And since Terry Riley is in the air today (see the GMR post below), here's a review of his Requiem for Adam:
The Requiem is cast in three movements: “Ascending the Heaven Ladder,” “Cortejo Funebre en el Monte Diablo,” and “Requiem for Adam.” “Ascending the Heaven Ladder” opens with a quiet, spare passage that is quite funereal; there are small quivers of dissonance in this section, often unexpected and unsettling, as it rises to passages that are quite ethereal and that somehow, without our really noticing it, begin to incorporate dance rhythms, and then progressing with some intensity to another ascent and again, quiet. In the “Cortejo,” the quartet is joined by an electronic soundtrack of horns, bells, electronic percussion and gongs for an opening that establishes the feeling of a processional – the image in the first measures recalls nothing so much as the Third Movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, with its broken fugato treatment of the traditional children’s song, “Frere Jacques.” Like the Mahler, the “Cortejo” gets a bit raucous; Riley himself says that this is “funeral music more in the tradition of New Orleans Dixieland than Beethoven,” which is certainly an accurate assessment. The movement gradually takes on a driving, almost frantic rhythm that comes dangerously close to that characteristic of contemporary music that I call “urban Weltschmerz,” a holdover from the days when dissonance was all the rage – and then, the music stops, abruptly. The “Requiem” opens with another quiet, contemplative passage that calls to mind long vistas viewed with only the wind for company, the quiet of wild, lonely places, the deep silence of grief, which moves into a a pulsing, 7/8 dance rhythm, building to an intensity that suddenly catapults itself back into a very quiet, almost tenuous passage that echoes the similar sections in the first movement, and leaves us hearing an afterimage as the final resolution.
Riley captures, in these three movements, all the energy and passion of a young man who, as Riley says, “had music raging in him – the pulsations of a young life with its longings for freedom, to see as far as one can see, from the top.”
The Philosopher’s Hand, which finishes off the album, is a short (app. 5 minutes) track of Riley improvising at the piano on a suggestion by David Harrington that he play something for four or five minutes “thinking of Pandit Pran Nath,” a philosopher and friend of Harrington and Riley. The result is serene, thoughtful, and elegant, recalling is some measure that combination of fluidity and edginess in the piano music of Erik Satie.
Riley is an astonishing composer, formally considered a Minimalist along with Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but one who exhibits a very broad range and moves in other modes quite comfortably – I attended a concert by Riley a number of years ago here in Chicago; in the first half, he performed a classical Indian raga, followed by a shorter, informal raga; the second half was devoted to a work for altered piano, sitar and drums, which brought down the house. His availability on CD is, unfortunately, quite limited commercially. (Note: Since this was written, Riley's music has become much more available.) He certainly deserves wider exposure, although his music is certainly not material for W-Rock-R-Us FM.
The liner notes for this CD, written by Riley and Bob Gilmore, are very well done and quite informative. (The booklet is also quite beautiful, illustrated by photographs from the “Black Pulse” series by Mike and Doug Starn.) Riley talks about Adam Harrington and the technical design of the Requiem. Gilmore talks about Riley and his impact on contemporary music, crediting him with inventing repetitive minimalism, further developed by Reich and Glass, and tracing the development of Riley’s style through the 1960s and 70s. It was while teaching at Mills College in Oakland, California, that Riley met four young people in the fall of 1978, a string quartet on the lookout for “new” music to add to their repertoire – the Kronos Quartet. This has been a relationship that has been important to the development of both partners, and only underscores the point that, aside from personal considerations, Kronos was the only possible group to record Requiem for Adam.
I admire Terry Riley immensely, and I love his music. I admire the Kronos Quartet, and they occupy a significant place in my music collection. Quite frankly, if you are not familiar with Terry Riley, I’d suggest you find an opportunity to listen to this music first. But, with the full realization that this music is not for everyone, I recommend Requiem for Adam very highly.