Friday night's Terry Riley 70th birthday concert was quite the experience and an apt three-hour celebration. Unlike say, the great John Adams' 50th birthday concert some years back that focused on the composer and his music, this had a much different feel. While it obviously represented Riley's aesthetic of being life-affirming, expansive, and inclusive, it had the aura of artists channelling a life force rather than just presenting a snapshot of an artist's achievements. Of course, that channelling was sometimes hard to master, especially since in this case, it was amplified. Feedback was occasionally a problem and the overall effect, as someone mentioned on the way out, was as a "wall of sound," where it was sometimes hard to distinguish individual voices. But again, highlighting the whole music over the individual was appropriate.
Other impressions: it had the makings of a travelogue representing Riley's cultural and artistic journey, starting with the opening Invocation, performed for Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge, sciene, and the arts. Riley from the program guide (PDF):
The music begins with a supplication to The Divine, asking that we musicians be given the gifts of mastery over pitch and rhythm, to be tuned to the sound current and to share these gifts with all beings.
The program also highlighted that Riley has lived on both sides of the notation/improvisation divide. On many of the pieces, e.g. Emerald Runner, Salome's Lucky Charms, and BEAT SUTRAS (Pictures and Stories .....Real), it was hard to know what what was improvised and notated. And I presume the Indian percussionist extraordinaire, Zakir Hussain, was not reading from sheet music. Bassoonist Paul Hanson:
What his music has meant to me is that there is this place in serious art music for improvisation -- improvisation that serves the composition. His music truly knows no boundaries or convenient descriptions, and that's the way true music is supposed to be in my estimation.
Darshan was a Riley transcription of an improvisation by violinist Tracy Silverman and the composer. Silverman joked "now he had to play the same notes as before."
Of notable works, the former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud played Olde English, a subdued solo piece with long tones and the occasional special effect, and the one piece of the night rightly called minimalistic. Francesco en Paraiso from Cantos Desiertos was the cheerful, melodious highlight of the evening with Tracy Silverman on violin (he played his electric violin on most works) and Riley's son Gyan in a refined, restrained performance on acoustic guitar (although he played most of the rest of the concert on electric guitar),
Much of the concert was a hybrid ensemble, which included Riley singing/chanting, playing the tanpura, and mostly at the keyboard, as well as musicians playing tenor saxophone, amplified bassoon (including foot petals), tabla, etc., Antonia Minnecola dancing (and concurrently reciting) in various colorful costumes, and Michael McClure reciting beat poetry on top of the ensemble.
And to top that cavalcade of artistry, John Zorn, curator of this year's Berkeley Edge Fest, came out, in combat pants, for the last number Curse of the 7 Generation Blues and cranked up the energy level by adding his maniacal alto saxophone to the mix.
Happy birthday, Terry Riley.