Cadenza on the Night Plain (the disc, not the work of that title) presents four of Terry Riley’s works for string quartet, works that, if your only acquaintance with Riley has been pieces on the order of In C or other larger-scaled works, are going to be something of a surprise — no matter how complex and abstract their conceptual underpinnings, they are possessed of a refreshing liveliness and clarity.
Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, which opens the disc, bears some resemblance to the near-legendary In C: both are built around a group of independent modules, and both allow for great variation in approach. The whimsy that underlies the work is the image of a dream collector who comes around every morning to collect the night’s trophies and ready them for redistribution the next night. Given the intricacy of the writing, the collector must be busy indeed. And in spite of the cascades of notes involved, it is the next best thing to transparent — you can see, so to speak, right into it.
G Song is a slower, more serious work. Although it maintains the same kind of momentum, it’s more introspective, almost mysterious, I think largely because the intricate, rapid figures on the violins ride over a slow, sensuous and somewhat melancholy cello line, the whole broken by interludes in which the full ensemble joins the cello. There are shadows in this piece, only partly hidden.
The next movement (and I’m calling it a movement for reasons I will discuss later), Mythic Birds Waltz, takes this mood even further. The slow, grave opening uses something that seldom occurs in Riley’s music, at least in noticeable form — classic post-Schoenbergian dissonance. (This is not to imply that such a thing is not part of Riley’s arsenal — I think just about everything is part of Riley’s arsenal.) And, although the mood and tempo pick up, Riley plays with that dissonance — after one intense passage based on a repeated figure, the dissonance works its way into the fabric of the music. The mood alters again, back to pensive, with a kind of lyricism that’s hard to explain: imagine, if you will, a composition based at least in part on serialism, not a notably sensual idiom, that nevertheless takes on a quality of sweetness. There’s also a strong element of jazz in this one, a ballad more than ragtime, although it moves toward that.
Cadenza on the Night Plain is the most expansive work in the collection, and begins with what seems at first an echo of that strong, discordant passage in Mythic Birds Waltz, save that this time the figure is not strictly repeated, and voices join and leave and rejoin, building to some passionate peaks. It’s a very lean opening, with pauses that serve as punctuation for the melodies. Riley’s love of Indian music is obvious in this one — it’s very like listening to an improvisational passage in a classical raga, save that the sitar has become a string quartet. There is sometimes an almost chaotic element here, as well, as though the performers had suddenly just gone free jazz on us, that quickly resolves itself into a strong melodic line. The music returns to a variation on the opening sequence, a section that seems poised on the brink of something, which resolves itself into a passage somewhere between a march and a love song. Sounds strange, I know, but it’s there: momentum, definite rhythms, another of those supremely sensual melodic lines, all come together in a combination that defies description. Mark Swed, in his comments on the album, notes that Cadenza is a profoundly spiritual work — a quality that I think infuses all of Riley’s music, but readily apparent here — and cites the lyricism and the flowing quality I find so hard to describe. (Under the heading of “For What It’s Worth”: Swed also brings in the patterns of westward migration across North America; my first image, and one that recurs every time I hear this piece, is one of the more epic, panoramic episodes from How the West Was Won. Take it as you will.)
And I’m sure you’ve been asking yourself “Why did he refer to Mythic Birds as a ‘movement’?” I have a habit of listening to music for a while before I begin to learn about it, and I’ve been listening to this recording for years — in fact, my first copy was on cassette. And at first I took it for a single, extended composition. I think it’s not so hard to understand: in spite of his incredible resources and myriad of influences, Terry Riley has one of the most strongly individual voices in contemporary American music. Whatever he writes is undeniably his, and I think, like all composers from all times, he borrows from himself, sometimes quoting a phrase, sometimes recycling an idea with variations. There’s an underlying unity to these quartets that may be the result of the period in which they were composed (all from 1980-1984) — artists tend to focus on certain ideas expressed through a particular vocabulary at different periods in their careers — and/or simply that, like any other creative person, there are certain broad themes that underlie Riley’s works, no matter when they were written.
I’m not sure that it really matters. Cadenza on the Night Plain has long been among my favorite music, right up there with Michael Nyman’s Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, and Nickelback’s Silver Side Up. Thinking about it, one thing these examples share is intensity, which in a world dedicated to blandness is a treasure indeed.
I should comment on the performance by Kronos Quartet (David Harrington, violin; John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola; Joan Jeanrenaud, cello): it is, as might be imagined, the definitive performance: Riley and the Quartet have been collaborating since the late 1970s, and Riley is a close personal friend of David Harrington and his family. The collaboration is truly just that — Riley has noted that when he creates a score for them, it’s pretty much bare bones; the details get worked out in rehearsal. So, take it that the Kronos Quartet knows how to handle this music.