Monday, August 23, 2010
Terry Riley - Shri Camel (1980)
The New York Minimalist scene is often summed up in the trifecta of three popular composers, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Of the three, Riley has arguably been the most overtly experimental in his compositions, with groundbreaking pieces like "In C" and his pioneering use of tape delays to create overdubs in live performances. His music also tends to contain an element of spirituality, and like the old hippy that he is, he has not neglected the world of Eastern mysticism.
Shri Camel is Riley's exploration of the techniques he learned from years of studying Indian ragas. Indeed, his music has often been lauded as ideal for use in meditation. However, he has incorporated these techniques into his own style of composition and the music does not, in itself, sound particularly Indian. There are no sitars or tablas present, yet the complexity and form of the raga is present throughout and the pieces are at times extremely involved, with up to sixteen lines of counterpoint happening at once.
The album consists of four lengthy pieces, each performed live in the studio by Riley on a Yamaha organ, resulting in a musical palette that is somewhat monochromatic. Riley uses a similar technique to that which Brian Eno and Robert Fripp put to great use in the seventies, looping his performance and adding parts on top of it in real time. If done recklessly, this can result in aural chaos that is impossibly to make sense of, but Riley has been practicing the method for decades and takes care to maintain transparency across the various lines. He also differentiates the parts by changing the settings on his organ, altering timbres and percussiveness so that the listener can distinguish his phrasing. This gives the music more depth and color, wile still maintaining a unity of sound across all four pieces.
The other unique aspect of Shri Camel is the fact that Riley has tuned his instrument using the "Just Intonation" system which, in contrast to the equal temperament tuning used in 99.9% of Western Music, follows more closely the physical overtone series found in nature. The difference, in terms of sound, is that "Just Intonation" sounds slightly alien to the practiced ears of a modern Westerner. It strikes us as ever so slightly "off." This can be disconcerting at first, but once you are able to let go of your preconceived notions about tuning and appreciate sound for sound's sake, it comes as a welcome relief from the sameness of the music we hear every day.
Shri Camel is a wonderful example of what Riley does best, and while it may prove difficult listening to the average person due to its unusual tuning system and reliance on a single keyboard instrument for its entire duration, it will reward those with patience by providing them with a gentle beauty not eaily found in the music of today.