When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Terry Riley decided to stay right where he was, which just so happened to be in Japan.
The composer had arrived in the country in February 2020 to do preliminary work for a piece commissioned by an arts festival held on Sado Island in the Sea of Japan.
It was supposed to be the first hop on a three-month worldwide tour with his son, Gyan, to mark his 85th birthday. And then, well, things changed.
“I got here, and then everything canceled,” Riley recalls, speaking over mugs of chai tea at his apartment in Yamanashi Prefecture, a few hours’ train ride from central Tokyo. “I had no work — and nowhere to go, really — so I ended up living here.”
His current home is a little less spacious than his ranch back in the Sierra Foothills of California, but he doesn’t miss all the gardening, and can still enjoy a majestic mountain view from his living room window.
“I’ve always come to Japan for a week or two weeks at the most,” he says. “So I thought, well, maybe this is kind of an opportunity the universe is giving me to check this place out.”
He’s been trying to get to grips with the language, though admits this is no easy task for an octogenarian. A beginner’s Japanese textbook sits on his desk, with a how-to-draw manga guide tucked underneath.
Above it is a picture of his late guru, the Indian classical singer Pandit Pran Nath, whose disciple he became during the 1970s, following an intense brush with fame the previous decade.
The apartment was arranged by Riley’s student, musician Sara Miyamoto, whom he has been teaching the Kirana gharana vocal tradition imparted to him by Nath.
“Now I’m really very comfortably settled here,” he says. “I have a little network here, and Sara has been fantastic, while I’m trying to learn the language and get kind of oriented, helping me interface with the community.”
The commission that brought him to Japan will come to fruition this summer at the Sado Island Galaxy Art Festival, which runs from August to October.
He has been writing for the taiko drumming group Kodo, which is based in Sado, and is collaborating with a local metalworker to create a permanent sound sculpture. It’s titled “Wakarimasen” (“I don’t understand”).
The composition itself is still taking shape. Riley shows me notebooks filled with musical sketches, interspersed with illustrations and poetry, which he’s been adding to every day.
“It’s fun: it’s like a way of just gathering a bunch of forces together, and pretty soon they’ll suggest how they should be organized in the final score,” he says of his creative method.
“I’ve never worked quite as intensely this way, before I came to Japan. … Before, I’d be on tour for a month, and then I’d come home and have to recuperate for a few weeks before I go out again, so it was very sporadic.”
A recent series of broadcasts for Oda, a boutique subscription service focused on live performances, offered a window into his current lifestyle. Over the course of a week, he played spiraling keyboard improvisations and vocal ragas, often joined by Miyamoto, and broadcast ambient recordings of his local neighborhood.
Livestreamed performances have become ubiquitous since the start of the pandemic, and Riley says he’s appreciated the change of pace.
“I think a lot of musicians are missing the stage, but a lot of them are also liking the fact that they’re not on the road,” he observes. “Most of your energy goes into that.”
As for how the change of scenery has affected his music, he says he’s been focusing more on the essentials.
“I’ve tried to simplify my ideas, make them communicate more directly: try to make more powerful, simple statements,” he says. “I want to really engage the body more, and the emotional machine that people have.”
This draws a chuckle: “‘Emotional machine’ … nice idea!”
Such talk is all the more interesting, coming from one of the foundational figures in what we now know as minimalism.
After years in which atonality and serialism reigned supreme, Riley was one of a handful of American composers in the 1960s who stripped things back, emphasizing repetition, tonality, timbre and rhythm.
The impact of his 1964 piece, “In C” — a series of 53 melodic fragments, which can be played by an indefinite number of musicians — has been compared to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” But Riley insists that the true originator was his old college friend, La Monte Young, composer of landmark works such as “The Well-Tuned Piano.”
“Of all the people that are in this kind of camp of contemporary music, La Monte is, to me, the most important, because he really set the tone,” he says. “People haven’t even heard these pieces that changed history, but you hear it in everybody else’s work.”
Riley never liked the “minimalism” tag himself, and it feels inadequate for the scope of his oeuvre. He has written over 25 pieces for string quartet, most of them stemming from a four-decade relationship with the Kronos Quartet. His compositions draw on a vast range of influences, from Middle Eastern modes to The Great American Songbook.
“I have pretty catholic taste in music, so I incorporate a lot of those ideas in my writing, but they don’t dominate it,” he says.
The Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen once told Riley his music had “the stamp of a personality,” which he likes. One constant, he says, is to have “a little bit of feeling of humor in whatever is there.”
“Don’t take yourself too seriously,” he continues. “That’s been something that I kind of remind myself all the time.”
Aside from “In C,” Riley hasn’t become a repertoire staple in the way of peers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, although that was partly by design.
“My other contemporaries, they’re really different kinds of musicians,” he explains. “I’m a performer-composer, and I’ve satisfied my career a lot by performing my own music — and (through) my own performances — or working closely with other musicians who know my music well.”
His next album will be a new version of “Autodreamographical Tales,” performed by New York contemporary-music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. The piece was originally released as a solo recording, in which Riley read excerpts from dream journals he had kept during the 1990s.
“I often get ideas for music in dreams, where I’ll actually hear the music,” he says. But it isn’t a simple question of transcribing sounds from his subconscious.
“The actual music in a dream is way too good to ever manifest in an earthly situation,” he explains. “I think you come to understand, after a while, that they’re two different things, and you let the one influence the other. You let the dreams influence your work, without an expectation that they’re going to be the same thing.”
Although he’s still working every day, the disciplined practice regime that Nath instilled in him has become less intense over the years.
“As I’ve gotten older, I don’t feel I need to do that any more: I just kind of go wherever my energy takes me,” he says. “You know: average life expectancy is 77. I’m 85, almost 86. I feel this is all bonus time.”
For more information, visit terryriley.net.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.