Press "Enter" to skip to content

Father of Minimalism Terry Riley Plays at Mills

Terry Riley, the father of minimalism music, played solos as well as improvisations with professor Fred Frith and advised Mills students performing versions of his work, at the Concert Hall on Friday, Oct. 28.

In an interview, he described his philosophy of music being inherent in patterns and cycles in the universe and described how it applied to his personal style.

“On a beach on Earth, the pattern on a conch is exactly the same as the pattern of a nebula billions of miles away. It’s the same for my music,” said Riley, when describing his technique. He said that the Buddhist idea of form coming from formlessness applied to music.

Riley said that journalists had coined the term “minimalism,” but that it didn’t actually apply to the sound. He also said that once something becomes an “ism” it’s a “dying throne.”

“He’s one of the few musicians to have changed the course of contemporary music,” said Mills professor and experimental composer Fred Frith, who improvised with Riley during the concert for the first time in his life. Riley’s work has also influenced musicians Steve Reich, Philip Glass and The Who.

Riley’s philosophies were embodied in his performance on Friday. He opened with a Raga Invocation that honored his teachers, Pandit Pran Nath and Margaret Lyon. He sat alone center stage and sang while playing the harmonium. A meditative quiet fell over the audience.

Mills graduate students and Bay Area premiers proceeded to present their own songs in the spirit of minimalism, while others composed renditions of Riley’s work. John Ingle produced a version of Riley’s “Dorean Reeds” by recording, live, a layering of simple beats and complex rhythms in cycles of growing repetition and patterns on soprano saxophone.

The String Quartet’s version of Riley’s song, “The Invisible” produced long, sustained notes on cello, violin and viola, creating an eerie quiet that calmly built to a peak. It was mildly broken by a child’s coughing.

Then the hall burst into progressive jazz piano with Bay Area premiers, Sarah Cahill and Joseph Kubera. A beaming Riley leapt to his feet in standing ovation.

“Don’t go away, this is only 49 minutes long,” Riley joked as the moment the entire audience had been waiting for arrived.

Riley improvised on piano, while Frith responded with experimental guitar sounds. Riley began with calm, succinct, jazz chords and Frith complemented the sound with sustained guitar notes that pierced into the audience, then gently echoed and softened. As the performance continued, Riley’s hands flew into rapid melodies while Frith unleashed an array of explosive sounds by handpicking or sliding strings. He also procured a bow and strings of metal beads when he laid the guitar in his lap. Riley grinned from behind the piano as the sounds intensified. The crowd laughed and then burst into thunderous applause when the song ended with Frith producing a comical slide on guitar. During the second half, Riley played another solo on piano and the Mills College Contemporary Performance Ensemble and Vocal Jazz Improvisation Ensemble finished with a version of “In C,” Riley’s infamous piece.

It was the first time Riley had returned to Mills College in years. He taught Raga here in the ’70s, and occupied the Luther B. Margent Chair of Improvisational Music. He said that Mills was one of the only colleges that wouldn’t force him to fit into a specific program and that it was good for students to be around famous musicians who were active in their careers. Frith was the next teacher to occupy Riley’s position.

“He was one of the first people to improvise with no guidelines. That’s my specialization and I owe him that,” said Frith, who said that Riley had a profound impact on his life. Frith first heard “In C” when he was a student at Cambridge in the ’60s. “For me, it was the beginning of something,” he said.