Terry Riley is one of the more remarkable composers of the post-War American scene, and one whose music I have been enthusiastic about for many years. Part of the fun is that you never quite know what to expect from Riley — he’s credited with inventing serial minimalism, based on his research on gamelan, and he’s got a solid grounding in classical Indian raga as well as Western music. (I attended a Riley concert some years ago in which he opened the evening with a raga performance — he played the sitar.) He’s no stranger to blues, jazz and other vernacular forms, either, as well as American Indian music. Even the motions of playing become part of the music. He’s worked closely with the Kronos Quartet for many years as well — they, in fact, commissioned The Cusp of Magic as well as a number of other works. And they all agreed that pipa master Wu Man should be included in this one, with admirable results.
Glance at the credits on the first page of the booklet, and it will give you an idea of what you’re in for: David Harrington, violin, bass drum, peyote rattle, toys; John Sherba, violin, toys; Hank Dutt, viola, toys; Jeffrey Zeigler, cello, toys; Wu Man, pipa, toys. You noticed that, didn’t you? That’s the thing about Riley — he makes complex, challenging music, but there’s always an element of play, which to me is the mark of the true master: he’s having fun doing this.
The combination of the pipa with the sounds of the Western string quartet, in Riley’s words, “highlight the boundary regions of cultural reference, so that Western musical themes might be projected with an Eastern accent and vice-versa. My plan was to make these regions seamless …” Riley has hung the whole thing on Midsummer, a time when the everyday, daytime world is suspended for a while, making room for that bit of nighttime anarchy that is the solstice, a time when the year hangs in the balance and anything is possible.
The outer two movements, “The Cusp of Magic” and “Prayer Circle,” make use of elements from the American Indian peyote ritual, particularly the irregular rhythmic structures, although Riley’s characteristic near-gamelan idiom in the first movement is brought into play by Wu Man’s rapid runs on the pipa, which have the effect of bringing the whole thing into the realm of rhythm. The introduction of electronic elements highlights the otherworldly mood.
The next two movements, “Buddha’s Bedroom” and “The Nursery,” bring this mood into a quieter space: they are lullabies, sung by Wu Man, and quite lovely, although probably not what most of us in the West grew up with. They are very peaceful little songs, though.
“Royal Wedding,” although cast as a North Indian gat — a short, sixteen-beat composition that provides the basis for elaboration and improvisation — is thoroughly Western in feel and calls to mind nothing so much as a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s followed by “Emily and Alice,” named after Harrington’s granddaughter and the daughter of Kronos’ manager. It’s an odd one, a song sung in children’s voices — or a reasonable facsimile thereof — and accompanied by musical toys. (Yes, the toys were not just listed for effect.) The melody is actually adapted from the theme song of a Russian cartoon character, Cheburashka, although there’s a dark mood here, an intrusion of reality, perhaps.
“Prayer Circle” gives us a resolution as unexpected as it is satisfying — the quartet and pipa blend into something that is neither Eastern nor Western, but a true synthesis of the two, set again in the context of the peyote ritual.
That’s the key thing to remember about Riley’s music, I think — he’s taken all those traditions, all those influences, all those idioms, and truly synthesized them into a new vocabulary — it’s far beyond references or quotations — and yet it’s very comfortable.
You know how sometimes when you encounter something new you get this sort of prickly feeling on your scalp, like your hair is trying to stand up? That’s magic. That was my reaction to this piece.