"I only have a favourite colour when it's next to another colour that I like - I'm contrapuntal."
"You have in the past been called a 'visionary' composer," I began, not without a certain pluck, "So how do you imagine the music of the future?"Laughter, both from the stage and from the audience."You're trying to put me on the spot!" chuckles Riley. "All I can say, is that I hope that there is a future."
Terry Riley was in London earlier this week rounding of his 75th birthday tour of Europe, in celebration of Pandit Pran Nath's Californian legacy. The legendary composer and improviser, who, with his plaited rat's tail emerging from a fluffy white beard, resembles a cross between an off-duty Santa Claus and a Native American shaman, dropped into Cafe Oto's monthly Wire Salon to discuss his life and work - anything, that is, bar 'In C'.
If Riley was uncomfortable mulling over the piece for which he is most renowned (Tony Herrington, Riley's interviewer, claimed he had been informed in advance that "the last thing [Riley] wanted to talk about was 'In C'."), he was much happier discussing his history of collaborations. "I'm very relational," he claims. Indeed, LaMonte Young, claims Riley, called him, "the best harmonic musician - because he can't get along with anybody else!"
He recalls his first meeting with Young, back at Berkeley College in the late fifties, as "like, woah! Somebody left their spaceship behind." The two formed an "immediate bond," with Riley playing the "straight guy." At Berkeley, the pair would sit at a piano play "very primitive blues for hours on end." It was at this time that they developed between them the foundations for what would become known around the world as 'minimalist' music.
Though they would work together off and on into the seventies, Riley claims it wasn't long before they each started to develop their "own idea of what we wanted to do with stasis." For Riley, it was the experience of working with tape loops in France, while preparing the music for Ken Dewey's play, The Gift, that made him "aware of the value of stasis," the sense of motion even an (almost) unchanging loop.
"What fascinated me with tape was the degeneration of the sound... The grainy noise quality."
Herrington plays a sample of Riley's 'Bird of Paradise' over Oto's PA system ...
Created in 1965, 'Bird of Paradise' transforms a sample from 'Shotgun', Junior Walker and the All Stars' number one hit from the same year, into a pulsing, pummeling sonic weapon worthy of the Daleks, and equally terrifying.
At the end of the sixties (a time Riley refers to as "a kind of renaissance"), after 'In C' and 'A Rainbow in Curved Air' had rendered the boundary between classical composer and rock musician distinctly blurry, Riley felt he had "completed a cycle" and was looking for his next mode of music-making. Curiously, before meeting Pandit Pran Nath, he already had in his mind this image of a figure, both a mystic and a great singer, "living in a cave somewhere" in India. It wasn't long before Pran Nath appeared in his life, fitting just perfectly the preconcieved idea he had already formed.
Riley was immediately drawn to the power of the man's voice, "I'd never experienced such a powerful sound coming out of someone's body - not only powerful in volume, but also in effect." And soon set off to India to study under the Master, and become his apprentice. His first trip to New Delhi lasted six months, during which time, spent singing and training his body, he felt "like being psychoanalysed twenty-four hours a day."
Riley is keen to emphasise Pran Nath's eclecticism and openness, the way he always "encouraged you to do your own thing but use this tradition [of Indian classical music] for your musical growth." When LaMonte Young played a record of John Coltrane to Pran Nath, he replied, "This is like me." And Riley compares listening to Coltrane to "going to church." Riley quotes Pran Nath,"'What you worship that's you will become' - and he worshipped music." Pran Nath's intention was to literally become pure vibration.
In the middle of his first sojourn in India, Riley still contracted to CBS Masterworks, received a telegram instructing him to report to their studios forthwith. "I was ten or twelve years late with that record." He claims the principle effect of his studies in Indian music was to make his music more melodic. Throughout the seventies, Riley toured extensively, trying, as he says, "to develop through the keyboard a singing style."
The loud volumes of some of his concerts, along with the nature of some of his collaborations, only furthering to enhance this idea of Riley as a rock star composer. "The appeal of the loud frequencies used by rock groups," he says, "is that it approximates the sound of just intonation." But at the end of the decade, he found himself looking for ways to translate this language into something more "intimate."
It was at this time that Riley bought himself a piano and started playing piano again for the first time in as much as two decades, leading him to explore the similarities between piano strings and the strings of a tambour. The end of the seventies also marked the beginning of a series of collaborations with David Harrington's Kronos Quartet. Harrington apparently told Riley that he could already hear strings in his works for keyboard, so the first couple of string quartets he wrote for them were fairly straight transpositions of prior works.
Though Riley claims it took him a while to get used to putting notes on paper again "and making them feel alive," it wasn't long before his youthful obsession with Bartok's string quartets came back to him, and the collaboration began to flow more freely.
Despite his reluctance in the face of my (only slightly facetious) question about the future, Riley did respond to a member of the audience who asked if had an MP3 player by admitting to using iTunes ("Is that an MP3 player?" he asked nervously) on his laptop. "I don't think I'd be writing any orchestral music today if it wasn't for computers," he claims, comparing the use of notation software to sculpture, and the magnetic tape he used half a century ago.
One of the last questions from the floor asks about our changing sense of time, both between generations, and as one gets older, eliciting a noise form the crowd that implied shock at the suggestion that the septuagenarian before us could possibly associated with anything like age. "When you exist in the world of sound and music, I think that's a kind of equalizer for what you're talking about," he replies, "as the passage of time becomes irrelevant."
There's a curious mix of the avuncular and the innocent, even childlike in Riley, in everything from his distinctly Californian, soft-spoken voice to his wide-eyed enthusiasm and gentle requests, every time a piece of his music was played, to turn down the volume just a little bit. It's as though five decades in the "world of sound" had truly allowed him to "escape time bondage." Let's hope, for good.