Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air, Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band

A Rainbow in Curved Air is a hard piece of music to describe, in part, perhaps, because although easy to listen to (at this point in history, at least), it’s not really very easy to make sense of.

In part that stems from my own preconceptions (which, once again, Riley has pretty much forced me to dispense with): I think of Terry Riley as a consummate performer, the father of serial minimalism, a true synthesizer of a wide range of traditions, and a wildly eclectic composer. And now that I’ve said that while listening to Rainbow, I realize I should have been ready for this.

Frankly, if I had heard Rainbow in 1969, I don’t know what I would have made of it. Listening now (no, although I’ve been listening to Riley’s music for long time, I had never heard this one before), I start to understand the genesis of things like Pete Townshend’s “Baba O’Riley,” a whole lot of Tangerine Dream, most of the trance music I ran into in the ’90s, and a huge chunk of techno, plus a few other things that I’ve come across in my musical wanderings.

It’s music that seems formless, although it’s certainly not: there are very tight structures at play here, but the synthesis is so complete that one is never sure of origins. It’s fairly hypnotic music, as you may have guessed from the comparisons I drew above, which is, I think, what makes it so hard to write about.

And yet while listening, the mind continually gives off little sparks of recognition — phrases, structures, sequences that have become part of the contemporary vocabulary. Is Rainbow as influential as everyone seems to think? Offhand, I’d say yes.

Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, the second piece on this disc, is almost too much of a piece with Rainbow, yet it’s not — there are, in the matrix of blended sounds, discrete passages of melody, thoughtful, even contemplative, and highly evocative — it’s terrifically visual music. But the basic structures remain intact.

It’s worth noting that Riley is the sole performer on this, and that the sound, as noted by the very brief commentary included, is akin to the sound achieved in his overnight concerts. (Those seem to have been quite fashionable on the West Coast at certain periods: Robert Rich, one of the musicians influenced by Riley, did the same thing with music based on human biological cycles.)

It’s rather odd — this is a disc that’s equally suited to sitting for a while and zoning out, or for sitting for a while and listening very carefully. Either way, it’s a disc that’s well worth it.

(CBS Records, 1969)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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