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INTERVIEW | Terry Riley: "I would not have written ‘In C’ if I never had played jazz"

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on January 8, 2019

Terry Riley
We catch-up with renowned minimalist composer Terry Riley and his son, Gyan Riley, and violinist Tracy Silverman ahead of their headline concert at RCM’s 21C Music Festival at Koerner Hall, January 18.

After the long holiday-daze, 21C Music Festival is bringing much energy and surprises into sleepy January, and it’s quite exciting to see the 2019 roster of performers and composers — especially for Terry Riley: Live at 85!

I remember first encountering Terry Riley’s music as a university student — it came in the form of a single sheet: “In C” (1964).  Looking at the little fragments scattered across the page, it felt exciting yet slightly worrying — would this work? The freedom and the responsibility that came with it felt heavy for the uninitiated, though the worry lifted quickly, when everyone in the ensemble dug into the music, one pulse, one cell at a time — all in sync.

“I had some really pleasant surprises (with ‘In C’),“ said Terry. “1964 on, it has been played thousands of times, and there have been some really interesting versions — including Walter Boudreau and L’infonie’s prog rock version, Mantra, and a version from Mali, Terry Riley’s In C Mali, (organized for the 50th anniversary of “In C”, with members of Africa Express — including André de Ridder, Brian Eno and Damon Albarn).”

“‘In C was a new kind of way of playing — freedom, and the responsibility to contribute to the overall shape of the piece,” says Terry.  And for January 19th, the trio — Terry and Gyan Riley with Tracy Silverman, is taking the audience to a new space, on a live stage. There is no set program, except with the promise of solo violin version excerpts from “The Palmian Chord Ryddle” and “Sri Camel” by Tracy. The rest is to be determined.

“… When we were asked for the 21C festival proposal, I mentioned the duo with my son, and my work with Tracy Silverman, and they requested some orchestral music…  they picked theG Song and ‘Half-Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight’,” Terry continued.  “My son and I do tour quite a bit, and Tracey has played with us as trio, so we were planning to do a duo set, then Tracy would play from the concerto and other music.  I think [the trio] will happen, but we wanted to give Tracy the opportunity as well.”  The other two works in orchestral version will be featured on the eve of Jan. 16 and 19.

Terry’s deep interest in improvisation makes such loose programming a natural choice; he does recognize that rigid framework is a necessity, especially with large ensembles: “… The larger it is — more people — it requires more control.  If you are writing for an orchestra, you have to prepare for everything, as the rehearsals are short and every detail needs to be notated.”

But he observes that after the 20th-century, there is a flux, moving away from the pursuit of rigidity and control, that things are starting to open up again, to experience and create new kind of sounds — and for Terry, one of the best ways to get there is to give the liberty to the players to do things in different ways.

“We can open that once again, that music can be free and give freedom for the musicians to shape it…” — Terry Riley

“…If we went back a couple hundreds of years back in music history, there was a lot more improvisation with compositions, and then the rigid framework got stuck on — certain notes and certain times, but it wasn’t always like that.  We can open that once again, that music can be free and give freedom for the musicians to shape it; it is much more common in jazz and world music, rather than classical music.  I would not have written ‘In C’ if I never had played jazz.  It’s only a page, but you may play 20 minutes very easily — something so simple but has the potential to be elaborate.”

All three men find that free improvisation is a great way to interact and to satisfy their curiosity. Terry: “…  I like to be surprised when I’m playing, so we don’t have a set list, we go on the stage and we don’t rehearse, and we try to keep things really fresh and surprising — that’s the thing I like the most about the duo, that it’s very intuitive and we do have that close connection, that we are both aware where the music goes… The top priority is that music is coming to you, rather than you having to reach out to it. To be free enough to spontaneously come up with fresh ideas.  The only way I can really do that is the daily routine — I practice every day as an improviser.  The daily practice will open one up to the inspiration.”

In fact, Terry has been cutting back on writing.  “I’ve been spending a lot more time improvising, taking older pieces of mine and re-developing that.  I’m still very active in that way, but sitting down with pen and paper — I’m not interested in that, I’m more interested in playing it.” Terry continued that during 1970-80s, he wasn’t writing things down then either, as he was immersed in the Indian tradition, where things are strictly done by rote.  “So, I had a period in my life when I do and don’t write things down. The last three years have been non-writing, but I may start writing things down again when the idea comes to me.”

Gyan Riley and Terry Riley
Gyan Riley and Terry Riley. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Gyan Riley, whose first instrument was a guitar that he won at a raffle at age 12, has been close to Terry — his father, but also as a fellow musician.  Their latest project together includes a film score for François Girard,’s Hochelaga, Terre des Âmes, which premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, though the life-long implicit trust between the Rileys is most illustrative in their live duo performances.  Gyan finds it difficult to define the connection in such playing: “Music to me, is something that cannot be described well by words — if we had the right words, then we wouldn’t need music! Every time I attempt to describe any music, I find the descriptions painfully inadequate.”

And like Terry, who builds his oeuvres through fostering personal relationships with others — the decades-long collaboration with Kronos Quartet, which resulted in 26 string quartet work comes to mind — Gyan is also deeply appreciative of such connections: “Generally, the music somebody makes is an extension of their personality, even if it isn’t obvious at first.  That’s partly why getting to know somebody through playing together is so wonderful.  But it isn’t always: sometimes there isn’t an immediate personal connection, but you can tell that something is promising, and respectively you have to find the road to playing well together.”

Tracy Silverman is also a rare bird of a feather. Looking to find his own voice upon graduation from Juilliard, Tracy started to design his own electric violin. With his electric axe, Tracy explored rock, grunge-metal, and then came back to the traditional violin and joined the Turtle Island String Quartet. However, for many Classical music listeners, it was his performance of John Adams’ “The Dharma at Big Sur” at LA Phil’s gala opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2013 with Eska-Pekka Salonen, which made an unforgettable impression.

So how is his six-string electric violin differ from the traditional analogue violin?

“I am a D’Addario endorser. The two lower strings are C and F.  The C string is a standard short scale viola C, and the F string is something which I used to have custom made by D’Addario, but which is now made by several string producers as 6-string instruments are increasingly common,” Tracy explained.  “My gear is always changing, and because I’m usually flying and the technology has finally caught up, I am now using computer-based amp and speaker simulators.  I also use a variety of standard guitar pedals such as the Eventide H9 ad Boomerang loop pedal… and all my recent instruments are hollow, even though there is no sound hole on top.”

Tracy’s style, which he calls ‘post-classical string playing,’ has opened an interesting path to him: “It incorporates contemporary popular idioms rhythmically and stylistically.  I’m trying to expand the vocabulary, whether that’s conscious or not.  Because I am doing something most people have never seen before, they automatically give me cred as a ground break.  The challenge for me is to use that very precious opportunity to get an audience’s attention, and to hope that they will share my taste in music, like what I’m doing and open themselves to having a live musical experience together.”   As a innovator, in addition to solo composing and ‘de-ranging,’ Tracy continues works very closely with his colleagues to build an entirely new genre of electric violin repertoire, including additional concertos written for him by Terry, Nico Muhly and Kenji Bunch and the duo collaboration with Roy “Futureman” Wooten: Futureman|Silverman.

Terry also shares this sentiment regarding genres: “We have places where we can get music now and anywhere, which was a very different situation than when we went off to buy CDs and LPs.  It’s a quite a different situation. It is good in a way, you can hear almost anything, and anyone immediately.  Categories of musical traditions are now kind of blurred by lots of crossovers between music and cultures, and now it’s very hard to categorize, as a lot of music does not fall into categories — I have a background in classical-jazz and Indian…. Words are inadequate to describe, the only thing we could do is point [the audience] to my name, and see what they will find out on their own.”

Such familiar names yet such mixtures of genres and styles… what is the audience to do?

“You should welcome and not resist the integration of styles.  This is one of the things I most appreciate and respect about Terry’s music — his unfiltered freedom to joyride through whatever musical landscape he wants to be in,” Tracy suggests.

“Holding onto stylistic purity has a very worthy place, and I don’t want to minimize the importance of deeply understanding and studying any particular genre of music, whether that be Classical or Celtic or Carnatic. However, when it comes to the creation and dissemination of new music, I think there is a very different ethos which should dominate, and that is the idea of stylistic freedom — to create a nest of whatever twigs and fibres, bits of trash and repurposed items that can possibly be used. In the creation and listening of new music, whether serious concert music or popular music, there should be as few rules as possible – the listener as well as the creator of music should be free to imagine whatever the hell they like, and all the genre-specific training or previous listening of the past should be a reference point, informed or not, depending on the familiarity/training — but not a regulation.”

Three very different men, yet so closely connected in their ethos and practice. And they are bringing their A-game: music from themselves, no script, no rigid frame, but a promise with a serious dedication for musical synthesis — and it’s this magical freedom and freshness that drew people into such music.  Do put on your coat and come.  Put your program down by the side, and simply open your eyes and ears.  What would they tell us in the depth of the winter night?


Terry Riley: Live at 85! 18 January 2019, 8 pm at Koerner Hall. Details here.

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