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Improvs as Premieres: No Cake for Riley’s 80th


Terry Riley (file photo)
Terry Riley (file photo)

A marathon event, Terry Riley’s 80th Birthday, ran well over three hours Saturday night at MIT’s overly warm Kresge Auditorium. That Terry Riley was the featured artist would be a bit of an exaggeration, as the master instigator of minimalism did more comping than weaving his brand of melodic modalities. Other oddities were billing four improvisations as “world premieres” and a re-performance of “White Space Conflict” that many us had already heard back in December of 2011 when Riley was last here.

Some 19 players from the University of Toronto Saxophone Ensemble and the Boston Phantom Saxophone Consort spread through the aisles of Kresge and blew their way through Riley’s 1969 “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band” also designating their 2015 version a “world premiere.” I just do not get this as I think of, say, a Bill Evans thinking of each of his takes on “Waltz for Debby” a premiere. The same dominant-tonic set up and linear qualities in the early recordings that Riley made of “Poppy Nogood” were retained in this version that opened the program delighting an audience that filled a good half of the 1200-seat auditorium.

Evan Ziporyn, curator of MIT Sounding, is the Faculty Director of the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor Music at MIT. The entrepreneur of this birthday party without a birthday cake, he also participated as both clarinetist and composer. Questionable programming would eventually take its toll; a third of the audience prematurely exited.

In the next segment, “A Piano Party for Terry Riley at 80,” a true believer in and adept proponent of a wide range of today’s manifold creative and exploratory voyages, pianist Sarah Cahill, kept meticulous and musical pace with the birthday boy’s Keyboard Studies from 1964. Eschewing mesmerizing her audience over a long time span, she tastefully opted for clarity and had us full-focus on six minutes of brilliantly shifting time and tone slivers.

The following six dedicatory pieces fell short of Riley’s benchmark. Terry’s son, Gyan Riley, created an eight-minute mix of textures that befuddled in his Poppy Infinite. As non-western influenced minimalists often do, Keeril Makan went to pure open fifths that would sporadically encounter crunchy off-chords in his Before C. This short and clear-headed prelude did, though, come close to Riley standards. In Sparkita and Her Kittens, Christine Southworth “wanted to create something that reflected their episodic play, naps and daydreams, chasing butterflies and climbing the kiwi tree across the street.” Here is where the composer’s words can lead a listener down the wrong path—on and on it went, never finding itself.

In C, Too by Elena Ruehr, as did the other pieces on this set, ditched music history as substance instead, rather playing off it with stylistic quotations. Pauline Oliveros predictably accessed the piano’s keys, strings, sounding board, music rack, lid, and other non-keyboard parts to summon up A Trilling Piece for Terry; a good old-time climax ensued from the Steinway’s good pounding. The inept title (or am I missing some Zen-ness) of Ziporyn’s pretentious You Are Getting Sleepy, (a world premiere) mirrored the writing of this longwinded piece that borrowed and borrowed, never giving in to any admission of personal identity.

The third segment entitled “Terry and Eviyan” comprised four improvisations lasting 35 minutes. Riley sat stoically at the piano in his well-known garb while Ziporyn paraded excessive expressiveness through familiar gyrations, outfit, hat, and leather jacket. Iva Bittova stole the show with her straight ahead instrument-sounding voice that enraptured. Her stratospheric notes led the way to extravaganza; extraordinary mixing of Middle Eastern among other music cultures, and true-hearted voicings elevated the evening to an unbelievably playful and joyous celebration—finally! And to this she added some pretty hot violin improvising.

Otherwise, on and on these improvs went with Riley doing less that would be expected, certainly far less than I wanted him to do. Likewise, in White Space Conflict, he would play minimally in the last piece for his birthday party.

Gyan Riley performed on guitar in the third and fourth segments synching perfectly with his dad. MIT’s Gamelan Galak Tika, along with all the performers minus Cahill, revisited the 2011 Riley-Ziporyn half-composed and half-improvised collaboration.

Those who came to love the likes of In C, Rainbow in Curved Air, and Persian Surgery Dervishes might have been disappointed in Riley’s excursions, which have left that distinctive realm for obvious derivatives of some of the world’s traditional musics. And that these ritualistically birthed expressions have been forage for concertizing, raises another set of questions.  

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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