A Whole New Dimension IN C
His breakthrough composition, 1964’s hypnotic, multi-layered “IN C,” was heralded as a revolution; the piece’s impact can be heard in works by contemporaries like Philip Glass and John Adams as well as rock bands like The Who, whose “Baba O’Riley” is a tribute to the composer.
At a Carnegie Hall celebration of the composition’s 45th anniversary, the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov likened “IN C” to “the greatness of the ‘Rite of Spring’ or ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ by Picasso. These are the first pieces—No. 1 in history—and then constantly imitated, consciously, unconsciously, with thousands of spinoffs.
“And yet, the original—both ‘IN C’ and ‘Rite of Spring’—they are still superior to any imitators. So that is sensational. How can somebody be so radical and then in one masterstroke include the future?”
The answer, Riley says, might just have its origins in Redding, the city he called home during some of his more formative years, and a chance meeting with Redding pianist, composer and instructor Duane Hampton.
Riley, 77, returns to Redding on June 23 for a celebratory homecoming concert at the Cascade Theatre. He will be joined by his son Gyan (pronounced ‘Gee-yawn’), a classical guitarist from Brooklyn.
Riley moved to Redding in time to begin his freshman year at Shasta High in 1949. “There were only about 10,000 people,” he recalls in a phone conversation from his home in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Grass Valley. “It was kind of a nice-sized town and I could ride my bike to school.”
Riley enjoyed sports—“I played football and baseball on the high school team. I was not a great athlete but I liked to play”—but he loved music. “Whenever I would sit down at a piano, I would play. I did not always have access to a teacher and then I finally found Duane, who was such a good teacher. He exposed me to a repertoire and really launched me into that instrument.”
Hampton, who at age 85 shows no signs of slowing down, remembers Riley well. “I was only four or five years older than he was when I was his teacher. I had given him Mozart and he really loved Mozart on the piano. I gave
him a classical background and the rudiments. Terry was a very eager learner.”
His former pupil “is in all the college textbooks now. He’s very popular. He added a whole new dimension,” Hampton says.
After graduating from Shasta High in 1953, Riley attended Shasta College for two years and then continued his training at San Francisco State University, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the University of California at Berkeley.
“I was really interested in all kinds of music. I had been interested in popular music and jazz as a kid, and as I got older, I got introduced to the classics. Each composer I was introduced to would open up a new world to me,” Riley says.
That world really opened in 1970 when he met Pandit Pran Nath, a renowned classical singer from north India, and began studying with him in India and at Mills College in Oakland, where both men taught.
“I was already developing a lot of interest in improvisation and had done a lot of work with that. When I met Pran Nath and started learning about the northern India musical style, I realized it was very similar to what I was doing with my music,” Riley recalls.
Although he will forever be known for his pioneering work in Minimalism, Riley says his performances are more about improvisation and spontaneity. The younger Riley, reached at his home in New York, agreed.
“We like to have a lot of fun on stage; there’s always a lot of spontaneity when we play together,” Gyan Riley says. “He’s pretty unpredictable, in terms of what tunes we’ll play. He’ll change them on the fly, do random things I didn’t expect. There’s a certain excitement about playing with him.”
That lack of predictability extends to the audience as well, Riley says. “It’s hard for audiences to be prepared. Just expect to hear different things. People enjoy the interaction between us…there’s no written score, but we’re interacting on a very deep level.
“It’s not entertaining in the sense of popular music, but it draws the listener in. I’m usually playing in places where people know a little more about me. I’ll be doing ‘missionary’ work in Redding, but it’s good for us too, to connect with people like that.”
The Cascade Theatre concert, which coincides with Shasta High’s 60-year reunion and takes place a day before Riley’s 78th birthday, also is an opportunity for Riley to look back, his son says. “The real unique thing about this is it’s a real neat chance for him to go back there and reflect on the long journey of his musical experience.” •
Concert: 2 pm June 23. Tickets are $27, adults; $15, students. (530) 243-8877 or www.cascadetheatre.org
On the web: www.terryriley.net, www.gyanriley.com