Terry Riley: The Piano Works

A compendium of solo compositions stretching half a century
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Why isn’t Terry Riley’s piano music better known? Those of us who consider him to be one of the finest composer-pianists alive today are celebrating Chester Music’s publication of Terry Riley: The Piano Works, released for the composer’s eightieth birthday. This important collection gathers together fifty years of Riley’s compositions for solo piano, from his Schoenbergian Two Pieces for Piano (1958/1959) to his free-wheeling Be Kind to One Another (Rag) from 2008 (revised in 2014). These are compositions that deserve to be studied alongside classics of twentieth-century piano literature and performed in concert halls around the globe.

Terry Riley with Sarah Cahill
Photo by Lawrence Rinder Terry Riley is best known for launching the minimalist movement with his classic In C in 1965. Around the same time he wrote Keyboard Study No. 1 and No. 2, which offer the pianist assorted figurations to choose from and juxtapose and repeat in various combinations. Riley describes them as “long meditational exercises,” and has said that he engages in these minimalist patterns as a kind of extended morning ritual. The performance directions can be puzzling—“The 10 unit cell (b) is played 3 units in the time of 2 units 3:2 of cell (c),” or “If any figure from lines 8-10 is placed in the alignment of continuum figure 7, it may be combined with other figures from lines 8-10.” While there are no recordings of Riley playing his Keyboard Studies, it’s always illuminating to listen to his phenomenal improvisations, in which his two hands play in independent meters often at lightning speed. This collection helpfully includes several manuscripts of the Keyboard Studies as well as the printed version.

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Those who have pigeonholed Riley as a minimalist will be surprised to discover his Two Pieces for Piano, published here for the first time. While not strictly twelve-tone, the scores show an abundant influence of Schoenberg on the 23-year-old Riley—dissonant melodic lines, dynamic extremes within the space of a few measures, pointillistic textures, angular counterpoint. The scores are rigorously notated—phrasing, pedaling, accents, dynamics are all specified—in a style Riley never returned to, making the Two Pieces for Piano anomalies in his output. It would be 35 years before Riley would return to notated piano music, with The Heaven Ladder, Book 7, included in this volume.

A marvelous preface to this collection begins with Riley’s own ruminations about his relationship to the piano, with this colorful opening line: “This story starts down on Mrs. Halton’s chicken farm on the back road from Colfax to Weimar, California, during WWII.” Riley describes studying with local piano teachers, playing in a group called Grand Dad’s Copycats and being drawn to “pieces that were driven by left-hand ostinato like the ‘Bumble Boogie’ and ‘Along the Navaho Trail,’” jamming with Chet Baker in Paris, and getting a job at the Gold Street Saloon in San Francisco with Wally Rose, who taught him ragtime: “I never really wanted to learn all the rags but I did want to know the secrets of its magic peace-giving grooves and Wally showed me that.”

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It may well be that Riley’s circuitous career has hindered his reputation, when compared to more single-minded colleagues who have tread a straight and narrow path. But the diversity of Riley’s experiences is precisely what enriches this collection. Ragtime, along with Riley’s enduring interests in jazz, North Indian raga, improvisation, and classical virtuosity, all coexist in bigger works like Fandango on the Heaven Ladder and Ragtempus Fugatis, both from The Heaven Ladder, Book 7, and The Walrus in Memoriam, a dazzlingly inventive take on the Beatles’ song I Am the Walrus. These are substantial and challenging compositions, and deserve to be studied by generations of young pianists.