The last concert I attended that involved one of the great minimalist composers was a concert over the summer at the Dream House–a three hour long close encounter (small, hot and sweaty room) with La Monte Young and crew. While I enjoyed the music, I felt that I had my fill of hot and sweaty for the rest of the year.
So it was a surprise when I saw La Monte Young talking to Terry Riley at a specially reserved table just some 10 feet away from me (as well as the fact that I was hot and cramped once again). As a young musician, and fan of the two composers, I imagined Riley’s and Young’s close interactions as just another story out of my not-so-favorite music history book and not something of real life, played out so many decades later before my eyes. It was a warm scene and I found myself wondering what they could be talking about, if only I could get a few feet closer.
Glamour Girls was apparently written just a few years back, but overall felt like it was born out of the 1980s funk scene. The piece was purposely disconcerting with its tendency toward disjunct lines, mismatched rhythms and wild speech. Of course, none of these qualities make it a terrible piece but it certainly is one where it is more enjoyable to be on the performing end than on the listening, if only because it makes you feel just slightly frantic when the musical rapport streaming off stage hits your ears. At times I was reminded of Cartesian Reunion Memorial Orchestra (the group flourished in the eighties), but on an acid trip. Either way, the piece was performed well and it is apparent that BOAC All-stars are called all-stars for their great technical expertise.
The Nancarrow suite was a mixture of jazz and varying tempos going on simultaneously. One of the pieces was so characteristic of the 1950s, with its combination of jazz and Nancarrow’s playfulness with tempo and rhythm, that it would have been the perfect follow-up for Marty Mcfly’s Johnny B Goode. Like the Ligeti piece it followed, there was a strong sense of intentional discontinuity and uneasiness and despite all of the complexities of music written originally for a machine with the ability to outperform the strong performer, the ensemble was tight and clean. Had they not, the nuances that evolve from the tension created by the rhythmic complexity would have been totally lost. So it is good to feel uneasy after all.
There was a short intermission, and I heard a LCD Soundsystem song that I knew I had heard piping out of the speakers the last time I was at Le Poisson Rouge. The club was crowded, or so it appeared crowded as there were several tables along the floor cramping people in the back. It seemed like a good turnout, nonetheless. I surveyed the faces of the crowd, trying to surmise whether it was young or old; while there were people under their thirties and even in their twenties (such as myself), the crowd still maintained a strong forty-plus following. I wondered what the connection was between each individual member of the audience and the headliners. I thought, it could not be possible that they were all classically trained musicians like myself. Some of them were lawyers and CEO’s and New Kids On The Block fans, right?
After a 20 minute intermission Terry Riley finally took the stage, and was the moment we had all been waiting for. It was time for the American premiere of Autodreamographical, as specially arranged for BOAC by Riley’s son, Gyan Riley. The piece chronicles a series of dream sequences which originate from Riley’s own personal dream journal. The piece is strongly rooted in jazz, with influences from all areas of Riley’s musical taste. It was jazzy, bluesy, dreamlike, funky, minimal, Indian-influenced, and even a little bit of 1980s cop show theme song (well that was just my impression, T. J. Hooker style). Considering the strong role narration plays throughout the piece, it is no surprise that it was originally written for radio. Riley acts as narrator and part-time piano player during the performance.
Autodreamographical is tightly scored. Unlike the preceding pieces, there is little discomfort in listening to it. The instrumental arrangement is both interesting and out of the way. There is never a time when narration and music compete for your attention; you find yourself enjoying both all at once. The highlight was hearing Riley sing and even doing a bit of Indian-tinged scat. At first it was funny, but as he warmed up it was pretty hip and it felt natural amongst the jazzy backdrop.
The piece had some pre-recorded sound and drumbeats which, thankfully, were not a rehash of Riley’s birthday bash at UCLA a few years ago with his use of marching band drum patches. There was a conservative amount of word painting in the instrumental parts that would have been too “Looney Tunes” had he not been so delicate with his approach. At one point Riley spoke about a dream in which he was taken aback after seeing saints. During the depiction of the event, one of the members of BOAC began singing a chant of Agnus Dei. It was slightly humorous due to the juxtaposition of musical styles, but also somewhat reverent as it hovered over the ensemble.
At some point during the performance, Riley took over at the piano and sang about a several other dreams. At times it felt as though I was watching a bad-boy Randy Newman perform; at other times, he was the great story teller of his generation, telling us of dreams that could take us all over the world and beyond anything we could have ever imagined—even in our own dreams.
My favorite dream began with a pre-recorded tambura while a light instrumentation flowed above and intermingled with the words spoken by Riley. The story begins with Riley discovering that he is playing an exotic double reed instrument, he soon realizes that he is in India and in the presence of someone called the “fakira”. He then realizes that the fakira is drinking a bloody mary snow cone, and would also like a regular bloody mary. The light humor continues until the point where the story comes to the end and suddenly there are now two fakiras and one is dying. He says that at first he did nothing more than watch what was taking place but that suddenly he realized that he should comfort the fakira, so he held the fakira in his arms and told him, “everything is going to be alright.”
After this performance, it is obvious that Riley has not slowed down, that his ability to compose new music that is both interesting and accessable is still strong inside of him. There is little question that the piece was a success and that it will be a continued success, should the group keep performing it. If Riley’s overall health is as strong as his music, there is no question that we will be hearing more wonderful works from him for some time to come.