Millions have heard of Terry Riley, an international musician and composer who was at the forefront of an entire musical movement in the ’60s. Even those who haven’t are likely to recognize and appreciate his influence on mainstream music. He’s performed with the world’s finest musicians for audiences around the globe, but this Friday, he’ll take the short 15-minute drive from his front door to the North Columbia Schoolhouse and take the stage with his favorite and most influenced artist, his son, Gyan.
While it’s no surprise that our Sierra surroundings inspire and cultivate the creative minds of many, Terry has unassumingly lived in the same small Camptonville home for decades. Gyan, an acclaimed musician and guitarist in his own right, moved to Brooklyn a few years ago, but the two often play together in New York and Europe.
“Nothing I have done in this life has given me more satisfaction than improvising on these songs with my son,” Terry said. “Gyan supplies a brilliant counterpoint to the strands and moods of these pieces, always surprising me with a virtuosity that serves and energizes his musical invention. I could not have dreamed up a better marriage of mind and spirit than this collaboration.”
Terry is considered the father of minimalism, launching the movement with the composition “In C, A Rainbow in Curved Air.” His Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band were very influential on the British rock scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He’s been a devotee of Indian classical music and spent 26 years studying with the great master vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath and appeared in numerous concerts as a tabla and vocal accompanist. He describes minimalist music as having more repetitions and patterns as opposed to being climax and goal-oriented. It builds shapes from “small music cells, which eventuate into something more complex than the cells themselves.”
“In C” was so influential that a celebration of its 45th anniversary took place at Carnegie Hall.
“It’s very much like if you’re watching birds on a lake and they suddenly take flight, and as they move through the air, they create different patterns and they regroup. For me, ‘In C’ is very much a sonic image of that,” Terry said in a 2009 interview with NPR about the anniversary.
More than 60 performers took part in the Carnegie Hall concert, including Gyan.
Gyan won his first guitar in a raffle when he was 12 years old. Terry (piano and vocals) gave his son little formal instruction but exposed him to his daily life as a musician, allowing him to sit in on rehearsals and recordings. When Gyan was about 16, Terry gave a performance in Downieville and brought him up on stage. Gyan went on to become the first full-scholarship graduate guitar student at the San Francisco Conservatory and has established himself as one of the world’s finest concert guitarists. His astounding guitar virtuosity and brilliant compositions have recently appeared at ll Tomorrows Parties in Minehead, England, and at the Moogfest in Ashland, N.C.
“I’m really looking forward to performing at the (North Columbia) Schoolhouse,” Gyan said. “The local community there really gathers together to bring an amazingly warm and receptive vibe. It’s always so fun to come home.
“Being able to perform with my dad has been without question the most enriching, challenging, inspirational musical experience I’ve had. His music is bountiful. I think the most unique musical quality about my dad is his ability to get deeper and deeper into the mood of a piece, leaving all other concerns behind, transcending the listener.”
Terry’s accomplishments are countless and noteworthy. Along with composing more than 25 works for the Kronos Quartet, writing an electric violin concerto for longtime friend Tracy Silverman (which was played at Carnegie Hall) and collaborating with Chet Baker and La Monte Young, he counts “In C” as one of his most memorable and important contributions. But despite his role in minimalist music, he doesn’t like to be “pigeonholed.”
“I like to approach each project with imagination. I’m associated with the significance of ‘In C,’ but since then, I’ve gone all kinds of places.”
Friday night’s performance, which is described as a jazz and Indian classical music weaving, promises to be just that.
“We don’t really know what we’ll play,” Terry said. “(With Gyan flying in Friday afternoon) we really don’t have time to rehearse, so we’ll talk it over a bit before and probably create something spontaneously at the concert. We both like to improvise.”
Katrina Paz is a freelance writer in Grass Valley.