One of the high points of my music-listening career, right up there with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Irwin Hoffman performing the perfect Brahms Symphony No, 1, was the chance to hear Terry Riley in concert. For those who haven’t had that opportunity, the recording of his Lisbon Concert is the next best thing. The recording was made in 1995 at the Teatro Sào Luís in Lisbon, the final stop on Riley’s sixtieth-birthday tour of Europe. The disc presents a shimmering fabric of music that draws on Riley’s compositions spanning several decades. Although the piano was tuned in equal temperament, as opposed to Riley’s preferred just intonation tuning, he draws from it colors and shadings that are ineffably Riley.
The piano has always been Riley’s preferred instrument, and it’s no surprise that he is a true virtuoso. The concert is a showcase, not only for his musicianship, but for the multitude of modes that he has incorporated into his own music. He moves effortlessly between jazz and minimalism, throwing in elements that are not quite Latin, Chinese, or movie soundtrack, that hark back to the rich textures of Mozart or the earthy romanticism of Vaughan Williams, but the music is always, somehow, Riley. And he plays with the music itself, echoing earlier passages as the music goes on, and then foreshadowing things that are still to come.
“Arica,” which opens the album, has an understated beginning that recalls, in mood if not actual sound, some of Debussy’s preludes. At least, it begins that way. Riley builds to cascades of notes over a quiet, reflective base, calling up the repetitive motifs of serial minimalism set over a jazz base that moves the music right along, like a brook falling through a rocky bed — it calls up that kind of image. It fades into “Negro Hall,” which opens with another quiet passage that could be an extension of the opening of “Arica” — Riley has already started tying things together — then immediately takes on a jazzy air, almost a torch song, but slow and sweet, and then moves into real honky-tonk — for a bit. It’s a strongly jazz-based piece, but there are hints and bits of all sorts of other things going on. “15/16” has a Latin feel to it, but not quite, while “Havana Man” – well, if Schumann had done jazz, you might be getting close. The music continues, Riley weaving all sorts of sound patterns and references into the flow, almost reprising earlier pieces, but never quite, while building new contexts as it goes along, moving from style to style but never quite leaving the central theme. There is a unity of vision in control of this music that is quite formidable.
The overwhelming sense of it is that Riley is having a hell of a lot of fun. I said above that the concert was “drawn from” his compositions, and I meant exactly that: it becomes obvious that there are decisions being made throughout this exercise, that improvisation has a major role here, and that the whole process is in sure hands.
It really is a glimpse of a master at play, and just about the most musically erudite master you’re ever going to encounter. Notably missing are thundering passages of high drama — for Riley, “high drama” becomes a quiet, understated sort of thing, with an order of subtlety that’s refreshing — but there’s enough tension to keep the listener enthralled. It’s not background music, at all. It’s “Wow!” music, but the wow is a breath, not a shout.
(New Albion Records, 1995)