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1960s music hero Riley: "The pendulum will swing"

ARLES, France (Reuters) - American composer Terry Riley, who penned the 1960s piece "In C" that earned him his reputation as "the father of minimalism" in music, thinks the pendulum will swing back to that magical time.
/ Source: Reuters

ARLES, France (Reuters) - American composer Terry Riley, who penned the 1960s piece "In C" that earned him his reputation as "the father of minimalism" in music, thinks the pendulum will swing back to that magical time.

"I don't really look on it with nostalgia, I just wonder how we didn't hold onto it longer," Riley, who has remained in the forefront of innovative music ever since, told Reuters.

"It was a very brief flame that spluttered out."

The 77-year-old California native who taught at the progressive Mills College in Oakland, Ca. during the 1970s, said he had been dismayed by the number of students who abandoned art and music courses and drifted into business.

"To me that was like a sign of the times that materialism was becoming more important than spirituality and I think we've been stuck there, that's where the pendulum has kind of stayed for awhile," he said, talking after a performance in the ancient French city of Arles.

"Of course, it swings back and forth, we all know that, and we're very hopeful that there will be another age of enlightenment," he added.

Riley, who braids his grey beard and has a beaming smile, was here to create music for a visual art installation by fellow Californian Doug Aitken, incorporating images of salt mines, bull-herding and other features of the Camargue countryside surrounding Arles for a project sponsored by the Luma Foundation. (

Riley's flowing piece in a darkened hall featured spacey, occasionally Hindi-inspired music on piano and souped-up keyboards accompanied by his guitarist son Gyan and violinist Tracy Silverman.

It was an instant hit with the local residents and invited guests who showed up to see Aitken's images and hear Riley.

"I thought it was great, it's not every day you see things like that around here," said Olivier Cablat, 34, a local photographer. "The music was great, I love experimental things."


Riley is still going strong as he nears the end of his seventh decade, much of that time spent as one of the leaders of a revolutionary movement in American music that sprang up in the second half of the 20th century.

Riley, John Cage, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, to mention just four of the biggest names, stole a march on the European composers who had embraced atonalism, abstruse theories and found almost surefire ways to clear out concert halls.

"We all knew each other," said Riley, who got into music composition and performance without the conservatory training that his son, whose first name comes from Sanskrit, has had.

"I think what I brought into it was a kind of kinetic energy which was similar to the kinetic energies arising in rock 'n roll."

"In C", released as an LP in 1964, was the classical music piece heard round the world. Its mesmerizing, repetitious and trance-like cadences knocked the stuffing out of European art music and put music on the path to the streamlined, pulsing sounds popularized further by Glass in his opera "Einstein on the Beach" and Reich's ritualistic "Music for 18 Musicians".

Riley's formal training came after he got interested in Indian music in the 1970s and, under the guidance of the Pakistani-born north Indian raga vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, who died in 1996, he spent about a quarter century soaking up and learning the Indian musical tradition and culture.


"India has a much older culture than we have in the West, it goes back 2,000 years before ours and there was an enormous storehouse of musical knowledge there, about melody and rhythm and also how to connect with each other, because music is transmitted," Riley said, sipping a coffee in the sunny garden of a stone house adjacent to a spectacular Roman necropolis, that features in a painting by onetime Arles resident Vincent van Gogh.

Riley says he has been coming back to Western music from the vantage point of being steeped in Indian music, with results that have continued to win him followers and praising reviews for pieces ranging from chamber music to concertos to solo piano pieces and, more recently, organ music.

Thanks in part to a close partnership with the ultra-hip Kronos Quartet, a recording of Riley's rhythmic and engaging five-quartet cycle "Salome Dances for Peace" was chosen as the best classical album of the year by USA Today and was nominated for the record industry's prestigious Grammy in 1989.

In recent years, Riley, who is of Irish extraction on his father's side and Italian on his mother's, has been exploring his Irish roots, especially in work performed by the Irish contemporary music Crash Ensemble.

One of his pieces played by Crash, "Loops for Ancient-Giant-Nude-Hairy Warriors Racing Down the Slopes of Battle", is on YouTube ( and, Riley maintained, is based on the historic tradition of Irish tribal warriors racing into battle nude and screaming.

"They would freak out the enemy as they raced towards them was psychological warfare," Riley said.

His maternal side may have to wait a bit longer, though, to see its embodiment in grand operatic form.

"I am very unfond of bel canto and recitative," he said.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)