Q&A: Terry Riley at 80

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Terry Riley performs at his 80th birthday celebration at SFJAZZ Center, June 2015. (Photo: Evan Neff)

Terry Riley is one of the world's most legendary living composers. His 1964 work In C is widely revered as a foundational text of the musical form eventually known as minimalism -- where very short repeated phrases gradually morph into different musical shapes, often to mesmerizing effect.

In 1970, Riley became a disciple of Pandit Pran Nath, the famed North Indian classical music vocalist, and immersed himself deeply in the study of Indian music. But Riley's varied compositions over the past six decades bridge gaps between non-Western and Western music, and between improvisation and composition. His openhearted, expansive approach to music has inspired legions of musicians worldwide, cutting across the usual divides of rock and roll, jazz, classical and electronic music.

On June 24, the northern California-based composer celebrated his 80th birthday. For the past few months, organizations around the globe, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to the Musiekgebouw in Amsterdam to London's Barbican Center, have hosted concerts and festivals in the composer's honor.

Last weekend, closer to home, the Kronos Quartet -- which has collaborated with Riley for 35 years -- produced a three-day festival of concerts celebrating his life and work at the SFJAZZ Center. The event featured a wide array of Riley's friends and guest musicians, including tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain and pipa player and composer Wu Man.

Read our review of the festival here, and continue below for a conversation with Riley about turning 80, the evolution of his creative process, and the reason he never made it to Yoko Ono's loft in the 1960s.



Terry Riley in 1985, celebrating his 50th birthday with the Kronos Quartet.
Terry Riley in 1985, celebrating his 50th birthday with the Kronos Quartet. (Photo courtesy Kronos Presents)

How do all of these 80th birthday celebrations around the world feel to you? Does it seem strange to look back on your life's work?

I've never been 80 before, so it's not weird -- it's just new territory. Each decade brings different kinds of experiences. This particular past week there was just more intensity, more things happening, more interest and more demands on me and my time. But it wasn't weird -- it was just, everything got jacked up to a higher level. You try to match it in some way, flow with it. I'm enjoying it to a certain degree. It's also challenging and I like challenges.

I think looking back at my life and what I've been interested in at different times, I've usually spent quite a bit of time on one or two pieces or processes. Every time I begin to work with a new process, I usually spend quite a few years with that and immerse myself in it. It's almost like being in college for three years here, two years there -- each period was a period of discovery. If I look back over my life, these periods lasted as much as 10 years. When I was doing solo all-night keyboard concerts, that was a long period -- 10 years of doing that.

Then Pandit Pran Nath came into my life and I did drop everything and just worked on raga for a few years. The whole thing for me is taking enough time to deepen in whatever I was trying to get at to study; taking enough time with it.

You went very deep in your studies with Pandit Pran Nath, becoming his disciple.

I was very happy to do anything that was required of me, to charm him into teaching me what he knew, to go really deep into this music. There's a reason why there's a guru and his disciple -- the reason is the transmission of the energies of raga. The knowledge of raga can't take place on a casual basis.

Early in your life, when you were studying piano, you loved the composers Debussy and Ravel.

A lot of that had to do with what Debussy was bringing from Balinese and Indian music. There's this long train of ideas going through, especially through recent music history, that all connect; they all seem to be different aspects of the same thing. I was fascinated with Schoenberg, Webern and Stockhausen for a while because it was opening up a sonic vista. I found it didn't particularly suit me as a musician to continue with that. But I listened to their music a lot.

Terry Riley at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, in 1985.
Terry Riley at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, in 1985. (Photo: Brian McMillen)

You're still actively composing. What inspires you to keep making music?

Every time I set out to create a new piece it's always a learning process. You have to draw on your experience, and you're also studying what's going on and trying to solve whatever problems come up with a new concert or new composition. I like that. Without learning something new, it wouldn't be as exciting.

Was there a personal highlight of the three-day festival for your 80th birthday at SFJAZZ this weekend?

I think the highest moment I experienced was during “Conquest of the War Demons” (from the second quartet of the cycle Salome Dances for Peace (1985-1986), originally composed by Riley for Kronos) when Kronos went into a very soft mesmerizing floating passage that seemed like the whole hall was levitating. I had never quite heard it sound like that before. It's something I often try for – a very subtle, very powerful vibration. They just had a great moment, and they did it a couple times. I loved the Yoko Ono piece. I was very touched that she wrote a piece for me.

Did you and Yoko Ono know each other well?


No, not at all. I've known about Yoko and I'm sure she's known about me since [minimalist composer] La Monte Young first went to New York. An interesting connection was that La Monte was doing a series at her loft in probably '62, '63. He asked a bunch of people to do performances there. And my plan was to ride my motorcycle to New York and do this concert at her loft. I remember jumping on my motorcycle and heading to New York. I got as far as San Jose and my motorcycle blew a head gasket. I managed to nurse it back to San Francisco. That was as far as I got to performing in Yoko Ono's loft.