Like most composers, Terry Riley was born to music, but his trajectory has been far from the beaten path. Born in 1935, he came of age during the 1950s when the school was known as “Minimalism” began to take hold. “Minimalism” is one of those things that, like obscenity, is hard to define, but we know it when we hear it. It’s characterized as you might imagine by the sparse and repetitive use of notes and instruments, by motoric rhythms, by the limited use of material, and a striving for aural beauty. As one academic described it, Minimalism “lacks goal-oriented European associations”. (I’ll say.)
Terry was one of the style’s pioneers. His composition In C is often cited as the first minimalist composition. You can find it on YouTube under “Terry Riley In C”, but do not expect it to thrill you. Minimalism is definitely an acquired taste. But his interest in Minimalism did not last for long. Like the Beatles in the late 1960s, Terry discovered East Indian classical music. Beginning in 1970, he made numerous trips to India to pursue his passion for ragas and ceased altogether to compose in the European tradition, preferring instead to participate in live improvisational performances. Eventually he landed at Mills College in Oakland, California to teach Indian classical music. Other notables at Mills over the years were John Cage, Dave Brubeck, Merce Cunningham, and the avant-garde Kronos Quartet. Interested in everything but the standard repertoire, the tradition-shattering Quartet was intrigued by Terry’s eccentric style, and they convinced him to try his hand at a string quartet. He did, and this intriguing piece is the result. It fits perfectly into the Quartet’s commitment to reimagine the string quartet experience. The collaboration proved fruitful, and Terry has written many pieces for them over the years. One thing is for sure, it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.