Terry Riley begins the notes for Salome Dances for Peace by stating that the idea for the work came from “an improvisation on a theme from The Harp of New Albion. Around that time, David Harrington called me and asked me to write another string quartet.” That’s the kind of thing that happens when composers hang around with performers. One more quote that I found highly illuminating (not to mention the fact that it awakened echoes of my own creative process): “I trust the fact that anything that occurs to me is related to whatever occurred to me before.”
As a string quartet, Salome Dances for Peace is a great symphony. It’s long — just shy of two hours on this 2-CD set — and epic in scale. The titles of the sections perhaps give some indication of the breadth of vision involved here: “Anthem of the Great Spirit.” “Conquest of the War Demons.” “The Gift.” “The Ecstasy.” “Good Medicine.” If this sounds as though Riley were calling into reference American Indian images, well, he probably is: American Indian music is one of the many sources for his own work, after all.
Not to claim that these sources are obvious: one thing I’ve long admired about Riley is that he takes these “influences” and synthesizes them into something that is uniquely his own. Thus the opening movement, “Anthem of the Great Spirit,” in spite of its title seems cast in the mold of post-War American music, with full acknowledgement of the contributions of Bartók, Stravinsky, even Messiaen (all of whom, no matter their points of origin, had substantial influence on the music being created in America after 1945), and who knows who else. And in due course, we move into sections based on the driving rhythms of serial minimalism (without the rigidity) that derives ultimately from the gamelan of Bali, and then we find passages of a kind of dark lyricism, fluent but somehow foreboding, all somehow flowing into each other without us really noticing the transitions.
Mark Swed, in his comments on the piece, calls this “music of passing landscapes.” I think that’s quite apt: the music is more linear than some of Riley’s other compositions, but it’s the linearity of a train track, with images, moods, ideas passing by as we look. Riley does provide a narrative framework — and whatever else this music may be, it’s a narrative, based rather openly on the primal story of the Hero, as Salome is chosen by the Great Spirit to restore peace to the world and embarks on the Quest.
As is so often the case with Riley, the music is extraordinarily difficult to discuss in any intelligible way. It’s a music of alternating tensions and releases, except sometimes the tensions move into other tensions, and still others, before they release. The end result is something rich and potent, easy to get lost in, and ultimately very satisfying.