Catching Up with Riley

Terry Riley performed here at Bard last night. I hadn’t heard him play piano in over a decade, and I had forgotten, if I had ever realized it, how superb his piano technique is. Maurizio Pollini would have had to work hard to duplicate that performance. A few hours before the concert I asked Terry what he was going to play, and he replied thoughtfully, “I don’t know… haven’t decided yet.” And he hadn’t. He didn’t announce all the pieces either, though he played a new one called Pagoda and a Requiem for Wally in honor of the man who taught him to play ragtime back at the Gold Street Saloon in San Fran in the ’60s.

In a stage talk afterward with David Rosenboom, Riley talked about his learning early that he wasn’t good at playing a piece from a score and getting all the notes right – it’s why he turned to improvisation. And yet the pieces he played sounded very set, very composed, and could easily be transcribed. You can tell there’s some looseness in the playing, some give and take about where themes enter, yet there were also some difficult-looking double arpeggios that had to have been pretty well practiced. It makes you wonder if the printed versions of Beethoven’s sonatas, Mozart’s concertos, were just kind of an average version of what they ended up playing live. And I agree with Terry. I love playing classical piano, but you put so much concentration into getting every little note right. How great it must feel to have all the harmonic motion, all the themes, composed, yet be able to take liberties here and there. Of course, you need a style conducive to improvisation, and Riley does use a fair amount of repetition and ostinato – but not all that much, you realize when you listen carefully.

The discussion afterward centered mostly around politics. In response to a question, Riley said that while he was pretty famous in the ’70s and could draw crowds of thousands (at least in Europe), the audience has since “moved on to other things.” He has a sense, I gather, that the political atmosphere of the ’80s and ’90s shifted the trajectory of his career and pushed him into the margins of the music business – as it has marginalized new music in general. There was a day when Riley could record on Columbia, get played on the radio, draw huge audiences, and be big news. His phenomenal piano playing, the consistent dazzling quality of his inspiration, made it very clear that it’s not Riley who’s changed.