Assignment 1 – The music of Terry Riley

Posted on February 26, 2012


The music of Terry Riley

Assignment 1 Music 1, Part one

I think it was his genuine passion for music, open mindedness and curiosity that have made Terry Riley one of the most interesting personalities of contemporary music. Riley developed a fascination for music from an early age, his early contacts with music were mainly the radio and relatives playing instruments such as the guitar, trumpet and the accordion. Throughout his career he played instruments like the violin, saxophone, tabla, tambura and, mainly, keyboards – pianos tuned to different tuning systems and an organ harmonium “with a vacuum cleaner motor blower blowing into the ballasts”.

After studying in San Francisco, where he came in contact with musical currents such as atonal music, serialism, indeterminacy, (Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Bartók, Cage etc.) he went to Berkley University in California to complete a Masters in Arts. It was at the Berkley’s where he met La Monte Young, one of his most influential musical partners. Both experimenting with radically new forms of music, both aiming for increased clarity and freedom of expression and some conceptual definition of music, they spent long hours improvising together. Young, having a background of a jazz introduced Riley to the music of avant-garde jazz musicians, such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. While Young was interested in sustained notes, Riley started to use pattern repetition and tape-loop/delay technique to overlap melodic segments.

In his piece In C, one of the fundamental pieces of minimalist music, Riley creates a platform for musicians where freedom of expression is pushed to the extreme. It can be played by any number of musicians, on any instrument or by singing, for variable time. The musicians can join in at any point with any of the 53 melodic patterns predetermined by the author. This would create interesting, new and exciting musical moments. Listening to In C was similar to meditation for me. The constantly changing stimulation on a background of pulsation generated a calm and focused state of mind, while feelings of tension, playfulness and joy increased and vanished, my thoughts following each other in an unrestrained fashion.

Riley’s musical language is based on improvisations on loosely defined compositional elements, he was famous for his all night performances where he played keyboard and saxophone. Fortunately, he also recorded music like A Rainbow in Curved Air, Church of Anthrax, Shri Camel and many others, including string quartets initially created for the Kronos Quartet ensemble.

Terry Riley = Return of the Ancestors – Part of The Harp of New Albion

Just when he started to become well recognised in the Western world for his contribution to minimalism, his career changed direction in 1970 after meeting Pandit Pran Nath, a North Indian raga singer. Being fascinated by the tonal and rhythmic complexity of Indian music, Riley, together with his friends and students, has made numerous trips to India, where he was performing together with Pran Nath. An example of the influence of raga music can be observed in The Harp of New Albion where Riley uses pitches that correspond to notes in scales (thats) used in Indian music and the composition is structured around rhythmic cycles (tala) similar to the ones in raga music.


 Awad, Gamall and Hagerty, Ammon 1992 [online]. Terry Riley. Interview for Rhythmos Magazine. Available from [Accessed on 11th February 2012]

 Holm-Hudson, Kevin (2000) [online]. Just Intonation and Indian Aesthetic in Terry Riley’s The Harp of New Albion. Interview for Ex Tempore Journal of Compositional and Theoretical Research in Music Vol. X/1: Summer 2000. Available from [Accessed on 11th February 2012]

Ottery, Frank J. (2001) [online]. Obsessed and Passionate About All Music. Wortham Theatre Centre, Houston TX.  Available from  [Accessed on 11th February 2012]

 Terry Riley [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 11th February 2012]

La Monte Young[online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 11th February 2012]

Indeterminacy (music)[online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 10th February 2012]

Minimal music [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 10th February 2012]

Pran Nath (musician) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 11th February 2012]

In Between the Notes: A Portrait Of Pandit Pran Nath. Documentary film directed by William Farley, 1986 Other Minds production[online]. Available from:

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