(previous page)

Previous to your immersion in non-Western music, as with your studies with Pandit Pran Nath, what sort of music was giving you ideas?

Before I met Pran Nath, I was heading toward Asian music in my own work, and that was one of the reasons I was attracted to him. I was working with modal ideas and with cyclic ideas, which fit very well with the ideas in Indian classical music. I think what happened was I was just preparing myself for an immersion in Indian classical music in the years previous to meeting him.

Had you drawn inspiration from Stockhausen?

Terry Riley, Kronos Quartet

Oh yes, when I was a student at UC Berkeley, at the composition department, I was introduced to his work by La Monte Young. And I became very fascinated with StockhausenÕs work and studied his scores that I could get ahold of, especially Zeitmasse; I actually wrote an imitation Zeitmasse. But yeah, I was very attracted to what he was doing, especially that period in the late Õ50s, early Õ60s.

I think of what you and La Monte Young were doing in the early Õ60s as having obvious overlapping concerns, but mainly being a case of creative confluence. I.e., there was something in the air.

I think that La Monte brought a whole musical concept which was not necessarily in the air yet; he was sort of seer in that way, a prophet, in that he saw a certain direction music was going to be going, and his own feeling toward music was very unique at that time. People werenÕt writing pieces made out of long tones in those days ŠŠ at least I wasnÕt aware of any other people doing that kind of thing. La Monte was very influential on the whole of music in this century and probably beyond. I think his workÕs going to have significance.

Going back to In C, can you tell me where you were personally at that time? What was your thinking about the right path to pursue?

Well, I was interested in music using pattern and formations of patterns that had the same shape or similar shape, and had been doing some pieces prior to In C that involved tape-looping processes, especially that music I did in Paris just before I came back to the U.S. in about 1963; I worked with Chet Baker there, and we did a production for the Theatre of Nations, and I started to work in the French radio studios. It was kind of laying out a form for a piece that would have repeating modal patterns, and the patterns were very interactive, creating a kind of sound field. So that was going on for about a year before I wrote In C.

How does In C work?

The piece is layed out in 53 repeating cyclic patterns, and the players all play patterns 1 to 53, but they relate to each other freely, I mean they donÕt have to be playing the same pattern; they can be a pattern or two away from each other. It forms an interlocking grid as they move through the piece, and gradually, as they go through the piece, there are slight shifts in tonality, so you get these kind of sound washes of tonality in different areas ŠŠ thereÕs one tonality taking over from another.

And itÕs a democratic piece, thereÕs no conductor, so it really relies on the musiciansÕ spontaneous judgments to make it work. The best performance is when everybody is really listening well and hearing whatÕs going on around them and relating to it in a meaningful way.

What sort of non-Western sources helped shaped that piece? What particular ideas about repetition or say working in cellular form wouldÕve come from Indian music, or North African music?

At that time I didnÕt have a lot of information to go on. I was beginning to get interested in the music of Morocco when I lived in France, and of course that repetitive dervish music in Morocco was I think very much a shaping force in my thoughts about music. But I hadnÕt discovered Indian music yet, or Indonesian music, which In C sounds the most like and works the most like. The music of Indonesia at that time I didnÕt know, so that was a coincidence.

Was there a backlash among the new-music types against In C, for its non-pursuit of indeterminacy or serialism or other de rigeur serious-music conceits?

Well, I suppose, but itÕs always true that, even today, people align with stylistic camps and feel that their path is the true path. ItÕs almost like religion! [laughs] So there probably was some backlash; I wasnÕt too involved or aware of it, but I know that there was a lot of comment about In C, that it was a joke, it wasnÕt taken seriously.

It didnÕt take long for that piece to be taken seriously; in very short order it came to be regarded as a modern classic.

I think it was just popular support; there were many groups playing it and validating it with some good performances.

Terry RileyThe first piece of yours I heard was A Rainbow in Curved Air. Can you give me a rough picture of what is going on in that piece?

Rainbow was written four years after In C, and at that time I was trying to get myself a solo keyboard program to perform around, so I wouldnÕt have to rely on a lot of other musicians; I wanted to be a little independent that way, so I could play as many places as I could.

Rainbow was one of these pieces that I wrote for these solo keyboard concerts; before Rainbow, I wrote the Keyboard Studies, and I took some of the ideas from Keyboard Studies as RainbowÕs model, although there are some new things that I introduced into the process of Rainbow. ItÕs actually simpler than In C; I use a lot of different patterns, but what it does is build on one repeating 14-beat pattern, which goes through the whole process of retrograde and inversion, and augmentation and dimunition. So it uses these kinds of techniques with just very little material, in many different ways. And then on top of that thereÕs a lot of free improvisation.

Early on you became identified with the Minimalist tag, which has followed you throughout your career. How do you feel now with such a description?

[Laughs] I wasnÕt thinking about Minimalism and never have thought about Minimalism in terms of my work. It was something added on by, I guess, music critics to term music that had certain kinds of limited parameters, and there were certain composers who were lumped into this. But I like to feel free of this; I like to feel that every time I start a piece it has something that is going to be contributing to a new concept.

I think that if you get stuck thinking about Minimalism and think youÕre a Minimalist, it puts you in a box in a way that I wouldnÕt want to be in artistically.

What did you learn in your studies with Pandit Pran Nath?

I learned about an enormous tradition of Indian classical music, for one. He introduced me to this very rich tradition of north Indian classical vocal music, which is hundreds of years old and stretches right up to modern times. So that was one thing. The other was, I wasnÕt a singer when I came to him, and he taught me about singing and voice production and how to build a voice. And the other thing he did was ŠŠ [laughs] he did many things for me, this could be the whole interview ŠŠ but it was kind of like he gave me a more disciplined way to approach the way that I worked in general, because he was very disciplined in his approach to practice.

Regarding the individualism of Southwest composers, did you identify with the likes of John Cage and Harry Partch, or Lou Harrison?

I never met Harry Partch, but I was friends with Lou Harrison, and John Cage IÕd met and worked with on a few occasions. CageÕs music came into my life when I was still in high school; he was one of the early influences of modern music for me.

What role does jazz play in your story? Did modernist figures such as Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane change your way of thinking about composition?

The periods of jazz when I was listening the most was the time of the really great chamber music groups of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and Gil Evans. There was a lot about their approach that I studied and found very useful in my own work. One of their ideas was taking just a very simple chart and building a very comprehensive piece out of it; it sounds like it might be all written out, and they were all doing that just because they were great improvisers. What really impressed upon me was that you can start with very limited means, and if you have great players you can evolve into quite an engaging structure.

You work in so many different forms. A particular favorite of mine among your more recent works is The Lisbon Concerts album. IÕve always wondered about what would have been going on in your head while playing music like that. Were you empty, or terrifyingly full of thoughts and ideas?

Well, probably all of that. You know, at different parts during the concerts, as youÕre falling through the music, your mind and your spirit go through a lot of different states. But IÕd say the best states for me are when IÕm the most empty; as soon as I start thinking about what IÕm doing, it can limit the scope of the way the music is happening. When the mind is turned off when youÕre playing, youÕre just like somebody out in the audience being played through.

Are you susceptible to the ambience, the energy, in the room?

Oh, yeah. That was an interesting thing. The Lisbon Concerts story was, I was booked to play in Lisbon on a Sunday night, and nobody goes out on Sunday night; it was the only day of my tour that I had free to play there. So it was a great big hall in Lisbon, but there were only 30 people in the hall, and of the 30 people or so in the hall, 15 were musicians whom I knew. I was playing for a very select audience.

Is yours a spiritual path? Does that enter the picture at all?

For me, music is a spiritual path. Music connects to the spirit. And beyond that I donÕt know; I donÕt know how much cosmology to add into that. But I do feel that music itself is something that connects me to the universal mind.

You may also enjoy
"Forever Changes: Philip Glass in the time of music"