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In his impressive career Terry Riley has gone from playing in piano bars to being a titan of modern music to being a popular music inspiration, his influence known and felt even by those who perhaps are not aware of it.
Terry Riley was born in Colfax, California, on 24 June 1935. He studied at Shasta College, San Francisco State University, and the San Francisco Conservatory before completing his masters at the University of California-Berkeley. He performed keyboards in bars until the sun came up to support himself until he found financial stability after being hired by Mills College in 1971. It was at Mills that he met David Harrington, the founding leader of the Kronos Quartet. The ensemble would become a longtime important collaborator for Riley. Another early and long-time influence was fellow Berkeley student La Monte Young, whose thoughts on time in music had a great impact on Riley.
The 1960s saw Riley move from California, first to Europe from 1962-64 and then the east coast of America. He performed all night concerts in Philadelphia with visual artist Robert Benson. Riley began following North Indian Raga Vocalist Pandit Pran Nath in 1970 and the two would frequently share the stage until the singer’s passing. He would make many trips to India from this time on and has been greatly influenced by Indian classical music.
Riley has established several performing arts ensembles including the Khayal ensemble, The All-stars and the Vigil Band, The Travelling-Avvant-Gaard among others. He is still an actively commissioned and performed composer.
Riley’s music was at the forefront of minimalist composition from his early years. It is versatile and varied and can’t be easily defined. HisIn C has been called the first masterpiece of minimalism, premiered in 1964. The piece is not for any specific instrumentation or even ensemble size. The performers determine the performance length as well. The score provides over fifty musical sections to be assigned and played at the discretion of the ensemble. The sections can be played when and at a speed of the player’s choosing. They may begin, end, and rest at will, but must try to stay within the musical space with the other players.
The Heaven Ladder, Book 5 is a collection of pieces for four handed piano. The pieces show that music can be minimalist, but not necessarily simple. The five, varied sections include the Latin flavoredTango Doble Ladiado and Cinco de Mayo. Of particular note is the sectionJaztine, which was written for Riley’s foster daughter. There is a note of childhood in the piece, mixed with imagination until interrupted by, as the composer describes, “heavily trodding march of elephants ceremoniously dressed in Thai raiments.”
Terry Riley was at the forefront of minimalist composition in the twentieth century. He directly inspired composers such asSteve Reich, Philip Glass, andJohn Adams. He has also been an inspiration for musicians like Pete Townsend of The Who, being the inspiration and half of the namesake for the song “Baba O’Riley”. He has been dubbed "one of the 1000 makers of the 20th Century" by the London Sunday Times.