updated 6 February 2024
© Stuart Brinin

Terry Riley

American composer born 24 June 1935 in Colfax, California.

Terry Riley came to music through jazz standards and traditional American music, as well as classical repertoire, which he discovered from the age of six through violin and piano lessons. After the war, he came into contact with modern music. From 1953 to 1955, he studied piano with Duane Hampton and theory with Ralph Wadsworth at Shasta College in California. From 1955 to 1957, he studied composition with Wendell Otey at San Francisco State University and piano with Adolf Baller at the San Francisco Conservatory. In 1958, he studied composition with Robert Erickson, who introduced him to the works of Schoenberg, and ragtime with Wally Rose. Around this time, he formed an improvisation trio with Pauline Oliveros and Lauren Rush. In 1959, he enrolled at the University of California, studying composition with Seymour Shifrin and later with William Denny. It was during this period that he developed a close friendship with La Monte Young, with whom he would subsequently frequently collaborate. Through the influence of Young, Riley became interested in the music of John Coltrane, but also that of Stockhausen; the influence of the latter is manifest in the sextet, Spectra (1959). In 1959-1960, Riley and Young were composers-in-residence with the Anna Halprin Dance Company. At this time, their work was heavily influenced by the ideas of John Cage. Around 1960, Riley began experimenting with tape splicing/looping, soon giving rise to fixed media works such as Mescalin Mix (1961).

Upon graduating with a Master of Arts in 1961, Riley traveled to France. Over the following two years, he took several trips, spending time in Spain, Morocco, and Leningrad (where he performed with the Leningrad Jazz Quartet), attending the Darmstadt Summer Courses (1963), and participating in happenings in Denmark and street theatre in Helsinki. In Paris, he regularly attended Fluxus events. he collaborated with playwright Ken Dewey on The Gift, and with trumpetist Chet Baker on the tape part for Music for the Gift (1963). He continued to experiment with tape looping at the Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française Studios. Riley earned a living during this period as a pianist, performing in Pigalle and in night clubs on US Air Force bases. Following their closure (after the death of President John F. Kennedy), Riley was obliged to return to the United States.

In November 1964, Terry Riley’s In C, his most well-known repetitive minimalist work, was premiered at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. In 1965, he moved to New York, where he would spend the following four years. He participated in La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music as a singer for eight months. Around 1967, Riley presented his first “all-night concert” as a soloist, which would contribute to his notoriety. His works from this period, such as A Rainbow in the Curved Air (1968), call more frequently for improvisation, and they abandon, for the most part, standard musical notation.

In 1970, Riley studied Hindustani music with Pandit Pran Nath in New Delhi. He would regularly return to India, first to continue his studies, but later to teach and perform with Pran Nath until the death of the latter in 1996. In 1972, inspired by Sufi ceremonies, Riley composed Persian Surgery Dervishes. From 1971 to 1981, he taught Indian music and composition at Mills College in Oakland. While there, he met David Harrington, one of the founders of the Kronos Quartet, for whom Riley would go on to compose numerous works, including Salome dances for Peace (1985-1987), The Sands (1991; commissioned by the Salzburg Festival), and Sun Rings (2002; commissioned by NASA).

In 1989, Riley founded the improvisation group Khayal, and in 1993, the theatre company The Travelling Avant-Garde, which would go on to perform his multimedia chamber opera The Saint Adolf Ring (1992). In 1991, he composed his first orchestra work, Jade Palace, for the centenary of Carnegie Hall. In 1992, he was composer-in-residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and in 1996, at Arcosanti, Arizona. Starting in 1993, he taught at the Chisti Sabri School of Music in Marin, California, and in Jaipur in India, and in 1995 at the California Institute of Arts, and the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado; the latter institution has a Buddhist-inspired approach to teaching, referred to as “meditative education,” with an emphasis on multiculturalism. In the late 1990s, Riley performed widely as a solo pianist, but also collaborated with artists including saxophonist George Brooks, sitar and tabla player Krishna Bhatt, and contrabassist Stefano Scodanibbio. Residing in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Riley spends his time playing ragas, improvising, and composing. He continues to tour the United States, Europe, and India.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2012

L’incandescente méditation au bord du précipice

By Max Noubel

Around 1955 Terry Riley decided to devote his attention to composition. After his Trio for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano (1957) written in the neoclassical style, he composed Two Pieces for Piano (1958), influenced by Arnold Schoenberg’s music and particularly his opuses 11 and 19. Riley was interested in the Viennese composer’s 12-tone technique, though not his music, which he considered filled with anguish. Riley also experimented with total serialism in a now-lost piece he composed for an exam at University of California, Berkeley. Even in these early years, Riley considered improvisation a natural means of expression. Michael Nyman described Riley as “essentially a performer and improviser who composes, rather than a composer who performs.”1 In his trio with Pauline Oliveros and Loren Rush, Riley realized that improvisation should not be limited to jazz, which nonetheless deeply attracted and influenced him. He later declared: “The ritual spontaneity of [my] music derives from the fact that most of my musical experience has been in the jazz hall, or places where musicians are actually on top of the notes they’re playing[. E]very note is danger. I think that music has to have danger, you have to be right on the precipice to really be interested, not gliding along playing something you know.”2

His encounter with La Monte Young in 1958 was a sort of initiation into unsuspected musical horizons, as well as into a new philosophical and spiritual approach to music. With Young, who attended Karlheinz Stockhausen’s lectures at Darmstadt in the summer of 1959, Riley explored the polyrhythmic richness of Stockhausen’s Zeitmaße, which influenced the composition of his own sextet Spectra (1959). He collaborated with Young on conceptual art concerts and performances close to John Cage’s ideas. Young’s music—his String Trio in particular—had a strong impact on Riley and led him to write his String Quartet (1960), made of long-sustained consonances, as well as his String Trio (1961). In the latter, one can already hear an inclination for short phrases and rhythmic repetition in a modal setting.

In 1960, Riley composed for a dance by Anna Halprin entitled The Three-Legged Stool, whose material he reused the next year for Mescalin Mix. Riley created the piece with a tape recorder, making loops from various sound sources, as in early musique concrète, and included echo effects produced through tape delay, or the reinjection of a pre-recorded signal. He became aware that repetition could become the main structural element in musical organization. During these years, he participated in founding the San Francisco Tape Music Center and composed Concerto for Two Pianos and Five Tape Recorders, a piece influenced by musique concrète. He further developed his work with loops in the studios at the Office de radiodiffusion-télévision française during his stay in Europe from 1962 to 1964.

With the help of an engineer, Riley conceived the Time-Lag Accumulator, which, with two tape recorders, can record an infinite number of loops with a time lag. Through an accumulation of repeating layers, it creates an increasingly dense sound texture. Riley described the process for this technique as follows:

What you do is connect two tape recorders. The first one is playing back, the second recording, the tape stretched across the heads of both. As this machine records, it feeds back to the other machine, which plays back what it’s added. It keeps building up…3

He used the Time-Lag Accumulator to compose Music for The Gift, a piece in which he recorded the individual instruments of Chet Baker’s quintet while they were playing “So What” by Miles Davis.

Even if instrumental music eventually became central in his preoccupations, Riley kept composing pieces for tape until 1967. The phase lag in Bird of Paradise (1965) influenced Steve Reich’s first tape pieces such as It’s Gonna Rain (1965).

After moving back to San Francisco, Riley developed the techniques that he experimented with in Paris by adapting them to instrumental music. One result was his most famous work, In C (1964). This piece confirmed his status as a leading figure of repetitive minimalism. The score does not indicate instrumentation, dynamics, articulations, or even the number of musicians required for the performance. It is written on a single sheet of paper that contains fifty-three fragments of melodies. Each musician plays each of these modules as many times as they wish before switching to the next melody. The beat is regular, and it is maintained by playing a high C on the piano—an idea proposed by Reich, who participated in the premiere. The performance, which varies according to the instrumentation and to individual performers’ choices, ends when all musicians have reached the last module. The hypnotic character of In C is a product of the psychedelic counterculture that was then at its peak in San Francisco. In that community, drug use (which was already referenced in the title Mescalin Mix) was seen as a mystical and communal ritual that could help participants attain “enlightenment.” Riley considered In C as a kind of “musical alchemy or magic,” as well as a means to find a spiritual path within “this labyrinth of sound.”4 From a strictly musical point of view, In C stood against atonality and serialism, privileging free modal harmony. It also represented a regeneration of polyphony as Riley built up the texture through the accumulation of repeated modules, as he had done previously with the Time-Lag Accumulator.

Encouraged by the success of In C, Riley decided to try to reach a larger audience in New York. Subbing for John Cale, he sang with Young’s Theater of Eternal Music. He was mesmerized by the sounds this ensemble could create and fascinated by Young’s research on just intonation. But he did not agree with Young’s strict approach to music or with his conception of time, which was based on long-held drones. Riley considered the approach too restricting. He thus continued on his own, exploring solo improvisation on the keyboard and calling on his experience in jazz, blues, and ragtime. His Keyboard Studies, which he started writing in 1963, are among the rare pieces he notated during this period. The scores present modules of modal material that create the basis for various improvisation exercises.

To broaden his exploration of melody, Riley taught himself to play the soprano saxophone. This choice of instrument was inspired by the playing of John Coltrane, as well as by Young who, in the 1960s, had taken up the sopranino saxophone. More traces of improvisation, which was becoming increasingly present in Riley’s compositions, can be found in Dorian Reeds, a piece recorded on the B-side of the 1966 album Reed Streams. In Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band (1967), a piece that uses the same material as Dorian Reeds, Riley’s solo playing was captured by a microphone and recorded by two tape recorders. Using Time-Lag Accumulation, the piece presents progressively denser kaleidoscopic textures made of semi-improvised melodies. A drone played on the electric organ serves as a foundation for these malleable, almost ghostlike, counterpoints.

By 1967, Riley felt that he had exhausted all the possibilities offered by the saxophone. He gradually returned to the keyboard. A Rainbow in Curved Air (1968) was a turning point in his music. The version he recorded for the CBS record company—with electric organ, electric harp, Rock-Si-Chord, dumbec, and tambourine—shows attention to timbres that emphasize contrapuntal lines and structural and rhythmic control.

Riley had varied musical experiences during his New York years. Around 1967 to 1968, he hosted his first all-night concerts. Like Sufi ceremonies, they were aimed to bring the audience into a state of meditative consciousness. Alone at the organ, Riley played long into the night, often for over eight hours. The music he performed live was reinjected many times with a delay in the speakers, creating his signature overlaps. He also worked on experimental video projects such as Music with Balls in collaboration with the sculptor Arlo Acton. He composed music for films, including Les yeux fermés (1972) directed by Joël Santoni, Le secret de la vie (1973) by Alexander Whitelaw, and No Man’s Land (1984) by Alain Tanner. He participated in art installations such as Intermedia 68 (1968) during a night-concert tour in New York state universities. His immersion in the burgeoning music scene led him, on April 14, 1969, to the Electric Circus, a psychedelic rock club north of Soho in Manhattan, where he performed Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band and A Rainbow in Curved Air. He signed a contract with CBS, and the release of In C on that label considerably increased his popularity. His “pop” album Church of Anthrax, recorded in 1971 with John Cale of the Velvet Underground, also contributed to making him known outside the experimental music scene.

In 1969, eager to return to his origins, Riley went back again to California. Based from there, he took a few trips to Europe where he performed as a solo keyboardist in the early 1970s. The most important event of that period was his encounter, through Young, with Pandit Pran Nath. From then on, Riley became deeply fond of Indian classical music. During his first trip to New Delhi with his master, his fascination was such that he considered moving to India and abandoning his own voice in composition and improvisation in order to devote his life to Indian music. Thereafter, he tirelessly taught Hindustani music. He took a spiritual approach to this music through the daily meditative practice of ragas. Indian music influenced Riley to take an increasing interest in more intricate melodies and new types of counterpoint. His new style marked an obvious shift away from minimalism as championed in In C. According to Riley, these new sound developments—sophisticated though they may be—remained nearly intuitive and driven by the immediate impulse of improvisation. His mastery of the keyboard enabled him to create, for example, 7:8 rhythmic superpositions between the two hands, but he claimed to ignore these technical considerations.

His practice of the Kirana style with Pran Nath led Riley to give more and more importance to singing. His own voice progressively took the role that the saxophone had previously. Remember This, O Mind (1997) testifies, some years later, to Riley’s talent in combining his own voice with the play of the instruments.

Another significant evolution in Riley during the first half of the 1970s relates to tuning systems. His melodic approach proved constricted by equal temperament. As Young had done before him, he turned to just intonation, a non-tempered system of division of the octave in which most of the consonant intervals (octaves, fifths, thirds …) are considered pure because they are based on simple fractions. He used an electric Vox organ tuned to this system and, from 1980 on, a keyboard tuned through a computer. The Padova Concert, recorded in 1986 and released in 1992, is an example of some of his activity as a concert soloist on a just intonation keyboard. Just intonation became, for Riley, a means to obtain richer melodic contours and colors than with equal temperament. All the while, he recognized its incompatibility with complex harmonic compositions, but felt this problem did not concern him. The compositions from this era that use just intonation are Persian Surgery Dervishes (1971), Rising Moonshine Dervishes (1982), and Descending Moonshine Dervishes (1982), all for electronic keyboard and always occupying a space halfway between composition and improvisation.

In 1975, Riley undertook the composition of Shri Camel, commissioned by Radio Bremen. This work, like other of his compositions, was presented in different versions and always remained a work in progress. The most notable version of Shri Camel is the one recorded in 1977 by CBS with a Yamaha YC-45D organ. Composed in four sections, “Anthem of the Trinity,” “Celestial Valley,” “Across the Lake of the Ancient World,” and “Desert of Ice,” the piece is undeniably the highlight of Riley’s work with keyboards.

While teaching Indian music at Mills College in Oakland, California, Riley met David Harrington, the founding member of the Kronos Quartet. A long-term and highly prolific collaboration with this ensemble gave rise to numerous pieces including Cadenza on the Night Plain (1985) Salome Dances for Peace (1989), and Requiem for Adam (2001). In The Sands (1991), Riley combined the string quartet — a genre traditionally steeped in Western art music traditions — with the equally historic genre of the concerto. In this four-part attacca work, the string quartet is the soloist, accompanied by the orchestra. In 2002, a new collaboration with the Kronos Quartet led to Sun Rings, for string quartet, choir, and sounds recorded in space by NASA.

Riley reached further into symphonic music with two imposing works. These are the seven-movement Jade Palace (1991) for orchestra and June Buddhas (1991) for choir and orchestra, in three movements, based on Jack Kerouac’s long-form poem Mexico City Blues.

The 1990s were marked by Riley’s fascination for the oeuvre and persona of Adolf Wölfi, which inspired Four Woelfli Portraits for septet (1992). The eccentric drawings, the mathematical calculations, and the poetry of the Swiss schizophrenic inspired a multimedia chamber opera, The Saint Adolf Ring (1993) on a libretto by John Deaderick. For this piece, which mixes theater, song, instrumental music, pantomime, lighting performance, and video, Riley founded the Travelling Avant-garde, a company in which he was a keyboard player, a singer, and an actor. The Wölfi drawing The Heaven Ladder also inspired several of Riley’s piano pieces.

Riley’s musical practices were eclectic and led him to create and work with various ensembles. For the purposes of playing new compositions centered around vocal and instrumental improvisation, he formed and led the Khayal (which means “imagination” in Hindi) ensemble from 1989 to 1993, as well as the All-Stars and the Vigil Band. During the 1980s and 1990s, he continued to perform with artists from all horizons, including the jazz saxophonist George Brooks, the Indian sitar player Krishna Bhatt, and the Italian double bassist Stefano Scodanibbio. He abandoned the organ to devote himself to acoustic instruments including the piano and the sitar. Riley also became interested in other systems outside just intonation. At the request of the Kanagawa Foundation in Yokohama, he composed—and premiered—the long microtonal piece for piano The Dream (1999). Recent works by Riley confirm his musical syncretism. The following are representative of this rich production: The Book of Abbeyozzud (1993), a collection of 24 pieces for guitar and guitar ensemble; What the River Said (1999), composed for the great dhrupad singer Amelia Cuni; Banana Humberto (2000), a concerto for piano and fixed media; Josephine the Mouse Singer (2000), a synthesizer piece composed for a play by Michael McClure after Franz Kafka, mixing piano, guitar, and various orchestra combinations by means of a computer program; and Y Bolanzero (2001) for guitar ensemble.

Over the decades, Riley’s music has influenced numerous artists and music groups including Reich, Cale, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, Frederic Rzewski, Daevid Allen from Soft Machine, and Peter Townshend from the Who. The enormous popular and commercial success of In C in the 1970s raised Riley’s reputation to a level that could rival that of a rock star. He remains, above all, the composer of this key work of repetitive minimalism. This piece, with the unsettling simplicity and exhilarating vitality that it transmitted to both performers and audience members, had an electroshock effect. It offered a radical and unforeseen alternative to both the formalism of serial music and the philosophical detachment of Cage. If Riley’s reputation was later eclipsed by those of Reich and Glass, his role in the evolution of American music, and even of Western music in general, cannot be overlooked. Riley contributed to breaking down the barriers between popular and art music, between composition and improvisation, and he proposed a multicultural approach that aimed to fuse the East and the West. Riley also reconnected with the tradition of the composer-performer. A charismatic virtuoso inhabited by a life-nourishing and Hindu-inspired spirituality, Riley succeeded in sharing his hypnotic volutes of sound with a broad audience across the world.

1. Michael NYMAN, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 145.
2. Ibid.
3. Quoted in Robert CARL, Terry Riley’s In C (Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure), New York, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 36.
4. K. Robert SCHWARZ, Minimalists, London Phaidon Press, 1996, p. 44.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2013

Lien Internet

(liens vérifiés en février 2024)

Bibliographie sélective

  • Sarah CAHILL, « Terry Riley: The legendary composer talks about his musical influences, improvisation, and his latest work for pipe organ », in Electronic Musician, 2017, Vol. 33, Issue 8.
  • Robert CARL, Terry Riley’s In C, New York, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Robert FINK, Repeating ourselves, American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California, 2005.
  • Johan GIRARD, Répétitions : L’esthétique musicale de Terry Riley, Steve Reich et Philipp Glass, Paris, Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2010.
  • Otto KAROLYI, Modern American Music, from Charles Ives to the Minimalists, London, Cygnus Arts – Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.
  • Wim MERTENS, American Minimal Music: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, London, Khan & Averill, 1983.
  • Michael NYMAN, Experimental Music : Cage et au-delà, avant-propos de Brian Eno, traduit de l’anglais par Nathalie Gentili, Paris, Editions Allia, 2005.
  • Keith POTTER, Four musical minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Robert K. SCHWARZ, Minimalists, London, Phaidon Press Limited, 1996.
  • Terry RILEY, « Music-Myth », dans Arcana V: Musicians on Music, Magic & Mysticism, John Zorn éd., New York, Hips Road, 2010, p. 314-326.
  • Edward STRICKLAND, American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • Edward STRICKLAND, Minimalim: Origins, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1993.
  • Edward STRICKLAND, « Terry Riley » (en anglais), dans : Grove Music Online, ed. L Macy, https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com (lien vérifié en mars 2020).

Entretiens avec le compositeur

Discographie sélective

  • Terry RILEY, « Organum For Stefano », 1 CD I Dischi Di Angelica, 2022, IDA 050.
  • Terry RILEY, Dwarf ; Long Bus Ride ; See them out there ; The Miracle ; Zucchini ; Black Woman ; The Faquir ; The war on the poor ; Cannabis ; Science Fiction, dans « Autodreamographical Tales », 2 vinyles Cantaloupe Music, 2022, CA21167.
  • Terry RILEY, Lion’s Throne ; Arica ; Crazy World ; Cancione ; Tarana in Hindol, dans « The Lion’s Throne », 1 CD Sri Moonshine Music, 2019, SMM008.
  • Terry RILEY, Sun Rings (2002), Terry Riley & Kronos Quartet, Nonesuch, 2019.
  • Terry RILEY, Autodreamographical Tales, Tzadik, 2010.
  • Terry RILEY, Banana Humberto (2000), Terry Riley, Paul Dresher Ensemble, Sri Moonshine, 2009.
  • Terry RILEY, Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band All Night Flight, Terry Riley, (live Buffalo, 1968), Elision Fields, 2008.
  • Terry RILEY, The Last Camel in Paris (live Paris 1978), Terry Riley, Elision Fields, 2008.
  • Terry RILEY, Music for the Gift (1963), Bird of Paradise (1965), Mescalin Mix (1960-62), The Three-Legged Stool (1960), Elison Fields, 2007.
  • Terry RILEY, Assassin Reverie: Uncle Jard(1998),Assassin Reverie(2001),Tread on the Trail (1965), Terry Riley & Arte Quartet, New World Records, 2005.
  • Terry RILEY, Requiem for Adam (1995), Kronos Quartet, Nonesuch, 2001.
  • Terry RILEY, The Book of Abbeyozzud (1993-), New Albion Records, 1999.
  • Terry RILEY, In C / 25th Anniversary (1964/74), Terry Riley, Henry Kaiser, John Raskin, Kronos Quartet…, New Albion, 1993.
  • Terry RILEY, Persian Surgery Dervishes (1971), Terry Riley, Shandar, 1972) réédition : New Tone, 1993.
  • Terry RILEY, The Padova Concert (live 1992), Terry Riley, Amiata records, 1992.
  • Terry RILEY, Salome Dances for Peace (1985-87), Kronos Quartet, Nonesuch, 1989.
  • Terry RILEY, Shri Camel (1976), Terry Riley, CBS Masterworks, 1978.
  • Terry RILEY, A Rainbow in Curved Air (1968), CBS Masterworks,1969.