« Artist places pianos all over London, inviting spontaneous music-making | Main | Wagner's great-granddaughter says she'll bare family secrets about Hitler and Bayreuth Festival »

June 24, 2009

A salute to Terry Riley, godfather of minimalism, on his 74th birthday

It’s time for another birthday salute, this one to Terry Riley, godfather of minimalism. He turns 74 today (June 24).

For years, I was pathetically unaware of his importance in shaping a musical genre that I find irresistible. By the time I became cognizant of minimalism in the early 1980s, the big names were Glass, Reich and Adams. I would read references to Riley in liner or program notes, but, being sadly uneducated at the time (I was practically still in swaddling clothes, after all), I didn’t bother to investigate. Besides, I never came across performances of Riley’s music back then, so I probably assumed that his stylistic descendants were all that really mattered. As the Countess de Lave in The Women might say, with a deep sigh: La naïveté! la naïveté! 

Anyway, I eventually came to see the error of my ways. A couple years ago ...

I even got to experience a New York concert by Riley. Looking like a mystic in his skull cap and long white beard, he made enthralling, disarmingly contented music.

Were it not for Riley’s bold broadside in 1964, the ever-potent composition In C, we might never have witnessed the explosion of minimalism that, in various guises, is still with us. I’ve never lost my initial attraction to minimalists, even while retaining great appreciation for thorny, atonal works by many brilliant maximalists, not to mention pieces in any number of other styles. I guess I just love the refreshing change of pace and pulse and purpose that minimalism provides.

And I now feel what I should have felt all those years ago in my dark ages – deep gratitude for the man who ignited the minimalist revolution.

To celebrate Riley’s 74th birthday, here are excertps from a few distinctive interpretations of that iconic piece, In C.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:17 AM | | Comments (1)


Ahhh, the term "minimalist" -- as I am someone to whom that term could be applied, are you trying to make me grind my teeth to powder? ;^)

Seriously, the only thing "minimal" about Terry Riley _is_ "In C," which just happens to be a very influential "lead sheet." While the music of the "minimalists" (choke!) may seem to be quite "pared down" compared to the work of the "maximalists" (choke! as well), _true_ complexity evolves from these works when they are performed. (Indeed, the layering of timbres and lines in the work of so many pieces by "minimalist" [gag] composers usually builds to a considerable wall [or tapestry or fabric or matrix or what-have-you] of sonic material.)

Okay, now that I'm done preaching... ;^)

My favourite Riley pieces involve almost anything where he's playing a keyboard. "Shri Camel," "Descending Moonshine Dervishes," "Persian Surgery Dervishes," and "Last Camel In Paris" all feature him improvising on just-tuned organs with delay effects. I'm just sorry we don't have even _more_ recorded delicacies from him in this particular vein.

While "In C" is an important work (and can be _loads_ of fun, especially with such an open-ended format), I would ascribe even higher importance to many of his other pieces, a good number of which have been quite influential on myself and others. I actually came to his music through the magical '70s synthesizer/sequencer improvisations of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, and Manuel Göttsching; the influence was obvious!

His piano improvisations are also excellent (e.g., "Harp Of New Albion," "The Padova Concert"). These works were my first (known) exposure to exploration in just tunings. Also, the few recorded documents we have of Riley in his "Poppy Nogood" band incarnations are _most_ enjoyable!

I missed him a month or two ago -- he performed in the latter half of a concert at College Park, and I had to work that weekend evening. I don't believe he was doing any keyboard work that night, so I'm hoping he'll be in the area again before too long...

Happy birthday, Terry! May he live 74 more healthy years!!! (And may his true "Child of the '60s" spirit be with us always!)

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected