Viewing the composer and multi-instrumentalist Terry Riley through the prism of his status in the classical repertory gives you the narrowest possible perspective on the man. That image, derived principally from his landmark 1964 piece In C, would look something like this: O.G. Minimalist; co-traveler of La Monte Young; precursor to Steve Reich, Philip Glass — and maybe John Adams.
If you stretch the view of his six-decade discography to admit of one other early work, A Rainbow in Curved Air (which was a late hippie-era sensation for CBS Records), you might also describe Riley as the guy whose keyboard sonorities got him name-checked in that one song by The Who. (Yes, he’s that Riley in “Baba O’Riley.”) While none of this is improper to note or remember, neither does this short-form bio come close to representing the whole Riley: a musician as unpredictably inventive as any you might name from another discipline.
Riley’s affection for jazz is evident not only in his radical openness to the art of improvisation as a compositional element, but also in some of his own playing (on the solo-piano date, the Lisbon Concert, for example) — as well as in the knottier syncopations that thrum throughout his writing for the Kronos Quartet.
After spending a large chunk of the '70s studying Indian classical forms with Pandit Pran Nath, Riley’s subsequent work with just-intonation tunings began to reveal a mystical-yet-rigorous engagement with non-Western traditions. To think of Riley as a minimalist only is to miss out on way too much first-rate modern music.
Still: In C is where one ought to properly begin — with its 53 melodic fragments passed back and forth between whatever instruments may have been assembled, and which are paced against the constant pulse of a piano’s top two Cs. It’s never not been a popular work, which means that it has amassed more recordings than any other Riley piece. In part, the primacy of In C is due to the fact that long-form improvisations, which Riley dubbed All Night Flights, dominated his '70s output. (Exemplary recordings from this era include “Persian Surgery Dervishes” and “Shri Camel.”)
When Riley returned to notated writing in the '80s, at the behest of the Kronos Quartet, he did so on his own terms. “When I write a score for them,” Riley told The New York Times in 1990, “it's an unedited score. I put in just a minimal amount of dynamics and phrasing marks. It's essentially a score like Vivaldi would have done. So when we go to rehearsal, we spend a lot of time trying out different ideas in order to shape the music, to form it. … At the end of the process, it makes the performers actually own the music.”
The ensemble has risen to Riley’s challenges. His two-hour string quartet for Kronos, entitled Salome Dances for Peace, is a late-period masterwork: thrilling in every aspect, from its overall program-music concept to its moment-to-moment rhythmic and melodic details. Another Kronos-recorded album, “Requiem for Adam,” is actually made up of four different pieces composed in memoriam for deceased friends – and features Riley at the piano for the last piece, which is dedicated to Pandit Pran Nath. No fan of the composer’s should miss it.
In C will continue to be celebrated, of course; Carnegie Hall rang in its 45th anniversary in 2009 with a star-studded cast, performing the piece on the main stage, that included Philip Glass (in addition to the composer himself). But there are hints that the Riley archive might be dispensing new treats well into the future. In 2012, Tzadik issued a new 2-CD set of Riley’s just-intonation keyboard playing from 2008, entitled “Aleph.” After taking in all its deft play with microtonality, and drones that collide with a disarming lightness of touch, the album suggests that there may be more yet to learn about Riley in the years to come.