I didn’t know Terry Riley could perform A Rainbow in Curved Air live, as he did last Friday with his guitarist son Gyan at the Skirbal Center for the Performing Arts on NYU’s campus, as part of an appearance by the Joshua Light Show. But yes he can, and masterfully — as if he just thought it up.
Unlike any other piece of electronic music I’ve heard (including “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band,” which was side two of the 1969 Columbia lp on which “Rainbow” was introduced to the world) and any other 20-21st century chamber music I can think of (including Riley’s composition “In C,” or anything by the generation of composers with whom he’s identified), this work has a sprightliness as well as a glistening, otherworldly quality. It’s too easy to write that Riley, now 77, has the long beard, ready grin and twinkle in his eye that made him look onstage like a leprechaun gamboling in the morning dew, or that the music sounds like magic.
The original recording credited the composer with playing electric organ, electric harpsichord, rocksichord, dumbec and tambourine; at Skirball he did everything for several different pieces, including a jokey one like a soundtrack for a chase scene made up of prototypical “synthesizer sounds,” on one keyboard. For all I know there are presets or loops he triggers that do the work. But he and Gyan, whose created his figures on electric guitar in close connection but free contrast to his dad’s, were much more spontaneous in a jazzy way than I’d anticipated. The elder Riley’s finger work on grand piano was also surprisingly articulate, precise, playful yet symmetrical. Someone uploaded on YouTube a few seconds on the concert — unauthorized. of course, and of low sound quality, but here it is:
Riley studied with the late Hindustani classical singer Pandit Pran Nath, so it is tempting to think of “Rainbow” as an electronic raga, but it is not that. Nor are his published or recorded efforts going to be thought of by anyone as “jazz,” though he has frequently cited his admiration for jazz icons from Art Tatum and Bud Powell through Mingus, Miles and Coltrane. “A Rainbow in Curved Air,” however, not only can be played live, it can be opened up and improvised on, as in the nearly 30-minute version from 2007 posted at Riley’s website (which seems to me to open with a quote George Harrison’s “Within You and Without You.” Riley is quite a Beatles fan). There have been several notable American composers generally respected as “legitimate” who’ve been deeply influenced and/or active in jazz — Gershwin, of course, but also Copland, Mel Powell, Milton Babbitt and of Riley’s historic circle, LaMont Young, Steve Reich and Morton Subotnick, for starters. But they rarely if ever have included significant improvisation into their structured pieces, as Riley has.
About the Joshua Light Show — yes, it was spectacular eye candy. Unusually colorful, evolving in a slow, deliberate but unpredictable way that was entrancing, the images moved with their own rhythm, which I felt didn’t especially reflect the music or refer to anything outside their specific and specialized ken. My intrepid companion makes a good case, though, for the visual artistry and processes consciously manipulated by the Light Show crew being much more than that: multilayered, narrative in concept, applying distinct skills and background experience in painting and stagecraft, highly collaborative. Here’s what the JSL looked like in collaboration with Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWingarden from MGMT, the night before its appearance with the Rileys (and a second show with John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Milford Graves and Lou Reed).
I could only think of what Joshua and his highly trained associates concocted as akin to what I saw at Chicago’s Electric Circus/Kinetic Playground way back when, and rather anachronistic, in light of what visual technology is available today. Plus, the beautiful but conventional Skirball theater is not the kind of free-floating environment that gave lights shows of the psychedelic ’60s and ’70s the important position of being ambiance-setters. And I was rather more absorbed in the music than the visuals. But I hope there are music-and-lights shows happening now which continue in the maximal immersion mode of the ’60s, drawing on the efforts of Joshua and Riley, both.