It’s funny how minimalism has been written in the history books. We see it as this seminal moment in post-war, “classical” music history—Steve Reich, Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, and Terry Riley breaking new ground in the 1960s and 1970s, paving the way for John Adams and their own later orchestral and chamber masterpieces. But the image distorts when you realize that half of the original four never found a true home in classical music. Young and Riley didn’t join the classical establishment like Reich and Glass did, choosing to remain on the outskirts of the genre and pursuing their own games. Young, unfortunately, has practically vanished from the musical world, his solitude gradually eating away at his historical significance. And Riley continued trucking on, doing exactly what he did in the first place: finding a niche between jazz and experimental music, the same place that In C came from before it became the voice of a new post-classical movement.
So it’s fitting that his seventy-fifth birthday is not celebrated by a Carnegie Hall retrospective or Lincoln Center spectacular. In C’s 45th anniversary last year was—that piece, really, has more to do with classical music than Terry Riley does. Instead, Riley celebrated by doing what any great jazz master would do on his birthday. He played a gig himself.
In collaboration with the legendary George Brooks on saxophone and Talvin Singh on tabla, Riley gave an astonishing concert on Sunday night at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The seven compositions performed wavered between straight jazz and minimalism, with trance-like meditations giving way to conventional solos. Riley played piano and sang in Indian Raga-style, in his ethereal voice, which has only gotten nobler with age. In the first tune, the longest of the evening at around 25 minutes, quick unison passages for his voice and Brooks’ alto seemed to make time slip away. Riley’s delicate piano-playing supplied the structure, with Singh’s tabla dancing around the rhythms, providing ornamentation rather than percussion.
The seamless blend of improvisation and composition—it was impossible to tell how much of each number (no titles were given) was pre-constructed—matched the illusion of timelessness present in all of Riley’s works. Deep drones emerged from the depths of the piano, even in conventional ballads; the pulse of minimalism was inescapable. Besides the occasional piano prelude, none of the three musicians took official “solos,” with the music flowing naturally from section to section, instruments emerging out of the texture briefly before stepping back into the groove.
In the final number, Singh cued an electronic rain effect, and Riley began playing a gleaming piano solo reminiscent of Brian Eno’s ambient music—ecstatically, unabashedly tonal. Towards the end, Brooks’ sweet saxophone repeatedly traced an uninflected major scale.
In any other context, it could have felt trite, New Age, drearily sentimental. But Riley’s compositions surmount and surpass any cliché: tonality reinvigorated.