Life of Riley

Life of Riley

I don’t usually like to stoop to inside-baseball shop-talk, but: Was anybody else totally blindsided by Terry Riley’s deal with Schirmer? I guess this will make his catalog much more available, and that’s an unalloyed good, but I wonder what brought it about. It’s not like he hasn’t had plenty of time to think about publishers!

Unlike more contentious composers of his same generation, Riley and his music seem to have become completely naturalized since the 1970s, but perhaps they should be regarded in a more controversial light than they are. While throughout his career he’s been vulnerable to bouts of new-age hippie wankery of the sort with which I have no truck (or, better, no VW Type 2), he is an “Original Gangsta” of American experimental music. I didn’t fully appreciate Riley’s music until a few years ago: Large works like the early Olson III and even that perennial new music ensemble program lengthener In C are genuinely awesome, in the way that an earthquake is awesome—they inspire a kind of terror. What is thematized in Riley’s music is the finely controlled possibility that what you are witnessing is not human but nature. And you have only to hear a program of more recent post-minimalist music programmed alongside a Riley piece to notice that his unblinking commitment—its own kind of “rigor,” perhaps—lends his work an outrageousness, a beyond-the-paleness, that’s truly unique.

I hope someone’s having a very frank conversation with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela right about now. They would be doing the new music world a great service if they followed Riley’s lead and signed to a publisher, whether major or independent. They could even pull a Tom Johnson and self-publish, as far as I’m concerned—in fact, that might be best. These great old eccentrics will only be with us for so long, sadly; if it’s organized and made accessible, their music could be with us for a lot longer.

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5 thoughts on “Life of Riley

  1. holbrooke

    he’s been vulnerable to bouts of new-age hippie wankery

    There is a tiny part of me that likes to hear it put that way. But this is simply not how we talk about the wise elders in our field. It is bad for our profession and bad for your reputation as a writer. There has got to be a way to say that without sounding so crass.

  2. paulhmuller

    I remember downloading the score for ‘In C’ and it was such an eye-opener. Really helped me to understand minimalism and I have always aprreciated Riley’s gesture in making it widely available. And I really like his other piano music as well.

    Perhaps he is at the point where he is thinking about a legacy and having a publisher to help him organize everything probably makes sense.

  3. cpc

    This is a very positive and long overdue development. For years, it has proven extremely difficult to get copies of Riley’s scores (despite a small selection being available for sale on his website) — with Riley sometimes even refusing outright to make available at all scores of his big orchestral pieces.

    And as for:

    But this is simply not how we talk about the wise elders in our field. It is bad for our profession and bad for your reputation as a writer.

    I see nothing wrong with calling it like one sees it. Colin clearly admires much about Riley, but that doesn’t mean he needs to pretend that he sees everything in a thoroughly positive light.

    It’s this sort of sanctimonious “respect for elders” (or “respect for the dead”) political correctness that so often blinds us to being able to meaningful engage and express actual opinions (rather than just using received wisdom).

  4. sarahcahill

    A lot of the music Terry has written, especially in the last thirty years, is far too little known. He has a fantastic volume of notated piano music, called The Heaven Ladder Book 7, but even new music pianists rarely play these pieces. Apparently there’s a pianist who is transcribing his Lisbon Concert and that will hopefully be available too, among his scores. Considering his recent work for string quartet, for guitar, for piano duo, for all kinds of ensembles, along with several concertos, I hope people will go beyond “In C” and get to know the breadth and scope of his compositions.

  5. John Kennedy

    As Sarah notes Terry has piles of music that are not really digested yet, and the relationship with Schirmer will hopefully assist that. Not so many years ago I wanted to purchase “In C” rather than just use open source, so I went to Terry’s website and paid through Paypal. A few days later, it arrive in an envelope with Terry’s hand, a photocopy tucked inside a pocket folder. It was amazing that this was the only way one could buy a copy of one of the most influential pieces of the 20th Century.

    In terms of how you think about the other issue you raise in connecting to his work, what you might ascribe as wankery, is Terry’s exhibition of a relationship to the world that is very deep and devoted. Some other composers might exhibit wankery through deep and even blind devotion to method. It is two sides of the same coin and Terry’s spirituality is no less valid than someone else’s “rationality”. We can love them all, as I can tell you do.

    While I am rambling – sorry! – this raises for me the issue that Terry’s works are not included in the Daniels – the reference work for conductors that some of us use almost daily. Lou Harrison has one – yes, one work listed. Mr. Daniels of course is only reflecting what is accessible and published, so it is not his sin. But it is illustrative of the series of steps – from composing, to publishing, to codifying for those who don’t know it – that it takes for work to enter the wider mainstream of the performance arena.


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