In the spring of 2017, American composer Terry Riley celebrated his 82nd birthday. Although best known for the ground-breaking piece In C, Riley’s personal synthesis of jazz, European classical and Indian classical styles has led to a lifetime of innovative music making that has made him difficult to pigeonhole.
It was during his 80th year that Chester Music published Terry Riley: The Piano Works, which for the first time assembled the composer’s works for the acoustic instrument, from Two Pieces for Piano (1958/1959) to Be Kind to One Another (Rag) (revised in 2014). I was very excited by the wide variety of music in this collection, and it made me want to learn more about his background with the instrument.
It was after I interviewed pianist Sarah Cahill for Keyboard that I decided to set up the interview you’re about to read. As one of this country’s most important interpreters of contemporary music, Cahill came prepared with insightful questions, particularly since she was preparing a 3-CD release of Riley’s piano music, Eighty Trips Around The Sun: Music By and For Terry Riley for the Irritable Hedgehog label.
The following is a transcript of Cahill's video interview with Riley at the piano. You can watch the entire interview HERE. - Gino Robair
Terry, I’d like to begin with your first encounters with the piano. How old were you and where were you at the time?
I was in Weimar, California. Well, that wasn’t my first encounter with the piano because when I was a little kid my parents would take me to a house that had a piano in it. That would be where I would spend my time. But I didn’t know how to play piano, but I was fascinated by the piano and I would sit at it and make sounds.
But I was living in Weimar, California, which is not too far from where I live now up in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I started taking piano lessons at the age of eight there.
And it was on a chicken farm and your grandmother drove you?
Tell us about that.
My grandmother would always prepare us a big Sunday dinner. She was a great Italian cook. She never knew who was coming but there would always be 20 people or so who would show up. She’d make raviolis and fried zucchini and fried chicken and all that stuff and just serve all these people, some of them were just friends of friends but they always knew there would be a great dinner there.
I’d go ride with her down to get the chickens. She got them live. So I had a piano lesson while she went and got the live chickens. And then I’d ride in the back seat of her ’34 Plymouth with these smelly chickens back to Weimar.
Did you like your teacher?
I don’t have a real strong memory, but I really liked having lessons and learning about the piano. Mrs. Halton was pretty old by then. She was probably not quite as old as I am now but she was probably 75 or something. She gave me the basics—[plays scale] put your thumb under it—that kind of thing, and started me on simple little tunes.
And then you had a cousin Dickey who could play by ear, right? So he would hear something on the radio and then just be able to reproduce it.
Yeah, Dickey. And he liked to improvise and he liked to improvise on like Brahms Hungarian Dance Number Fiveand things like that, and he would make his own version of them. And then I would try to copy him, whatever he had learned because he was about six years older than me and had been playing a lot longer. But he never had lessons. He never learned to read music. And he still plays. He’s like I think almost 90 now. He still does the same thing. He learns things off the radio by ear.
I just think this is so interesting that most of us do either play notated music, like we have piano lessons and we play notated music, or start to improvise at a young age. But you were doing both early on. It seems like they always went kind of hand in hand.
Yeah. I had a little more trouble with notated music. I really liked it because it introduced me to like the music of Bach, which I would have never been able to figure out by ear. It was really exciting as I…we moved to Redding after Weimar and I got a teacher who was starting to give me more classical music like Bach and Mozart.
And it probably also helps later on with notating music when you started writing it down.
But I still have I think a preference to not read music. I’ve always had a little bit of a problem with eye coordination with hand. I mean, I do it but I’m not so fluid in it as most of my colleagues are who can sit down and sight-read verbatim. No, I’ve always had trouble with that. So that’s why I think I became an improviser.
And you’ve also said that about your own music, that if you had the score to one of your pieces…
Yeah, I couldn’t…[laughs].
…reading it from the page. I think Charlie Parker said that also, like if he had to actually read the score for the improvisation.
I used to have this problem in Nashville with the symphony when I wrote the organ concerto, which is quite complex. But I didn’t write it in real time of course. And then when it goes by really fast, I have to…the conductor is much faster at reading it than I am. So when he’s asking me questions I’m kind of like…uh, what measure was that?
So then your father came back from the war, right? He was away for three years I think. And you were taking classical piano lessons but you were also playing with a group called Grand Dad’s Copycats.
Right. That was in Redding, California.
What kind of music did you play with them?
I was in a little band. There was a drummer and a violinist and me playing piano. They were kids my age. We were all about 10, I think—10, 11, 12. Kids had different talents, some of them were dancers or acrobats or whatever they were doing and we would play music for them—make it up. Or if they had a song, we would try to learn the song and accompany them. And then I had a duo with a drummer called Tin Pan Alley and we would play 1930’s—“I’ll Be Down to Get You in a Taxi Honey” and this kind of stuff.
That’s such great training. I mean, it’s just so great for everything you did later on.
The organizer I thought was one of these really rare unique persons that kids loved. They would do anything for him. His name was Walter Ray and he took us all over Northern California and had us perform. Even though we didn’t have great skills, we got a lot of performance practice playing in front of an audience and got to travel with music. And it made me love the idea of being a musician. I got the feeling of traveling and playing music at an early age.
And some of those songs had an especially strong left hand? I always think of you—your left hand is so strong. And I love it when you’re playing and you just do left-hand stuff for a while.
I liked to play boogie-woogie and stuff like that when I was a kid. I was listening to Meade Lux Lewis. So that’s a left-hand oriented music. So I think that’s where a lot of that comes from, his left-hand ostinato. That’s essentially what I do, except it developed into a kind of thing where I finally decided to let the left hand go on its own instead of being always stuck on an ostinato, and see if it could finger on its own while I’m playing the right hand.
Can you show us some left hand ostinato?
I have a lot of my own. Rainbow in Curved Air is, you know… [plays] It’s seven beats, but it’s broken down into six and eight—1-2-3-4-5-6. And the second part of it is a variation of that, which is the eight part: 1-2-3-4-5-6; 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
Did it take you a while to be able to do that up to speed?
Well, not so long. The hard thing is when you’re doing this; [Plays example and adds right hand] playing the same part, but starting in different places so it’s in canon. That’s what I used to practice doing a lot.
If you start on the first beat [plays the part in both hands, but offset by a few notes], you get so you can start anywhere, like on the fourth beat or the sixth beat. That’s how Rainbow was constructed in the studio. I was using the same pattern but it would kind of be this revolving orb, depending on where you start. And I, of course, had multi-tracking so there are many versions of the pattern going on.
In the studio did you play like that? Did you play both hands at the same time?
Yeah. And then I did it in eight tracks so there are quite a few versions of it going on at the same time.
You have a piece called “15/16” that is not written down but it’s on your Lisbon Concertalbum. That seems very difficult to play. I remember being at the 92nd Street Y when you played that and there was a guy somewhere near me who was trying to count. He was like, “What is the beat?” And I just said, “Oh it’s 15/16.” Is that very difficult to do?
Well, I practice you know [laughs]. It doesn’t come from heaven. It is. I mean, it is. It’s difficult to improvise over.
How do you think of it? Do you just leave out one of the 16ths?
No, I think of it as a pattern. It’s actually five groups of three; think of it as 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 five times. But it’s not constructed in threes: It’s eight and seven. [Plays ostinato.] This one has more than three [Plays a different ostinato.]1-2-3-4-5.
It’s so great. It’s such a great piece.
Actually first I wrote it as a string quartet for Kronos.
Yeah. If you listen to The Ecstasy, that quartet, it’s in there. It’s called “At the Summit.” At first, I wrote it for a string quartet, and then I thought, well, I want to play it, too. That’s happened with a lot of my music. Salome was actually a solo piano piece. The first part of Salome Dances for Peace I was playing as a piano piece and then I orchestrated it for a string quartet.
I only ask you if it’s hard because I remember you talking about doing these patterns as a kind of morning meditation and that you would start the morning with working on this and I was interested in it.
Keyboard Study is what got me started, just four notes—using the four-note pattern as a meditation and listening to it.
What was the four-note pattern?
This one. [Quickly repeats Ab-G-Bb-F pattern.] I would just play this for hours. And then the other thing is changing the [sostenuto] pedal with it. You catch a different note as you’re doing it. So, each one of the four notes can become a drone.
I never knew that you used the middle pedal.
I do this all the time. The sostenutopedal for me in my music is the most important one because it creates the drone notes.
I didn’t realize that. So when you travel, do you always ask for a piano with—
I always make sure it works before the concert because sometimes you run into a piano and you have to call the tuner back: “Hey, it’s not working, and I need it.”
Keyboard Studies, this was 1964-1965.
1965, I think.
There’s one of them on the cover—this is one version on the cover of your collected piano works.
Yeah, that’s what I was just playing.
How do you play something like that?
This was just trying to work with conceptual art. I was part of Fluxus, at one point. Think of this as a stadium and these are people and they’re all in the round. This is the inner circle in the stadium, or colosseum or some round space.
I thought: Wouldn’t it be fun to have singers or horns in circular things all going round in different speeds using this same four-note pattern? It transposes to… [Plays eight note pattern.] Or seven, or five, or six. So, I took that basic four-note thing to make polyrhythms. Some of them I never notated—all the different possibilities. This is the first one. And this one I never play as it’s written, but I play an improvisation on it.
[Riley turns the page.] This is the one we were talking about.
Yeah. This one is a real early version, which I did for John Cage’s Notations [Something Else Press; 1969].
Here’s Number Two. You had been improvising on these kinds of patterns for a while, but then you wrote it down when John Cage asked you for a contribution for Notations?
Yeah, that Notations book.
And that was graphic scores?
I don’t have a copy of the Notations book and I can’t remember all that’s in it anymore. I had it at one time and it disappeared from my library. But I think everything was pretty much a graphic—
He asked you for a score?
Yeah he asked me for a score so that’s what I was working on at the time. And that’s what most pianists find. There are a lot of bootleg copies that have been recopied.
You mean they find the score for Notations or they find…?
I’m talking about before this was ever notated. I had just the Keyboard Study Number Two. Number One wasn’t notated for a long time: It wasn’t in the Notationsbook. Just Keyboard Study Number Two was in the Notations book, so it was only one page. And that’s what John Tilbury and people like that play from, that page, which is fine. It’s kind of an event piece. This one, here, has what I was just demonstrating, just so people would have an idea that you could have a lot of different-length patterns out of that.
So there are lots and lots of different versions, I mean of performances.
This one here has what I was just demonstrating there just so people would have an idea that you could have a lot of different length patterns out of that.
And then what are you doing with your left hand while you’re doing this?
You can do the same thing.
The same pattern.
Yeah. Or you can just keep the first one. [Cycles a 4-note part with one hand against a 5-note part with the other.] So, it takes five times to do this against four times of this.
So they line up every—
Yeah. So you just multiply. If it’s seven against four [plays]… 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. I haven’t done this for a while so I’m missing it a bit.
This was 1965 and when you improvise today, when you do a concert today, you still use similar patterns, don’t you?
Well, like the Persian Surgery Dervishes and Descending Moonshine Dervishes, those are all built out of these, but with more melodic improvisation. But they’re the core of both of those pieces.
Let’s go back to high school because I’m so curious about your early years and playing classical music. You met Duane Hampton in high school and he was really influential in your life.
He’s still alive.
Is he really?
Do you see him?
I did. I did a concert at the Shasta Theater in Redding about four years ago I think—at least he was then. He wasn’t that much older than me. He was probably about five or six years older but he had just come back from the Curtis Institute. I heard about him and of course didn’t have a real good piano teacher then and went to Duane.
This was in high school?
Yeah I was in high school and Duane was just out of Curtis. He was a wonderful pianist himself and a very good teacher. We’re talking about Redding in the 1950s. It was a logging mining town and very culturally deprived. The only thing they would have was once in a while, what was it called—I can’t remember now, but it was an association that would invite different people to the high school to perform. I had no way of getting to San Francisco and hearing: I could only get a few recordings to really hear what was going on in the world. So I was pretty much in the dark and Duane was my beacon. He was showing me, because he had been to Curtis, and was showing me—he introduced me to John Cage. He introduced me to Bartok.
And obviously there wasn’t YouTube and you couldn’t use the Internet.
No. It was even hard to get recordings. I remember Life magazine came out with an article on Charlie Parker. We subscribed to Life magazine. And, oh, I was really excited. This is Charlie Parker! What is bebop? This is in the 1945 issue of Life magazine. So I went looking and trying to find a Charlie Parker recording in Redding and it was, and how you say, there was no Internet. And we didn’t have television, then. I never had television. I missed the whole age of television. I’ve never owned a television set. And that was even before television. But I did listen to the radio a lot. And I still like radio over television. I don’t like to watch television, but I like to listen to the radio.
Duane Hampton, did you work with him on sound or tone?
A lot on tone. And he was studying at the same time with Adolph Ballerin San Francisco, who was a wonderful Viennese pianist.
Yeah. So Duane was learning from Baller and I was kind of getting through Duane Baller’s technique of hand, which was a very quiet kind of economical playing, but really trying to get the tone of the piano. I was doing this [plays], how you try to get the sound down through the keys. Duane really emphasized that, no matter what you were playing. That came from Baller too. Baller’s hands were just—I loved to watch his hands on the keys because it didn’t look like… It’s kind of like Art Tatum. You hear all this incredible music coming out, but the hands are hardly—they don’t look like they’re moving much. It was so economical.
And Baller had been picked up by the Nazis and they broke his hands. They broke bones in his hands so he had to totally have numerous operations and had to relearn to play. And it turned him into a chamber music player with the Alma Trio. He actually stopped being a soloist. But he was a great soloist before that.
And I heard it was intentionally because he was a great pianist and they knew that so they did that as an act of malice.
Yeah, just cruelty, just like people are today. They do things out of cruelty. But he could have been a soloist. I was studying Beethoven’s 109 with him at that time and he was playing it so amazingly that I’d go away from my lessons like...
That’s funny that you have a part in Fandangoon The Heaven Ladder where you go [imitates part] and I always think, oh it’s the last movement of the Tempest Sonataby Beethoven. But I don’t think you consciously do things like that.
No, I wasn’t thinking of that. But I’m sure things come out. I’ve studied enough classical music that it gets inside.
In Venus in 94, you have the Bach motif. But again, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s somewhere in your subconscious.
Yeah that’s in a lot of music.
Also in high school you met Ralph Wadsworth, who introduced you to a lot of 20th century music and the Bartok Music for Strings, Piano, and Celeste.
And you wrote your first composition for the Shasta High School students. Is that right?
Right. He was writing a musical for the Shasta High School students. I think I was in my senior year. He was really a mentor, even more than Duane, in terms of just overall music. And he was a vocalist and a violinist, and I really liked that. I was interested in singing but I never considered myself a singer at that time, just in the choir. But he asked me to write a song for the musical, so I did. That was my first composition.
And you wrote it down.
Yeah, I wrote it down.
You were also listening to jazz at this point. What jazz pianists were you drawn to?
Yeah a little bit. My first real love was Erroll Garner, who was actually kind of a protégé of Art Tatum’s. Erroll Garner used to go listen to Art Tatum all the time. And then I later discovered Art Tatum. But Erroll Garner was more popular then. You’d hear Erroll Garner on the radio all the time, even on non-jazz stations. I loved the spirit of Erroll Garner’s, and I still do. I love to listen to Erroll Garner. I think he’s still one of the great American pianists.
What was it about his playing that you were taken with?
It’s the spirit. He just lifts your spirit up. He was so buoyant. Erroll’s music is very happy, but in a deep way, not just ha-ha-ha. It just takes you up.
Did you ever hear him live?
No, I never did. But I heard a good story about him. He used to play in Las Vegas and he was very short in stature. I heard an interview on the radio and he said, “Yeah I had to put like two of those New York telephone books on the piano bench just to get me up high enough” [laughs]. Two of those babies.
So from then I started listening to as many jazz pianists as I could. But it was mainly after I had moved to the Bay Area and had more access to them. Then I started hearing Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. When I stayed at San Francisco State I was in a really wonderful class with Pauline Oliveros, Loren Rush, Joe Weber, Ken Benshoof. These are all people who went on to have a really great career in music and we were all in this class with Dr. Wendell Otey, who was a wonderfully stimulating teacher and introduced us to all kinds of, not only new music stuff, but jazz. So we got to get acquainted with things that maybe we wouldn’t have stumbled into otherwise.
So this was before you went to UC Berkeley?
Yeah. I was in San Francisco State. I came there in 1955 to ’57.
And then soon after that you wrote two pieces for piano 1958 and 1959, which are 12-tone pieces.
Yeah. That happened because Loren Rush—Loren and Pauline were writing in a more 12-tone style. Maybe that’s not strict 12-tone music. And I was hanging out with them a lot. And I was more of a Pollock neo—I loved neoclassical music and the writing I was doing was that. I’d gotten married in the meantime and got pregnant with Colleen. So I didn’t continue going to school. I went to work for United Airlines, but I was writing on my off hours.
So I started those pieces when I was writing. But before I started it, Loren had asked me to play a piano piece of his at Wheeler Hall on a student recital and it was kind of like a Schoenbergian piece, pretty much in the style of Schoenbergpiano music. And that kind of got into my psyche and fingers. Right after that I wrote the two pieces for piano, which aren’t really so much like Loren’s music, but it opened something up into me to wanting to explore these kinds of angular rhythms and dancy things.
They’re kind of Webern, actually. I think of it as Webern—these hairpin crescendos and mezzo forteand then pianissimo. It’s so different from—
It’s funny that you say that because I wasn’t really as much into Webern’s music, but I was really interested in Schoenberg. And quickly after that I started getting into Stockhausen, which is not like this either but I sort of made that leap and started listening to Stockhausen’s music.
And there’s a recording of you playing this, which is really brilliant.
I think that was from a student symposium at UCLA.
But you never performed them again?
No. I don’t have them in my fingers now. Are you playing them?
Yeah. I recorded them.
Oh great. Well, I’ll get to hear them again.
And just a couple years later you were writing the Keyboard Studies, which was such a different, almost opposite, part of the spectrum.
I was playing with a rehearsal band in San Francisco. A lot happened to me between this and then. I had been in Europe two years and met Joao Pedroand worked with him. I came back to San Francisco and started playing with a rehearsal jazz band with Bill Douglass, Jon Gibson, Mel Martin, these wonderful Bay Area jazz musicians, and we’d rehearse every Wednesday night. We were playing a lot of Monk and Coltrane and things like that. That’s when I wrote Tread on the Trail. It was for that band because I thought of it more as a jazz piece. So a lot of things had happened.
The Keyboard Study Number Two, I remember when it happened we were playing “Autumn Leaves” in this rehearsal band and when I came to my solo, it’s like [plays]—something like that, and then my solo [plays pattern]. Out of that, I heard…
That’s so interesting because that’s doing almost like an ornament within the texture of “Autumn Leaves.”
Yeah and then I dropped out the rest of “Autumn Leaves.” And then I wrote a piece called “Autumn Leaves,” which actually Robert Carl, who wrote the In Cbook, did a wonderful performance of “Autumn Leaves” with a group. It’s not been done on a commercial release. I took the chords of “Autumn Leaves” and really stretched them way out and you won’t recognize the tune, but it’s the underlying…
That’s amazing. At this point, were you also doing the late-night concerts or the all-night concerts?
Not yet. I was still in San Francisco at this point working at the Tape Center. I got to do my first concerts at the Tape Center in November. The first one, that was when the premiere of In Cwas and I played a version of Keyboard Study One there and [plays]. I started this kind of technique and it was called Cool. I’d get all the music forThe Gift and I put Chet Baker on that concert and a lot of tape things, The Bird of Paradise, things that Tom Welch later released and some things he didn’t release, tape pieces. I was working with a lot of tape pieces. I was still in San Francisco.
When you played these on a keyboard, was it a piano or was it a synthesizer?
The piano. I had an old upright at home.
Cool, was that like Keyboard Study Number One? Was there a relationship?
It was but just in the fact of the alternating hands, but it moved differently harmonically.
At this point were you writing notated music or not?
Not much. Not much. I wrote Tread on the Trail and it was this one page thing . I was interested in writing charts that could be turned into really long pieces by musicians who knew how to work in extended forms.
So you started notating music again in the ‘70s when you met the Kronos Quartet, is that right?
1980. And that was when David Herrington said we want some quartets and could you write them down.
And then after that you started also notating piano music and you wrote this beautiful album The Heaven Ladder, Book 7.
Yeah that was quite a bit later.
This is 1994, right?
Tell us about The Heaven Ladder. This is an Adolf Wölfli drawing.
Yeah The Heaven Ladder. That’s the Wölfli drawing that inspired the title of the piece. That’s it; I liked the drawing.
And what does The Heaven Ladder mean to you?
Well, I think it’s a wonderful thought that it’s maybe a way to live that’s always ascending. You’re becoming a finer, more pure person and it’s reaching toward divinity. Wölfli was a very religious person. Maybe I’m not so religious, but I have a spiritual bend. But Wölfli was deeply religious in the sense of God and the angels and he traveling with them in space. He was very divinely inspired. He’d have these visions where God would take him to all these different planets and he married 12 goddesses. He has this incredible autobiography that’s of his imagination, but for him it was real.
And you wrote an opera about him, right?
The Saint Adolf Ring, yeah. But it isn’t really up in the sense of opera, even modern operas. It’s probably more like John Cage’s Europera. It’s only loosely an opera. It’s a theater piece with singing and a lot of narration, but a very small cast. There was only three of us onstage. But it did have a libretto, all taken from Wölfli’s writings. And it had visuals done by Frank Ragsdale that turned Wölfli’s drawings into moving mandalas and the little figures you see in his drawings were actually animated and they started moving through the drawing. It was, I thought, quite a really wonderful realization of Wölfli’s work. We sort of collaborated with him and with music and his words created this thing, which was performed about eight times.
I hope it can be performed again.
This was 30 years ago.
Tell me about working with other keyboards besides the piano. When did that start happening? You worked with a synthesizer and organ. You’re coming from a recording of your organ concerto. And you’ve played the big organ at Disney Hall.
Hurricane Mama—I even gave it a name.
What’s it’s called?
It’s Hurricane Mama now. The name stuck. That’s what I called it.
So how did that happen, that you started using other keyboards besides piano?
When I moved to New York I didn’t have a piano. I had a piano when I lived in San Francisco. And then in 1965 Anne, Colleen, and I went down to Mexico for three months in our Volkswagen bus and drove all over Mexico and lived in the bus, and ended up in New York. I traded the bus for a loft on Grand Street. I didn’t have a keyboard and I was really wanting something.
George Maciunas, who’s the founder of Fluxus, gave me an old harmonium that had a vacuum cleaner motor in it. Reed Streams, which was my first recording on Mass Art, was done on that old harmonium. My mother loaned me enough money to buy me a couple of tape recorders and a soprano saxophone and I started doing concerts with the vacuum-cleaner-motor harmonium and the two tape recorders and the saxophone.
Where were those concerts?
The first one was in Philadelphia at the Philadelphia College of Art. Jim McWilliams was the guy that came up with the idea to do an all-night concert. He said, “Could you play all night?” I said, “I’ll try.” So, I did with the saxophone and tape delays and the harmonium.
Did you get sleepy? How did you sustain yourself?
There’s a trick to it. Everybody came, they brought sleeping bags, families came with picnic baskets. Jim wanted to make it kind of a family affair where people would spend the night. They brought hammocks and sleeping bags—everything strung around the art gallery. I would play a set but I would record the set. Of course, the tape delay stuff got recorded automatically as I was playing it. Then I would take a break while they were listening to the same set I just had played. And I’d come back and play a new set and record it all. So, I didn’t actually play continuously.
Did you sleep during that?
No, I didn’t sleep.
You just got a little rest.
I’d sit out.
Why a vacuum cleaner motor?
It had a blower for the bellows. Somebody had made this for George, I think. And it had a noise of course. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this. It was recorded for Mass Art, which was a plastics company. They made three or four records. They were down on Canal Street in New York in ’65-’66.
A plastics company?
Yeah. They made all those Andy Warhol…that was the main thing they were selling, works that Andy had made out of plastic and then they mass produced them, so they were called Mass Art. And they did an Allan Kaprow record and a John Cage record and my record and a Max Neuhaus record. Those are the four I can remember. They each made a thousand records.
When did you start playing organ?
I was still in New York and I got a Vox Super Continental double-manual organ. A step up from the vacuum cleaner harmonium. Then I did concerts with it.
I was still playing Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band with the saxophone and tape delay. And I was playing mainly the Keyboard Studies,then on the Vox Super Continental, and that was my show. I did the Intermediate 68 tour, which was a bunch of New York artists, all doing the same kind of tour at colleges around New York—Buffalo.
Was the organ portable so you could just bring it around with you?
Yeah. I could lift it up and carry it then. I toured with Bob Benson, who was a New York pop artist, and he had built a whole bunch of screens out of Mylar. He surrounded me and part of the audience with Mylar screens, which kind of look like those sideshow mirrors where you look really distorted in. He did the lights and the Mylar screens and I played and that was our show. We toured New York state with that.
But you really like playing big pipe organs now.
I don’t get the opportunity to do it much and I’m not a trained pipe organist. But the Disney Hall occasion was really great. I had been sitting next to Chad Smith at a concert where an organ piece was being played and I said, “I’d love to play that organ.” And he took me seriously and he said, “We’ll put you on the organ recital season.” I said, “Well I’m really going to have to be able to have time with the organ.”
So, I took some lessons from Phil Smith, who is the resident organist at Disney Hall to kind of get me started, like how does this thing work? It’s like flying a 747 and never knowing what all the buttons and knobs were. Bill showed me enough to get me started.
Chad gave me I think at least three weeks down there where I could have the hall from midnight until 6 AM when it wasn’t being used. I must have had about 18 to 20 nights, because I was also composing The Universal Bridge for the organ. I was composing a piece for it. It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had, being in Disney Hall all alone. Well, I wasn’t all alone because I’d invite a lot of friends—Russ Tamblyn and his family and people I knew in LA, and Michael McClure came down. People would sit and spend the night while I was rehearsing and writing in the hall.
But to be in that hall all night, it’s like a huge uplifting experience, like a big temple. The pipe organ is so powerful. I never got tired of it. By the time 6:00 in the morning came, I was still ready to go more. It was so energizing.
What a wonderful experience.
Yeah it really was. I never had anything like it. I don’t think I could do it again though with the physical stamina. It just came at the right time in my life when I was still strong and able to do things like that.
I’d like to ask about your process of taking an improvisation and turning it into a composition. So if we take the piece Be Kind to One Another, that’s a notated piece but it began as improvisations. Your grandchildren would sometimes ask for the music before they went to bed and so it was sort of in a way a lullaby for them.
Yeah. I wasn’t even thinking of it as a piece. It was just something they liked to hear me play.
So does that happen a lot that you take material that you’ve been improvising and then you turn it into a notated piece?
Yes. What you play is so much more than what I played for them. It was just [plays]. That’s all I really had, that little theme at the beginning. Then the little ragtime thing came into it later and I started playing that and developing it. And then you asked me to write you a piece. I also thought it was a good idea, just a nice message, because that’s what Alice Walker had said when 9/11 happened, we have to learn to be kind to one another now. This is a time when you have to learn to be kind to one another. And I thought that was the best thing I heard anybody say after 9/11.
And certainly now. Can you show us how you improvise on that?
I haven’t played that for so long, I’d be embarrassed. I’d stumble in front of the cameras with it.
Do you think of the right hand and the left hand as having separate roles? Do you think of them as individual entities in a way?
Yeah. When I’m playing I’m listening to the composite of what’s happening and what needs to be carrying the music at the time. It isn’t just static. Even though it’s repeating, things need to be brought out. But that’s done spontaneously in the moment. But you play that piece fantastically. You’re the master of that piece.
I love that piece so much.
But it is interesting, your relationship between the right hand and the left hand because I think in a lot of the classical music that we learn, the left hand has a very accompaniment role and the right hand is doing all the important stuff. But the balance with you is very much equal or a lot of the left hand, and maybe that comes from the jazz pianists that you’re inspired by.
Also I like to think about that when I’m writing a string quartet. A lot of string quartets, especially people who are first starting to write, they always think the first violinist has the important part and everybody else is accompanying him. And I never wrote string quartets like that. Sometimes it’s the second violinist I like to give the leading role to and a lot of times, like the Kronos John Sherba gets to play the real cool stuff.
So when you wrote In C you had a job at the Gold Coast Saloon.
Gold Street Saloon.
And what kind of music did you play there?
I played honky tonk.
Can you show us what honky tonk is?
Let’s see, let me think about it. I’m trying to think of a tune. I haven’t done any of this kind of stuff for a while [plays].
That’s so great. That’s another kind of music where if it’s written down, like if I get a notated piece with that kind of bass, and it’s really, really hard because you’re trying to get this and you’re trying to get that and you’re trying to get everything accurate, and it sounds that way. But when someone—
But I’m not getting it accurate. I’m just [laughs].
Or when you hear Erroll Garner play and it’s just so natural. Or when Art Tatum plays and it’s just like he’s leaping around, and he’s blind, and he’s probably had a lot to drink. But it’s just he’s sort of—it’s all just completely natural I guess is what I’m saying. And when you play notated stuff like that, like some of your leaps in your left hand, when they’re notated they’re not as natural sounding I guess is what I’m trying to say. Or you have to work hard to make them sound natural.
The spirit of it has to come from another place. That’s why you have to go beyond the notation. But in the case of Art Tatum, notation was not even an issue, but he learned a lot of music from recordings. That’s the way he learned. He had to learn some way. But then he heard things in it that nobody had heard before like harmonic substitutions. He was one of the first ones that, in fact I think he’s hardly been equaled in harmonic substitution even to this day. Where his ear led him… I still listen to him. When I listen to his things, I marvel at it. And Herbie Hancock said this, “We’ll never catch up with Art Tatum.” And if Herbie thinks that way, well.
And Vladimir Horowitz said, “I’d give my right arm for his left hand.”
[Laughs] That’s good.
Did you ever work with Pandit Pran Nathat the piano?
Yes. In fact, unfortunately it came really late in his life just before he died, but we were out at a Sufi gathering in Marin County and there was an old kind of smokey piano upright up there and Shabda Kahn—I don’t know if you know Shabda Kahn. He’s a good friend and he’s also a Raga singer and he’s a Sufi peer. He teaches Sufism. He asked me to accompany him on Pandit Pran Nathon this piano. And he sang Darbari. But by this time he had heart failure, so he had to stop to breathe. Still, it’s very moving to hear. But it’s mainly like his voice is almost like a shadow of a voice.
Did you get a recording of that?
Yeah, there’s a recording of it.
I guess I’d love to hear about some of the history of The Philosopher’s Hand is such a great piece.
That’s a Raga actually. I think maybe this story is even written down somewhere. He came out and, we were at Skywalker and we had just recorded...what did we record, Requiem For Adam, I think. Isn’t that the recording? We had a little time and Judith Sherman says, “Let’s fill this out.” While we were out there I actually recorded during that period about two hours of music and David [Harrington] just reminded me of that, improvisations on Skywalker piano out there. But at the end of the sessions David said we’d like to have about, I don’t know, five—however long it is—eight minutes. He came out and sat beside the piano and said, “When you think of Pandit Pran Nathwhat would you play?” Raga Darbari is one of Pandit Pran Nath’s specialties so I was trying to play the feeling of Raga Darbari.
Can you show us what a Raga Darbari is?
The scale on the piano is [plays scale]. So I was just doing [plays].
When he transcribed it, it’s difficult because there are things that when you transcribe them the pianist will then emphasize those parts but they’re not the important parts. So it’s really good if you know what the Raga is [plays/sings]. The voice would do that, which the piano doesn’t have in between the notes.
Why is it that it gets so deep inside? It’s just mysterious.
Because it’s been done for thousands of years and the transmission of the music has been continuous and many people have worked on it. That’s where music is a spiritual art. It’s in the air and we’re all part of it. We’re all part of the web. So that’s why we feel it, if we open ourselves to it.