Terry Riley’s Requiem for Adam was written as a memorial to Adam Harrington, son of David Harrington, first violinist of Kronos Quartet. Adam died suddenly at the age of 16 while walking with his family on Mt. Diablo, near San Francisco. Riley has been a close friend of the Harringtons for many years, and Adam shared a birthday with his own son.
The Requiem is cast in three movements: “Ascending the Heaven Ladder,” “Cortejo Funebre en el Monte Diablo,” and “Requiem for Adam.” The opening is quiet, spare, gradually building texture and complexity, introducing small quivers of dissonance, unexpected and unsettling, maintaining that ethereal quality as it begins very subtly to incorporate dance rhythms, and then progressing with some intensity to another ascent and again, quiet. It reminded me somewhat of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Canto di speranza, which is perhaps not so surprising — both composers, after all, are noted for their eclecticism, and both achieve profound effects with a minimum of means — what scientists call an “elegant solution.”
The “Cortejo” presents a strong contrast, the quartet joined by an electronic soundtrack of horns, bells, electronic percussion and gongs for an opening that paints a vivid picture of a processional — the colors here are striking, recalling perhaps a festival in Indonesia, although the music itself is very Western in feel. It does, to a certain extent, recall the third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony — there is that same increasing intensity, that same quality of teetering on the edge. Like the Mahler, the “Cortejo” gets a bit raucous; Riley himself says that this is “funeral music more in the tradition of New Orleans Dixieland than Beethoven.” The movement gradually takes on a driving, almost frantic rhythm that comes dangerously close to that characteristic of contemporary music that I call “urban angst,” a holdover from the days when dissonance was all the rage. It’s such a rhythmically driven section, and builds such momentum, that we are completely unprepared for the abrupt end.
The “Requiem” opens with another itense passage, again based in a driving rhythm and thoroughly modernist in feel — there is something here about wild, lonely places, the deep silence of grief, but it changes again, moving into a pulsing rhythm that drives the music to another very quiet, almost tenuous passage that echoes the similar sections in the first movement, brings us again to a processional, and then picks up speed and intensity again. It’s a longish movement, shifting back and forth from near silence to an almost extravagant sonority, finally leaving us with an afterimage as the final resolution.
Adam Harrington was a young man who, as Riley says, “had music raging in him — the pulsations of a young life with its longings for freedom, to see as far as one can see, from the top.” That’s in this music, but Riley doesn’t leave it at that: there’s also a full measure of loss at that life cut short.
“The Philosopher’s Hand,” which finishes off the album, is a short track of Riley improvising at the piano on a suggestion by David Harrington that he play something for four or five minutes “thinking of Pandit Pran Nath,” a philosopher and late friend of Harrington and Riley. The result is indeed thoughtful, almost ruminative, recalling in some measure that combination of fluidity and edginess in the piano music of Erik Satie, and creating yet another memorial.
I gave up some time ago the idea of Riley as a “minimalist” composer, although many consider him in that light. His music is too adventurous, too loose, to inquisitive to cast him in such simplistic terms. Looking back over this little essay, I realize that I’ve continually made references to other composers to try to describe Riley’s music. It’s an inadequate attempt. The hints are there, but they’re never more than hints, a phrase that almost could be, a color that reminds one of, a rhythm that recalls. Someone once referred to the school of “American Individualists,” and I think that’s where Riley belongs, along with Charles Ives and Leonard Bernstein. Granted, the only thing they have in common is that they’re not like anyone else, but then, that’s the point.
A note for those who are still fond of actual, physical discs: the booklet that accompanies this one is illustrated by a series of extraordinarily beautiful photographs by Mike and Doug Starn from their series “Black Pulse.” The photos, which somehow manage to incorporate an almost baroque extravagance in very spare images, suit the music perfectly.