Guru in need of a C-change

Whatever they say about the Beatles, Terry Riley's In C was the sound of the Sixties. But where's he at today? Apart from in Huddersfield. By Keith Potter
On 4 November 1964, a random assortment of musicians turned up to play a concert at San Francisco's Tape Music Center. Many were young composers, themselves working in the spaces that had recently started to open up - thanks to the advent of the new tape technology - between "classical" music, jazz and rock 'n' roll, as well as between these fields and the rich variety of non-Western musics that West-Coast Americans in particular feel to be part of their heritage. But only one composer was being performed that night: a 29-year-old Californian by the name of Terry Riley. And just one composition in his one-man show turned out to have a really big impact, both then and subsequently. That piece was called In C.

Riley's In C, with its extensive repetition of simple modal fragments, is widely held responsible for beginning the minimalist movement in music. As its 53 modules - many just a handful of notes, though there is also one glorious tune - tumble joyously over one another, they achieve an effect quite different from that of any earlier Western music outside jazz. Thirty-one years ago, modal improvisation had just been taken up by John Coltrane and others, but it was new in "formal" music. Among In C's other virtues was its accessibility, to performers as well as listeners. Any number can join in: the material itself is not difficult and the work's single-page score effortlessly but precisely charts the music's course.

That openness has, however, presented its drawbacks too. An image has built up around it - the more the merrier, appreciated all the better if you're on certain substances - that has turned the work into hippy log-fire music. Never mind the Beatles - who were working on the album A Hard Day's Night while Riley was composing In C. (Ringo Starr had his tonsils out shortly after Riley's work was premiered.) In C is the really quintessential Sixties piece. So, too, in a way, is its follow-up: Olson III, composed in 1967 for a Swedish youth choir and orchestra, with its clear reference - for Swedish speakers, at least - to marijuana.

Though not in fact widely known until Columbia issued a recording in 1968, In C became what the jazz critic Robert Palmer has called "the single most influential post-1960 composition by an American". By the late Sixties, Riley had moved into solo improvisations - sometimes lasting all night - on soprano saxophone (Coltrane again an influence here) and electric organ. Earlier in the decade, though, he had been a pioneer in the field of tape delay, with tape pieces exploring the potential of repetition, using fragments of speech and music, along lines later made famous by Steve Reich, a prime mover in the premiere of In C. (It is good to know that some of these compositions will shortly be available on CD from the Los Angeles-based Cortical Foundation.) Delay now returned in a "live" context, allowing Riley an animated, instant counterpoint. Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band and A Rainbow in Curved Air were constructed around "grooves" similar to those of In C, but began the move away from its pure minimalism. Unlike In C, they were never written down.

In the early Seventies - now increasingly influenced by classical Indian music via his studies with Pandit Pran Nath - Riley's performances developed a more structured approach, especially rhythmically. Persian Surgery Dervishes, for instance, has a far more dynamic shape. And it is this music that influenced the likes of Brian Eno and The Who - to say nothing of a whole generation of music students - as much as In C itself. For a while, Riley became a cult rock hero, even making a more obviously rock-oriented album with John Cale, of Velvet Underground fame, called The Church of Anthrax.

The flexibilities of In C have, however, helped the piece adapt to changing cultural circumstances, even as they have left it open to thoughtless abuse. Performances in the three decades since its premiere have reflected changing tastes as well as the seriousness, or otherwise, of its interpreters' involvement. The rather unsubtle blow-outs of 20 years ago have given way, in the hands of sensitive musicians, to performances that respond to the work's requirements and potential in new ways. Its DIY score - long unpublished, passed from hand to hand (laboriously copied in the old days, illegally photocopied now) - is also halfway towards embodying the idea, prevalent in Indian culture, that music can survive entirely on its own merit, independent of the creator's name or many of the things traditionally betokening a "personal style".

Despite this, the work has become a millstone around Riley's neck as well as the chief reason for both his cult status a quarter of a century ago and his more recent selection as one of the Sunday Times's "1,000 Makers of the 20th Century". Improvisation had taken over after 1964, making his music inaccessible to other musicians even as it gained him new friends. The popularity of In C has obscured the very real achievement of, for example, Shri Camel, another keyboard improvisation but one that developed movable rather than merely repeating patterns, a stronger melodic profile and more adventurous harmony, including the use of just intonation. It's true that Riley has had some success with the works he has written for the Kronos Quartet who, in 1980, began to encourage him to write music down again and, in the process, to explore ways of elaborating his material that he would probably not otherwise have developed. Salome Dances for Peace (1985-6) for string quartet, the major composition of this period, has been widely admired.

But both Riley's recent work with the groups Khayal and Zeitgeist and, in particular, his more "classical" compositions of the past six and more years - which include three large-scale works involving orchestra and a music-theatre piece - are little known in Britain. Recordings both of Zeitgeist and of later solo keyboard improvisations exist; he continues to improvise. But what does Riley's other new music sound like?

The Sands - one of two recent compositions to be played at the Huddersfield Festival - is a half-hour work in four movements for string quartet and orchestra. Written in 1991, and premiered at that summer's Salzburg Festival, for which it was commissioned, it has a clear political message. The composer had improvised its opening stages on the keyboard in January, on the eve of the Gulf War. "It is dedicated," he says, "to the struggle for peace and co-operation and condemns the shameless irresponsibility of our Government's military actions that caused such deep suffering and agonising loss of life of innocent people."

These concerns are translated into a dramatic, urgent music in which repetition seems to carry more of the sort of significance - structural as well as emotional - that it has in Beethoven than it does in "classic" minimalism. Many other sources play their part, some familiar from Riley's earlier output: melodies of a clear Middle-Eastern origin; use of northern Indian modes; timbral links with the Persian tradition; the choice of an American ballad, "Time on my hands", as the subject of variations; Gil Evans and jazz orchestrations (there is a prominent part for piano); a foxtrot; East African rhythms. Their more "symphonic" context transforms them, though, in ways Riley wouldn't have used before.

But if The Sands suggests that the composer's minimalist roots have been largely abandoned, Cactus Rosary (1993) - the other recent work to be heard in Huddersfield - contradicts this. Evocative of Native American peyote ceremonies, this work for the Canadian group Arraymusic possesses, for all its jazz influences, the contemplative, mesmerising, static qualities the earlier piece lacks. Taken together, the two works suggest a new kind of openness - to both musical materials and structures - that seems as healthy, vital and relevant to our times as the openness of In C was to its own era.

n Terry Riley is featured at the Huddersfield Contemporary Festival, beginning with a late-night solo piano recital by the composer tonight, and ending with a performance of 'In C' on Wednesday. Booking: 01484 430528