Born: Jun 24, 1935 in Colfax, CA
Styles: Tape Music, United States of America, 20th Century Classical/Modern Composition, Minimalism, Ambient, World Fusion, Atonal
Instruments: Keyboards, Composer, Piano
Minimalist pioneer Terry Riley was among the most revolutionary composers of the postwar era; famed for his introduction of repetition into Western music motifs, he also masterminded early experiments in tape loops and delay systems which left an indelible mark on the experimental music produced in his wake. Riley was born June 24, 1935 in Colfax, California, and began performing professionally as a solo pianist during the 1950s; by the middle of the decade he was studying composition in San Francisco and Berkeley, where among his classmates was fellow minimalist innovator La Monte Young. Influenced by John Coltrane and John Cage, he began exploring open improvisation and avant-garde music, and in 1960 composed Mescalin Mix, a musique concrиte piece composed for the Ann Halprin Dance Company consisting of tape loops of assorted found sounds.
By the early '60s, Riley was regularly holding solo harmonium performances beginning at 10:00 pm and continuing until sunrise, an obvious precursor of the all-night underground raves to follow decades later. After graduating Berkeley in 1961, his next major work was 1963's Music for the Gift, composed for a play written by Ken Dewey; among the first pieces ever generated by a tape delay/feedback system, it employed two tape recorders - a setup Riley dubbed the "Time Lag Accumulator" - playing a loop of Chet Baker's rendition of Miles Davis' "So What." The loop effect sparked Riley's interest in repetition as a means of musical expression, and in 1964 he completed his most famous work, the minimalist breakthrough In C; a piece constructed from 53 separate patterns, it was a landmark composition which provided the conception for a new musical form assembled from interlocking repetitive figures.
In time, Riley also learned to play saxophone, introducing the instrument into his so-called all-night flights; these epic improvisational performances became the basis for his most successful recordings, 1968's Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band and the following year's A Rainbow in Curved Air, the music's cyclical patterns and etheral atmospherics predating the rise of the ambient concept by several years. In 1970, Riley made the first of many trips to India to study under vocal master Pandit Pran Nath, with whom he frequently performed in the years to come; another collaborator was John Cale, a pairing which resulted in the 1971 LP Church of Anthrax, arguably Riley's most widely-known recording outside of experimental music circles. Throughout the 1970s, he also taught composition and North Indian Raga at Mills College in Oakland, California.
A pair of early 1970s live performances - one in L.A., the other in Paris - resulted in the 1972 album Persian Surgery Dervishes, a work of meditative machine music clearly prescient of the trance sound to follow. Around the same time, while on staff at Mills, he befriended David Harrington, violinist of the Kronos Quartet; their camraderie yielded a total of nine string quartets, the keyboard quintet Crows Rosary and The Sands, a concerto for string quartet and orchestra commissioned by the Salzberg Festival in 1991. Another Riley/Kronos collaboration, 1989's Salome Dances for Peace, was even nominated for a Grammy. Recording less and frequently as the years passed, Riley agreed to stage a performance celebrating the silver anniversary of In C which was then released in 1990.
- Jason Ankeny (All Music Guide)