The Life of Riley 

You can call composer-keyboardist Terry Riley a lot of things, but don't call him a minimalist.

This Friday night, a wildly diverse group of jazz, avant-garde, and Indian musicians, including saxophonist John Zorn, former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, Windham Hill violinist Tracy Silverman, and tabla master Zakir Hussain, will perform together at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. What do they have in common? One person: composer Terry Riley, the man through whom all their musical traditions converge.

Riley, who turns seventy on June 24, has invited these friends to help celebrate with a big birthday concert this weekend as part of Cal Performances' biennial Edge Fest, a festival of contemporary performance (Zorn is the other featured artist this year). Riley is best known as the father of minimalism: In 1964, riding a bus to his ragtime gig at the Gold Street Saloon in San Francisco, he jotted down 53 separate phrases of music and titled the piece In C. It launched the musical revolution that gave us John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and many others. In fact, you hear Riley's influence all the time without realizing it, for instance in the opening synthesizer sequence of the Who's Baba O'Riley (named for Riley and Meher Baba), or the ecstatic keyboard swirlings of that band's Won't Get Fooled Again.

But greatest hits can have downsides, and In C has overshadowed Riley's music of the last forty years. Too often he is pegged as a minimalist composer, which is a gross oversimplification. While repetitive elements still show up in his work, its synthesis of his North Indian raga studies, his jazz improvisation, Latin American rhythms, and avant-garde edginess make it some of the most complex, and yet appealing, music being written today. He was born in Colfax, California, and studied piano and composition at San Francisco State and at UC Berkeley. A true California composer, he now divides his time between the Richmond hills, near Wildcat Canyon Park, and his ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills when he isn't touring the globe.

What's striking about Riley's concerts nowadays is that while his listeners may get nostalgic about In C or A Rainbow in Curved Air, he himself keeps moving forward, incorporating the latest technology; writing astonishingly innovative pieces like his latest composition for the Kronos Quartet and pipa player Wu Man; and refining his dazzling keyboard technique. And he continues to transport his audiences to an altered state, just as he did with his famous all-night solo concerts in the '60s. At a Riley concert in Santa Cruz recently, composer John Adams credited him with "restoring the pleasure principle to contemporary music." (As someone peripherally involved with the Edge Fest, I will moderate a free panel discussion about Riley and his music, with composer Paul Dresher, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, and others at 4 p.m. on Saturday at 125 Morrison Hall at UC Berkeley.) One of the sweetest and truest things ever said about him comes from Tom Constanten, former keyboardist for the Grateful Dead: "If you spend any time around Terry Riley, your soul will get a tan."

Terry Riley performs at his birthday celebration at 8 p.m. Friday at Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley. For tickets, call 510-642-9988 or visit for more info.


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