Avant-garde pioneer Terry Riley is one of the best-known composers to emerge in the 20th century. Riley is often credited with the introduction of electronic instrumentation and tape looping in American experimental music. In “Masterworks,” Spark visits with Riley and Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington as they prepare “Cusp of Magic,” a piece written for Kronos to be performed in celebration of Riley’s 70th birthday.
Riley is known as one of the innovators of minimalism in music, a style characterized by the repetition of sound patterns, usually through the use of tape delay and feedback systems. Many of Riley’s earliest compositions are largely based on improvisation, often attenuated to unprecedented durations; in the early 1960s, Riley’s largely unscripted harpsichord performances would run for hours, sometimes spanning the entire night, going until dawn.
Riley’s first masterpiece was the 1964 composition “In C,” which remains his most famous work to date. The piece, which repeats 53 phrases continuously for up to 75 minutes, was written for any combination of instruments. Along with noted avant-garde composer La Monte Young’s contemporaneous “Inside the Dream Syndicate,” Riley’s piece is considered a landmark in minimalist music and one of its most recognizable examples.
“Cusp of Magic,” Riley’s 16th commission for the Kronos Quartet, ventures into new territory for both Riley and Harrington. Two of the piece’s movements use digital samples of children’s toys that Harrington has collected on tour ever since he became a grandfather. The toys provide a cacophony of sound that forms a sonic pun on the word “play,” which refers to both the activity of children and the performance of music.
In addition to the toys, “Cusp of Magic” was written to highlight the Chinese lute, or pipa, and one vocal. Wu Man, a pipa virtuoso known worldwide for her colorful and emotional interpretations, was specifically selected for the composition. The piece had its world premiere in May 2005 at the University of California, Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, presented by Cal Performances.
Terry Riley studied composition at the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, where he met and began collaborating with classmate Young. Influenced by the musical experimentation of both John Cage and John Coltrane, in the early 1960s he began making musique concrete — soundscapes made from combining a variety of sonic sources, including tape loops and found sounds. Over the last five decades, Riley has collaborated with such notable performers and composers as John Cale, Tony Conrad and Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath. His influence can be heard in the work of a wide range of performers, including Can, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, the Silver Apples, Suicide and Stereolab.
More about the Kronos Quartet
The Kronos Quartet is David Harrington and John Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (viola), and Jennifer Culp (cello). Harrington formed Kronos in 1973. Since then, they have performed thousands of concerts worldwide, released more than 40 recordings, collaborated with many composers and performers, and commissioned hundreds of works and arrangements for string quartet. They received a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance (2004) and the Musicians of the Year award (2003) from Musical America.