A drawing of Terry Riley
Terry Riley: Obsessed and Passionate About All Music

Terry Riley: Obsessed and Passionate About All Music

4. Studying Indian Music

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, let’s talk about Indian classical music for a bit. You had three records out on Columbia Masterworks, In C, and then A Rainbow in Curved Air and then Church of Anthrax, the record you did with John Cale had come out. And, at that time, because of these records, you were in a way the most widely known minimalist composer, certainly much more visible than other people doing this music, although the term minimalism really wasn’t being used yet. But then, there was a period, I guess from about 1970 to 1980, when you stopped making records for Columbia and went off to study Indian music, which western composers would say is the opposite of a career path. You became a student again and, and it’s wonderful. But it’s the kind of humility that we rarely would see in somebody who was that successful at that time. What prompted those decisions?

TERRY RILEY: Well I think that there were two things involved. Uh, first of all, I met Pandit Pran Nath, that’s the main thing that prompted my decision. And I felt this immediate connection to him and his music that I had no control over. I was drawn to it. The other thing is that for me the late period of the 60s in New York when I was doing the recordings had reached a kind of point of completion.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, were they asking you for more recordings?

TERRY RILEY: Yeah, I had a contract you know to complete more recordings, unfortunately I didn’t complete it for another 10 years. They kept sending me notices to show up at the studio and I’d be in India or some place. You know I’d just forget about it. But, you know the thing is that I felt it was a good time, things had happened pretty fast you know with these pieces like In C, Rainbow, Poppy Nogood and I felt this was a good basis of work for me. And the next step for me was to learn more about how the modality of music works. And there’s no better place than India. ‘Cuz it’s a really old tradition. Plus the rhythmic complexity of Indian music fascinated me. So there were two things I really was interested in developing in myself. And I felt I could spend a lifetime trying to find these things out on my own, but here’s a person that knows it all. And why not try to absorb it through his teaching?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well certainly just as much as you and La Monte Young spawned this genre of music called minimalism which effected the entire classical music world, the work that you did also spawned a whole generation of rock musicians. The whole genre of psychedelic rock to a good extent comes out of the work that you were both doing in the earlier 60s, what wound up happening in the later 60s in rock music. But I think it’s fair to say at this point in the year 2001, you both also spawned yet another tradition. There are now so many American musicians who are playing non-European classical musics, which 40 years ago would have been unthinkable, but we now have American soloists who are not from India playing the sarod and the sitar, and Americans playing shakuhachi or playing in gamelan orchestras. And, and it raises some interesting questions about what is traditional and what makes somebody who is not from that tradition come to that tradition. And a lot of these players are fantastic, but it’s hard to book them for concerts because since they’re not of that tradition, audiences might not assume they’re as authentic. What has been your experience playing Indian music as a westerner?

TERRY RILEY: Well, you know one of the really great things about Pandit Pran Nath was he was able to give us an immediate kind of foundation for this kind of music. He was a great teacher. And he also had a very, very unique position in Indian classical music in that he himself synthesized several different styles. And he was a person that many people looked to for these rare compositions that he had gotten from many of the masters who have since passed on. So we were really lucky to receive from him some teachings that were quite rare and which some of the people in India didn’t have the opportunity to learn. So when we go back to India now and perform, I think we’re quite well appreciated. They especially like to hear some of these rare works that he was teaching us and that now are gone except for some of us Westerners who have managed to learn them from him.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did Pran Nath have Indian disciples as well?

TERRY RILEY: Yeah, but few. Most of his Indian disciples didn’t turn out to be professional musicians. There were only a few. A lot of them were people who loved his music, but they just did it for themselves. They didn’t do it professionally… For the last eight years, I’ve gone to India every winter with a group of students from the United States and some from Europe who have been interested in learning this music of Pandit Pran Nath. Pandit Pran Nath was alive until ’96 and was teaching this class for the first four years. And after he passed on, we continued to take these students over every year. In fact they’re going this year too.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s right, they’re there right now.

TERRY RILEY: Well, they leave on the 21st I think of February to go. So this has been a really good connection for Americans who are interested in studying Indian classical music because a lot of the people from his tradition are in India, and join our group so we all work together and give concerts and there’s a lot of interaction and we perform for each other.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now at this point, do you have Indian students who are studying music from you or studying these ragas of Pran Nath’s?

TERRY RILEY: Occasionally I will, but most of my students are Western.

FRANK J. OTERI: Because you’re based here most of the year.

TERRY RILEY: Yeah, but you know there’s no reason an American can’t… It’s like jazz, you know, some people say things like only a black man can play jazz. Actually, if you can do it, you can do it. And God knows, why a person can do it if they can.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, as I like to say when people raise the question of authenticity, I say well you have no problems with an American string quartet playing Beethoven. All of the world’s music belongs to the whole world.

TERRY RILEY: Yeah, and you know there’s a tremendous amount of hard work that goes behind all of this too. It isn’t that we just took one or two lessons and went out and started singing raga. I mean that’s thirty years of work and long hours of practice and study. So eventually something has to come out.

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