Saturday, February 1, 2020

Terry Riley at Seattle Symphony: Feb 19 | The Decade of New York Minimalism

The year at Seattle Symphony began with the conclusion of Ludovic Morlot's tenure and the arrival of his successor, Thomas Dausgaard. As the 2019-2020 season commenced, under the aegis of the symphony's new Music Director, a set of final grand projects from Morlot's tenure were realized. These included the staging of Heiner Goebbels' "Surrogate Cities", and the inaugural event at the state-of-the-art Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center. This all day, all night event that opened the center was billed as a Contemporary Music Marathon, spanning 24 hours of modernist, New Music, and avant-garde composers. This month sees one of the first major contemporary programs under it's new director. Central to much of the symphony's past programming of contemporary composers has been the music of the mid-century minimalists. This particular school of minimalism began on the east coast of the United States in the early 1960s by a concurrent body of composers generally originating in and around academic and cultural centers in New York. La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass are credited with being among the first to develop compositional techniques that exploit this minimal approach, which included nods to jazz, early tape, electronic and computer music, and Indian traditions in duration and tonality. The movement later branched out to include an international body of composers including John Adams, Yoshi Wada, Phill Niblock, Charlemagne Palestine, Pauline Oliveros, Michael Nyman, and Gavin Bryars. Central to the New York scene's earliest forays of the sound's bridging of tradition and the avant-garde, were Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, John Cale, Marian Zazeela, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley's durational explorations as The Theatre of Eternal Music. A collective music inspired by and under the tutorship of Indian spiritual advisor and musician, Pandit Pran Nath. Teaching at his Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music, Nath instructed in the Raga with a express focus on an extra-methodical and austere style, with a heavy emphasis on alap and slow tempo. His "Earth Groove: The Voice of Cosmic India" would be hugely influential to this body of musicians, particularly Terry Riley.

Having spent the decade of the 1950s in academic music circles, Riley studied composition at San Francisco State University, the San Francisco Conservatory, and University of California, Berkeley, under the instruction of Seymour Shifrin and Robert Erickson. During the latter, also spending time within the body of musicians around the San Francisco Tape Music Center, working with Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, and Ramon Sender. A hiatus throughout the 1960s was spent in Europe traveling and taking in musical and cultural interests, supporting himself playing in piano bars. By the 1970s Riley had returned to the United States and found himself at ground zero for the genesis of the minimalist movement. Through their shared ventures as The Theatre of Eternal Music, alternately known as The Dream Syndicate, Riley would connect the ancient traditions of this form with the very cutting edge of western modernism. In the years surrounding his time playing under Nath, he made numerous trips to India over the course of their association to study and accompany him in performances, contributing tabla, tambura, and voice. The fruits of which would lead him back to the west coast, in 1971 he joined the Mills College faculty to teach Indian classical music. This era would be considered Riley's formalizing period, as it produced many of his most lasting and groundbreaking works. Lost or largely unavailable are many of The Dream Syndicate works, due to contentions with La Monte Young and the other musicians, but Riley's own "In C", "Reed Streams", "A Rainbow in Curved Air", "You're No Good", "Persian Surgery Dervishes", and "Descending Moonshine Dervishes", spanning the decade of 1965 to 1975, form the foundation of his profound contribution to 20th Century music. Returning to town this month at Seattle Symphony, seven years since the last occasion of Seattle Art Museum's reopening celebration in 2013 with Doug Aitken's "Mirror" installation accompanied by the outdoor performance of Steve Reich's "Clapping Music" and Riley's "In C". Concurrently, Riley will also be engaging in a series of west coast dates this spring with his son, Gyan. The master minimalist is now 85 years of age, having just recently celebrated his 40th anniversary collaborating with New York's Kronos Quartet, yet we can still expect "Performances of Joyous Futurism from this Minimalist Shaman".