Big Ears: Revolutionary composer Terry Riley grew them a long time ago

Terry Riley

Terry Riley

Terry Riley

Terry Riley

Terry Riley at Big Ears

  • What: Quartet with Gyan Riley, Tracy Silverman and Ches Smith
  • Where: Bijou Theatre
  • When: 7 p.m. Friday, March 26
  • Tickets: $26, ($10 for students)
  • What: Solo organ performance
  • Where: University of Tennessee Cox Auditorium
  • When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 27
  • Tickets: $20, ($10 for students)
  • What: Performance of “In C” and “Autodreamographical Tales” by Riley and Bang on a Can All-Stars
  • Where: TennesseeTheatre
  • When: 12 a.m. Sunday (Saturday night), March 28
  • Tickets: $32, ($10 for students)
  • What: Terry Riley with the Calder Quartet
  • Where: Bijou Theatre
  • When: 6 p.m. Sunday, March 26
  • Tickets: $21.50, ($10 for students)
  • Tickets: Package deals for the festival as well as tickets for all shows are available at

While not everyone in the world has heard Terry Riley's pivotal 1960s musical compositions "In C" and "Rainbow in Curved Air," they have certainly encountered music that has been influenced by those works.

"It's kind of gratifying, in a way, when people pick up on your ideas," says the 74-year-old composer. "Sometimes it's a little too much when I hear it in commercials. I go, 'Wait a minute. I didn't intend it to be used in this way!'"

Composed in 1964, "In C" was a revolutionary work consisting of short musical phrases in the key of C repeated at the discretion of the musicians themselves - as were which phrases the musicians played. The length of the piece is indeterminate - and, with one musician (usually a pianist) providing a musical pulse, any number of musicians could participate. Like Indian classical music, parameters are set, but the outcome depends on the artists involved. The work's influence can be heard in everything from modern classical music and movie soundtracks to new age, rock and techno music.

The style has, somewhat misleadingly, been dubbed minimalist. Riley says the term never fit what he was trying to do.

"I think it doesn't express the kind of inspiration I felt was in my music," he says. "(Minimalism) really sounds like an academic term to me, and I'm not an academic."

And, he is not happy that there is a "sort of school of music" to the form:

"Young composers say, 'I write in the minimalist style.' I think, 'Wait a minute. You ought to avoid -isms.' In order to grow as a composer you don't want to really get nailed down. You want to be open enough to see where your musical adventures will take you."

Riley's adventures have been many. They began when he was born in 1935 in Colfax, Calif. He studied music at Shasta College, San Francisco State University, the San Francisco Conservatory and then earned a master's in composition at the University of California, Berkeley. He was influenced by modern classical and avant garde composers, including Stockhausen and LaMonte Young. He traveled through Europe and studied Indian classical music, becoming a student of Hindustani vocalist Pandit Pran Nath in the 1970s.

Riley knew he had something special when he premiered "In C."

"I was pretty confident that 'In C' was going to have a life, even in the beginning," he says. "It was a pretty startlingly original idea in its time, and it just came to me. It developed out of a lot of interests that I had at the time. Being able to get this piece written on a piece of paper and still have such a vast potential, I think, is an unusual accomplishment. I saw that, but I didn't realize how pervasive the influence of that piece would be over the years."

Nor could he have foreseen the influence of "Rainbow in Curved Air," which helped launch a generation of synthesizer music.

"'Rainbow in Curved Air' was one of the first multi-track pieces that came out on record," says Riley. "In fact, it was only possible to do when I did it. About a week before, CBS didn't have the 8-track multi-track recorder. They just wheeled it in for my session, and it allowed me to do things that I wasn't able to do in my own studio."

The work was quickly taken to heart by Pete Townshend of the Who (whose album "Who's Next" owes its synthesizer work to Riley's template), Pink Floyd and, much more recently, Radiohead.

"It had the same kind of kinetic energy that pop music had in those days, but it had a different kind of sound. It's still in print, and I think I recorded it in 1968, so I'm kind of gratified to see that."

While he notes that his work is receiving more appreciation than ever, he's aware that it's the opposite of what seems to be the trajectory of modern culture.

"It requires something of the listener and we are living in the age of sound bites," says Riley. "If people don't get it right away, if the point isn't made, a lot of people aren't willing to sit there and say, 'What is the point?' But that's true of a lot of great art over the years. Sometimes it takes a long time span to see what the point of the work is. It doesn't move that quickly."

Riley is still composing and performing regularly. He works on commission and has composed many compositions in the past two decades for the Kronos Quartet. Age, he says, has only helped his art.

"Life experience is a very big part of music. You can have the notes down and the technique and everything, but your life experience has to be there, too. That becomes an asset as you grow older."

But Riley doesn't sound like an old man.

"I'm just as excited now as I was when I was young. Music keeps you young in a way. It's always created new every day. If I sit down to play or sing, a new experience comes into my life. Even if it's something I've done before, I see it through a different lens, just because time changes, and you've grown. That's the wonderful thing that attracts us to music. It always recreates itself."

Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444.

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