new.

In recent times in Ireland we have, by accident or design, been playing catch-up with the programming of the major pieces from minimalism’s heyday. The fact that this involves hearing the flagship pieces mixed in with post-minimal works by the same figures (Reich, Adams, Riley) gives the whole enterprise a peculiarly ironic tinge; like many of our bigger decisions in this country, we are discovering things after others have already nearly abandoned them. Of course it can be argued that we don’t have much choice about that; either we hear these old pieces live or we don’t: we can’t arrange for them to have been brought here thirty or forty years ago when they would have been really exciting. But maybe the programmers should look for what is really current now and again.

Riley in Ireland
Terry Riley visited Ireland in May for two concerts dedicated to his music, hosted by the Louth Contemporary Music Society and the Drogheda Arts Festival, and thanks to collaborations with Gyan Riley (the composer’s son), the Arte Saxophone Quartet and the Crash Ensemble, it was possible to catch a good picture of what Riley has been doing over the years. It turned out to be a bewildering panorama: through improvised solos where Riley sang and played keyboards, quasi-improvised duets with his guitarist son, to fairly composed-out pieces for the ensembles, many musical styles were touched upon. Having spent a decade in India with Pandit Pran Nath, Riley can sing/chant in what comes across to all as a very authentic and deeply informed North Indian style (but this listener is not equipped to be more definitive than that).

His improvisations for piano alone were much less convincing; trite quasi-ragtime and blues material tended to fall into tired formulas of left hand accompaniment grooves with noodling right hand musical piffle. When the guitar joined, the landscape changed once more and we were into a tighter, commercial-sounding crossover world where film music, light jazz, and even the world of flamenco were hinted at. Once more the problems of indulgent improvisation crept in, but not as egregiously here.

The third part of each concert (and both concerts, on May 4th and 6th, adopted this three-way format, and indeed there was some of the same music in both concerts) featured the most ‘composed’ music, with scores written by Riley for the Arte Quartet on the 4th of May and the Crash Ensemble on the 6th. The scores that Riley provides require some discussion and collaboration between ensemble and composer, and it is clear that this is the area that Riley has rightly gained his reputation. There was a marked change of quality at these points in both evenings. The Crash Ensemble’s rendition of In C and also their premiere of the piece written for them, Loops for Ancient-Giant-Nude-Hairy Warriors Racing Down the Slopes of Battle, were both extremely convincingly handled and fitted seamlessly in to Crash Ensemble’s general sound world. The Arte Quartet works, which included Uncle Jard, were handled with skill and conviction, though some subtle blending of blues inflections seemed superfluous to the work.

Riley, in a public interview on the 5th, mentioned that he had not written down music over the course of about ten years, preferring to improvise. That, on this evidence, seemed a pity. The pivotal moment in the entire weekend came at the very end, hearing In C, which lasted 55 minutes and ended near to 11.30pm. The impression from the selection of pieces from this weekend could easily be that In C was Riley’s one great idea. The large and appreciative audience did not think along these lines, however – they were massively enthusiastic for each item on both nights. Whatever minimalism or post-minimalism is, they didn’t mind if Riley is no longer involved in either.

Dwyer concerto
Irish composers generally did not find minimalism to be a style worthy of their involvement, if one surveys the output of what they produced during the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. (This is with the single exception of Eric Sweeney, who made a huge style-shift in the early 80s, writing numerous pieces that fitted easily alongside the minimal styles of the day.) But they were not slow to breathe the freer air that came in the wake of minimalism, and it is hardly surprising that Irish composition (the good and the bad stuff alike) has generally stood critically aside, coolly watching developments in Europe or America, trying to gain the benefits while avoiding the traps of musical trends: the single core value that Irish composers seem to share is the desire to remain free from all dogmas – hardly surprising given our tainted cultural history! Unfortunately this also results in our music being critically overlooked, and that is a subject deserving a separate discussion.

A fine example of this independent way of writing music was Benjamin Dwyer’s Guitar Concerto No. 2, premiered by Fabio Zanon and the National Symphony Orchestra under William Eddins on April 27th. Clearly not trying to break radically new stylistic ground, this was instead a very successful attempt to enrich and expand the existing guitar concerto repertoire. Successful writing for the quieter solo instruments in combination with the whole orchestra always involves finding novel solutions to old problems. Dwyer’s stated idea that the orchestra could become an extension of the guitar may sound like a post-hoc rhetorical flourish, but actually was audibly evident as an a priori approach to the creation of the piece, as timbres and textures bridged the opposing tendencies of the soloist and the orchestra. That did not prevent the piece from being hugely dynamic, dramatic and colourful, either, something it achieved through thorough exploration and exploitation of its stylistically independent musical materials. I mention that by way of contrasting this piece with the rapturously received but ultimately mishy-mashy qualities of much of what Riley was offering in Drogheda. Amazing what getting into the history books can do for you, really.

Published on 1 July 2007

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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