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Terry Riley (live at Station to Station)

The Barbican, London
18 July 2015

“My name’s Terry Riley, I’ll be here all week”. It would be nice to think that at some stage over the previous weekend, America’s great composer actually expressed his forthcoming residency in exactly this way. For in order to celebrate his eightieth birthday, El Tel (as doubtless everyone calls him), has spent the last seven days encamped here as part of the Barbican’s Station to Station: A 30 Day Happening event.

And what a week it’s been. By night Riley has been fighting in the pubs of Tufnell Park and drag racing through the wide, empty boulevards of Canary Wharf in his imported ’68 Dodge Charger (or I could have made that up), whilst by day he has been holed up in a musical redoubt, working alongside the London Contemporary Orchestra – under the direction of Riley devotee Robert Ames – and the fresh-faced youths of the Tiffin School Boys’ Choir (I didn’t make that up). Together, this formidable collision of talents young and old have been extemporising a new piece, Bell Station III, which receives its world premier tonight.

Terry Riley at Station to Station (pic: Mark Allan / Barbican)

As expected with the coming of such a legend, the show is completely sold out, a tell-tale sign visible in the presence of a small knot of desperate hopefuls lurking by the ticket office in the hope of some returns, eager to pounce like hungry piranhas waiting in the shallows for some unfortunate beast to fall in. The atmosphere inside the auditorium is hushed and reverential, the audience a pleasingly diverse bunch in almost every way: age, gender and ethnicity. It speaks volumes for the appeal of Riley’s music and quite how far its elegant tendrils have reached into many genres, from the tips of modern classical and the avant-garde to rock and ambient.

Chapters of applause are launched as the musicians and the choir take their places, and when the man himself finally strolls onto the stage (sports jacket, silk scarf, venerable beard), the reception is rapturous. On taking his place, however, a slightly awkward pause ensues when a misconnected microphone halts the proceedings dead in their tracks. “This hum, I take it that means I’m not to start yet”, deadpans Tel, his utterly blank delivery carrying more exasperation and implicit threat than any amount of shouting or tantrum throwing. A doughty stage tech scurries on to follow the signal chain and try diagnose the source of the disruption. Poor bugger. An expectant audience is sitting here waiting in anticipation to get on with the proceedings; a thousand pairs of eyes are boring into his back. Sheesh, no pressure then. Finally, he isolates and fixes the recalcitrant connection and one can almost feel the trickle of cold sweat running down his back. He sighs with relief and scuttles off-stage under the watchful gaze of Riley’s beady eye. Finally, the great man is ready to begin.

Terry Riley at Station to Station (pic: Mark Allan / Barbican)

Sat on his Dave Allen-style stool, a rising swell of tambura announces the beginning of the first section, ‘Bell Raga II’. As much as minimalism, this is home soil for Riley, a student and collaborator of the great Hindustani classical singer Pandit Pran Nathi. Riley begins his vocal improvisations, which for a split second resemble a phlegmy Compo from Last of the Summer Wine, before settling down into a most wonderful, swooping, soaring alap. Almost twenty years after Nath’s death, the turn and return of the cycle now places Riley as the master, a lifetime’s experience expressing itself through the slowly rising and falling cadences of his improvisations. Alongside the graceful chain of Riley’s vocalisations, three large screens display live visuals by sometime collaborator Austin Meredith, whose mirrored and manipulated imagery of roads, rivers, fields and forests amplifies the quietly spiritual resonance of Riley’s hypnotic sounds.

The second and third sections, ‘Count Your Blessings III’ and ‘Bell Station III’, see Riley alternate between his trusty Korg Triton synthesiser and a prepared piano, from which he summons the most delightful arsenal of sounds, for all the world like the talented zither-playing worm in Raymond Roussel’s daft masterpiece Impressions of Africa. Although the orchestra apparently did receive a melodic score in advance, Robert Ames earlier explained of the performance that: “There are chunks of score that are written out and parts within that structure that give freedom for improvisation for players, and parts for Terry to improvise between movements. He has left space, so there will definitely be additions. It will be a more liquid process than a typical contemporary classical or minimalist concert.”

Terry Riley at Station to Station (pic: Mark Allan / Barbican)

Given this looseness of structure, and the deliberate lacunae for individual improvisation, there is in part a certain jerry-rigged feeling to the forward motion of the pieces, their ebb and flow at moments a little uncertain. Yet the upside of this is, like all the best live improv, a captivating sense of hanging on tight for the ride, and a slowly-unfolding joy when everything comes together and the music properly takes wing. The Tiffin Choir add a mellifluous sheen to Riley’s score, director Simon Toyne guiding his young charges through the pieces with a steady hand and a keen ear. One can scarcely imagine Monday morning in class 9B: Good weekend? “Yeah, Saturday was cool. I played some Minecraft in the morning, and then had a gig at the Barbican in the evening, improving alongside Terry Riley”. Good work Bywater, R, go to the head of the class.

The one noticeable downside to the Heath Robinson nature of the presentation is that the ending, when it arrives, feels uncomfortably abrupt and unwelcome. The conclusion breaks, the applause and tributes are given, and the performers exit the stage at a pace that leaves everyone slightly breathless and eager for a slower and more natural decompression. Like being forcibly awakened from an afternoon snooze, one feels as though it should have been a more gradual return to consciousness. This feels rather like having the cat jump onto your head with his claws out.

Terry Riley at Station to Station (pic: Mark Allan / Barbican)

I retreat to the Gin Joint upstairs in the estimable company of Justin Roberston, Andrew Weatherall and Ed ‘Chemical Brother’ Simons. Over large vats of gin and tonic we chew over the meat of the performance and come to the stunning realisation that Riley is, on the whole, pretty frackin’ amazing. There is much mirth at the proposition that the truncation of the set, and Riley’s obvious irritation at its commencement, are solely down to his failure to meet his dealer earlier in the evening: “No snow, no show”, as Weatherall puts it. There follows speculation that, even as we debate, Riley is at that moment busy hurling chairs around backstage. Don’t let that kindly old visage fool you, he’s a violent dervish when he doesn’t get his gear…

(I discover the next day that, in fact, poor Tel had that morning succumbed to a nasty bout of the ‘flu. After a lifetime of music, and the veneration as a pioneer of more musical genres than one can shake a stick atii, Riley has nothing left to prove, so to have made it out on stage at the age of 80 with an immune system battering by a virulent contagion is testimony to his professionalism and his still-passionate desire to engage with his audience.)

Later on, strolling back to Finsbury Square, I pass the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms, and happen to spot Riley and assembled company through the window. Far from trashing the joint, the master is actually enjoying a well deserve glass of chilled Chablis and grilled lemon sole. I text Justin to pass on this golden factoid, to which he swiftly replies “I’m sure he’s still quietly seething…”

God bless El Tel.

-Words: David Solomons-
-Pictures: Mark Allan / Barbican-

i Nath visited New York in 1970, exerting a strong influence over the city’s emergent minimalist movement, and two years later establishing his Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music. Thereafter, Riley both studied under him and accompanied him in performance.

ii  And I can shake a stick at a lot of musical genres…

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