The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue

Abandon Expectations:
Terry Riley Live at 85

Terry Riley at Pioneer Works. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk, Courtesy of Pioneer Works
Terry Riley at Pioneer Works. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk, Courtesy of Pioneer Works

Pioneer Works
December 20 – December 21, 2020
New York City

Terry Riley has got some chops. That's worth noting because at 84 no one's body works the way it used to. He mounts and leaves the stage at Pioneer Works with care, but when he sits at his keyboards, his hands have an unlimited capacity to realize his ideas.

After more than 8 decades, the ideas seem endless, full of freshness and vitality. Riley's musical range is so broad that it challenges assumptions about what musicians can do. Yo-Yo Ma appears as a genius, able to play Bach and world music with equal technical and aesthetic artistry. Yet here is Riley, who is essential to the minimalist revolution in post-WWII classical composition, who expanded Western musical thinking with trance concepts from ancient and non-Western music, and who is up there during the course of these two concerts playing and singing standards from the American songbook.

That’s disarming, charming, and mind-expanding—echt Riley—but also leaves much of the standing room crowd puzzled, their expectations adrift from reality. Riley is most well known for the avant-grade masterpiece In C, and also the hypnotic thrills of albums like A Rainbow in Curved Air and Persian Surgery Dervishes. Those pieces reach back some 50 years and barely hint at Riley’s pedigree as a pianist digging Mary Lou Williams, nor what he’s accomplished in the intervening years up to these concerts.

But the series starts in familiar territory Friday night with John Zorn joining Riley for a set of improvisations. Riley lays down churning bass lines and riffs, using a fat, pleasantly grinding timbre from his synthesizer—it’s a reminder that not only can he play the keyboard but that he’s one of the great synthesizer players, building patches that are exciting and expressive, pushing the unique musical qualities of the synth to the utmost. On top of this Zorn uses his alto sax to unspool fiery, circular runs on pentatonic scales. The two share an appreciation for the thrilling possibilities of repetition.

Heads are bobbing and shoulders weaving, and the set turns out to be one of the high points of both concerts. Though Riley and Zorn play with piercing energy, the music hints at drone and trance. Then Riley returns for a set titled “Interpretations on Standards,” his energy mellow but still graceful and substantial, and the bulk of the standing-room crowd wonders, what was going on?

Riley starts singing, and the audience catches its breath in surprise. He was never a strong vocalist, and while age hasn’t touched his hands, it has limited his singing—his range is narrow, and though he can still work his way around the notes, he can’t open up or sustain any lines. And not only does he sing, but it's other people’s music—even more it's Rodgers and Hart, Hoagy Carmichael, and “Caravan” by Juan Tizol, Duke Ellington, and Irving Mills.

For the listener without expectations this is fascinating, as much for Riley’s taste as his playing. “This Can’t Be Love” is from The Boys from Syracuse, it’s been floating around at the edges of the standards books since 1938, but doesn’t have much staying power. There is beautiful, multilayered irony in Riley singing Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair,” a song about an old man singing about being old, and “Caravan” allows the performer who calls herself Everything, and who has been a non-participating distraction, to add some percussion and vocal accompaniment. But the best parts of this set come when Riley modulates the standard changes into slippery, modal harmonies. This is deeply impressive in terms of form, and brings him back to the fore.

That is it for Riley’s playing Friday. The night finishes with two compositions, Mandala Miniatures for the saxophone quartet of Dan Blake (soprano), Caroline Davis (alto), Travis Laplante (tenor), Scott Robinson (baritone), and Tread on the Trail, played by a mixed ensemble led by Riley’s son, guitarist Gyan Riley.

These are a mixed experience. Mandala Miniatures is a series of repetitive aphorisms, some which work better than others. Riley’s forms are organic, but his style sets up some kind of point of resolution, be it a downbeat or a tonic note, and not all the miniatures resolve. The quartet has excellent intonation and blend, and the audience tries to urge their own way into a transformative state by interrupting the flow with applause and whistles, but this is not the Riley they had come expecting.

Tread on the Trail is more successful by popular acclaim, but the weakest moment in the series. This is a piece of additive minimalism, a set of phrases that bring the musicians together before hitting a mark and moving on to the next. The group, which includes Davis and Laplante, and has Nathan Koci playing accordion, Greg Chudzik on bass, and drummer Dave Cossin, plays with a jam-band vibe that the crowd digs but leaves the music in a jejune netherworld between physical pulse and actual jamming.

Saturday brings the two nights together into palindromic bookends. There are two sets, the first with Riley improvising with son Gyan, the second A Rainbow on Curved Air played by a group of mixed strings, keys, and percussion.

The two Rileys are sympathetic partners, as one would expect, but there’s also too much generational deference. The younger Riley is a capable musician, but just doesn’t have the imaginative depths of his father, nor the driving energy. The best moments have the two working in lovely synchronicity, but when they try more abstract things—abandoning tonal or rhythmic organization—the music dissipates. Throughout the set, it feels like the elder Riley is holding something back.

That is unfortunately his last appearance on stage, but the concluding performance is fabulous, reaching the summit Riley and Zorn had scaled the night before. The musicians surround themselves with the shimmer of Riley’s music. Unlike the night before, they not only play the notes but are immersed in his aesthetic state, they are bringing his message to life. With Angel Deradoorian prominent, and Okkyung Lee slicing through with her cello, the music is a vehicle for reaching a state of being separate from the reality outside Pioneer Works. That is Riley’s point, and it’s what makes him special.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues