Minimalistic: John Tilbury plays Terry Riley, plus: Kaori Suzuki

Sunday 10 July 2022

I got two discs of minimalist music here. To quote T.S. Eliot: “Well here again that don’t apply. But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.” Last night I went to a glorious concert of Barbara Monk Feldman’s music (more about that soon); the promoters described her as a “Canadian minimalist composer”. She isn’t, of course, but what really amazes me is that we’re still batting this term around after half a century, long past the point where it lost any useful meaning. (P. Glass interviewed on his dislike of labels, in 1986: “Remember back when people described some composers as impressionist? They used to call Debussy an impressionist.”) We’re hoarding the tools for our understanding against future generations.

Besides repetition, what gets called minimal often involves a reduction of one typical aspect of music to create a basis for better emphasising excess in another. Kaori Suzuki’s Music For Modified Melodica is an album given a title to conjure up a mental image of exotic timbres and mutes. The preparations, however, involve retuning the melodica’s reeds and fitting it with foot-pedalled bellows, effectively fitting the frail instrument with an overpowered exosuit. The album’s single track, Air Born Of Light, consists of a single, overblown block chord held for twenty-six minutes, pushing the wheezy little melodica to its physical limits. It makes for an enormous slab of reinforced concrete that demands you appreciate each finely-graded variation in its surface details as it grinds its entire length against your ears. It sucks, it blows, it exhausts. You cannot try this at home. If you try to play it at the appropriate volume your neighbours would call the police, except that before then you would have already chickened out and turned it down. As a recording, its failing is that it allows you the control to diminish its power.

“Recorded in Hamburg, some time between 1975 and 1995 – details forgotten.” It was a simpler time, when one could forget. The idea of John Tilbury playing Terry Riley may seem alien now but shouldn’t be surprising, given the adventurous character that laid the foundations for his exalted status. The three pieces recorded here are key solo works from 1965 that served to define Riley’s career as a performer and a composer – that close connection between the two roles sets him apart from his erstwhile critical confederates and goes some way to explaining why his musical practice, however softened by time, has retained a vitality that has abandoned Reich and Glass. Tilbury’s performances here respond to this quality, his piano rendering of Keyboard Study No. 1 swings as much as it flows. The piano sound is mellow and warm; the quality of these archival recordings, brought to public light at last by Another Timbre, is just fine. For Dorian Reeds, Tilbury switches to an electric organ with an evocative mid-70s quality, producing something smoother than Riley’s own sax interpretation. Tape delay – sorry, time-lag accumulator – is employed here to layer contrasting figures, introduce counterpoint and provide segues from one section to the next.

Tilbury’s free elaborations of the material are masterfully self-contained, maintaining an overall consistency while opening out each piece with variety, expressivity and direction that makes you forget the critics told you this music is minimal. For Keyboard Study No. 2 he overdubs piano, electric organ, harpsichord and celeste, fading each in and out over each other in a delirious rotation of colours and patterns. It’s the longest piece here, easily sustaining the trippy mood for half an hour. Besides repetition, what gets called minimal often involves a reduction of one typical aspect of music to create a basis for better emphasising excess in another.

Olson III: everything was mapped out in 1967

Wednesday 15 April 2015

“It sounds like the music of the future,” he said as he put the CD on. He was right. It was the Organ of Corti release of a Swedish high school orchestra and choir performing Terry Riley’s Olson III in 1967. They sing and play with an amateur ferocity – this may be partly due to the audience, where a riot has broken out. The musicians win, with their implacable chanting. The rhythm and intonation are all slightly out, giving everything an otherworldly quality that suggests a mashup of the soundtracks to 2001 and Chariots of the Gods. Like any glimpse of the future, it was awe-inspiring and a little frightening.

Riley is synonymous with In C, a piece which still holds the new music world in its thrall despite being half a century old. Olson III is a similar work – a common pool of short, repeating patterns through which each musician progresses at their own pace – with the addition of a choir singing a text, but the voices are not the critical difference. In C has patterns with varying lengths and rhythms, and typically needs someone playing a pulse to keep time. In Olson III the orchestra and chorus is the pulse: all the patterns have the same length and unvarying rhythm.

That Cortical CD came out 15 years ago. I’ve never heard anything by Riley that’s like it, nor anything which is such an overwhelming, almost exhausting experience. I’d often wondered how much of this was due to the composition, and how much to the recording – the schoolkids, the restless audience, the fraught circumstances, the struggle to keep time, the ageing, long-lost tape.

Last night’s Kammer Klang at Cafe Oto ended with the Klang players and Exaudi playing Olson III. It’s not just the tape. Heard fresh, clear and direct, the music combines Riley’s typically bright and lucid harmonies with an atypical, almost forbiddingly rigid and unornamented rhythmic pulse. This impersonal aspect is then subsumed by the trancelike effect that builds in the listener over time. A type of ecstatic experience.

This really was the music of the future. From one moment to the next it evoked the interlocking figures of Steve Reich’s ensemble music from the 1970s (10 years later), the gleaming lock-grooves of those hip, rock-influenced composers of the 1980s (20 years later), trance and rave culture (30 years later), new generations of Europeans and academics “rediscovering” principles of digital reproduction and incorporating it into the concert hall (so last year).

Olson III is one of Riley’s more obscure compositions. Fifty years ago there was one solid idea, an idea so strong that nobody can even agree on whether it’s time to let it go.