Bad Radio 4: Terry Riley, Part I

Written by on May 2, 2018

Bad Radio is a secret archive of shows devoted to a society of 20th century avant-garde musicians and their influences. The fourth installment looks at Terry Riley's early music.

Terry Riley was born in Colfax on June 24, 1935. He studied composition at San Francisco State University from 1955-1957, then at the San Francisco Conservatoire of Music. He worked his way through school by playing ragtime at the Gold Street Saloon in San Francisco.  In 1957 he formed an improvisation group along with Pauline Oliveros and Loren Rush. Riley was influenced by the improvisation and small group recordings of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The avant-garde music of John Cage was also an influence.

He continued his studies at UC Berkeley’s graduate school of music, earning an M.A.  in 1961. There he collaborated with fellow student La Monte Young, who introduced him to the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1959 and 1960 Riley and Young composed music for choreographer Anna Halprin.

Riley began experimenting with the tape recorder as an instrument in 1961. Then starting in 1962, he became a member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, along with Pauline Oliverous, Morton Subotnick, and Steve Reich.

From 1962-1964 Riley toured Europe, participating in “happenings,” street theater and jazz concerts.

  • Joshua Rifkin “Bethena – a Concert Waltz” from Scott Joplin Piano Rags (Nonesuch 1972)
  • John Cage “Bacchanale” from The American Innovator; Alan Feinberg, piano (Decca Music Group Ltd. 1992)
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Capricorn,” “Aquarius,” and “Pisces,” from Zodiac – 12 Melodies of the Star Signs (Wergo 2003) for six improvisers, music boxes and tape
  • John Coltrane “India” from The Best of John Coltrane: His Greatest Years, vol. 2 (Impulse! 1972)
  • Morton Subotnick “The Key to Songs” (New Albion Records 1986) Music for an imaginary ballet, for 2 pianos, viola, cello, percussion and computer generated sounds, performed by the California EAR Unit
  • Terry Riley “Music for the Gift” from Music for the Gift (Elision Fields 1965), recorded live in Paris for Radio France, and featuring Chet Baker
  • Terry Riley “Bird of Paradise” from Music for the Gift (Elision Fields 1965), a five part tape assemblage

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