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The contented master: Terry Riley.

Minimal Master

By Josh Potter

Terry Riley

Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Oct. 10

In 1964, Terry Riley had a very simple idea. He wrote 53 short musical phrases in a common key signature that could be played by any variety of ensemble with any number of musicians. Every time the piece was performed, the phrases would interlock in new ways, thus creating a distinct rendition. With In C, Riley sparked one of the most important musical movements of the 20th century, inspiring composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass to take up minimalism, while laying the foundation for early electronic rock musicians like Brian Eno.

When the 74-year-old pianist took the stage Saturday night for his second of two engagements at Bard’s gorgeous Fisher Center, he wore a humble look of contentment that seemed less a result of the recent attention he’s received for In C’s 45th anniversary (including a recent sold-out celebration at Carnegie Hall), but rather the product of a lifetime’s worth of innovation that’s allowed him to fly under the radar as one of modern music’s secret masters. Through his early experimentation with tape loops, organ drones, classical Indian singing, and collaboration with the likes of Pauline Oliveros and the Kronos Quartet, he’s dealt in a joyful austerity that is evidenced equally in his smiling, bearded presence as it is in his music. The feeling, it seemed, was mutual among his quintet, who fearlessly followed him into two sets of improvised music.

The notion of improvisation generally carries a bias toward jazz, but from the opening bars of a piece entitled “MissiGono,” the ensemble chose to employ a brand of improv closer to Indian raga or electro/acoustic music, where simple ostinato motifs are stacked and repeated, occasionally resolving in a unison figure. Riley’s son, Gyan Riley, followed his father’s lead on classical guitar, to be joined by electric violin virtuoso Tracy Silverman as the piece progressed. By the time drummer Ches Smith and his mentor, the percussionist William Winant (John Cage, Keith Jarrett, Mr. Bungle), entered the mix, it became clear that jazz phraseology would not be ruled out, and a brief drum solo even elicited momentary applause from the audience. Due to the harmonic musicians’ reluctance to solo and commitment to interlocking interplay, the loose, lyrical percussion became responsible for the piece’s linear progression.

To wit, a hallmark of minimalism is the way repetition freezes a theme and cycles it over and over, as if in a strobing zoetrope, to produce an atemporal trance-state in the listener. This was Riley’s great revelation, and he’s still incredibly adept at the technique. Through much of the first couple pieces, it became easy to lose track of where Riley’s piano was in the mix, until he’d alter one of the two figures his hands were conducting to challenge the ensemble with a subtle harmonic dissonance or rhythmic hiccup. His foundational role extended into another piece that swung recklessly like Mingus or Sun Ra and found Riley vamping with his left hand while singing a distended version of a children’s rhyme. Owing to the 25 years he studied with Indian vocal guru Pandit Pran Nath, Riley’s singing was warm and sustained, as on the set-closing “Raga Bageshri,” but most surprising was a solo piece called “Simply M,” which he played beforehand. An emotive piano ballad, the piece traded the cerebral challenge of minimalism for elegant lyricism and revealed Riley’s comfort on Occidental terrain.

The second set began with a piece called “Ebony Horns” that seemed to nod to fellow minimalist Steve Reich with prominent Gamelan-esque xylophone parts. After a turn toward jazz fusion, though, the piece ultimately proved a vehicle for Silverman’s soaring violin. A long, ambient raga followed, during which the ensemble seemed to function like the resonating drone strings of a sitar, echoing support for Riley’s vocal adventure on gongs and bowed cymbals.

It’s unclear whether or not Riley is aware of the latent influence he’s had over DJs, electronic musicians, and pretty much anyone who’s utilized digital delay, but the show’s encore could have stood as a tutorial for any musician interested in looping and layering. Unencumbered by electronic tools of replication, Riley built the final piece on two contradictory piano rhythms that, when played in real time, must have challenged the brain like Zen paradox. After all, the minimalist revelation had much to do with secular Western composers adopting mystical Eastern modalities, so if there’s something spiritual about the music’s effect, it’s not coincidental. Maybe that’s why Riley still looks so happy after all these years.

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