Terry Riley | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Terry Riley


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In the early 1960s composer, saxophonist, and pianist Terry Riley was part of the creative community that included John Cage, La Monte Young, Nam June Paik, and Tony Conrad--and with his 1964 composition In C he established an archetype for the largely tonal, droning, hypnotically repetitive style that's since become known as minimalism. In the late 60s and early 70s bands like Tangerine Dream and the Velvet Underground claimed him as a guru, and minimalism has turned out to be one of the most influential and commercially successful strands of classical music in the past 50 years; nonetheless, these days Riley doesn't enjoy the high profile of colleagues like Philip Glass or Steve Reich. He prefers to make music in small communal groups, rather than on a symphonic scale--and as his scores are often simply charts of different patterns and series, a piece might only take its final form at the moment of performance, an approach that rewards close communication and enduring relationships among the musicians. He studied with the late north Indian master vocalist Pran Nath for nearly 30 years, and his collaboration with the Kronos Quartet--for whom he's written a dozen chamber pieces--has lasted just as long. Riley has been influenced by ragas, Middle Eastern scales, and Buddhist philosophy, but he's also fascinated with electronics: since the early 60s he's employed tape delay and feedback loops to add layers to his music, and he's made good use of early analog synthesizers like the Prophet V, which can produce brilliant, percussive bursts of sound. In the early 80s he began writing for piano in just intonation, a system in which the notes are spaced perfectly equally (the customary system alters this spacing to make intervals sound "in tune"). This retuning produces a complex halo of overtones, which can shift kaleidoscopically in timbre to make a piano function like an entire orchestra--or perhaps a very heavy, extremely versatile sitar. Riley will be in residence at Columbia College for six days, starting Tuesday, April 17; that morning In C will be performed at the college by a student ensemble, and throughout the week he'll give talks on minimalism, north Indian vocal techniques, and the use of electronics. His only public performance is a Thursday recital at the Arts Club, at which he'll give the midwest premiere of his new evening-length solo for just-intonation piano, The Dream. Tuesday, April 17, 9:30 AM, Concert Hall, Columbia College, 1014 S. Michigan; 312-344-7270. Thursday, April 19, 7 PM, Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario; 312-787-3997 or 312-344-7270.


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