New Riley CD: Eccentric Titles, Many Ingredients

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Terry Riley’s ‘The Palmian Chord Ryddle,’ now on Naxos, was inspired by Tracy Silverman and his electric violin.
(Photo by Martin Cherry, courtesy TracySilverman.com)

Terry Riley: The Palmian Chord Ryddle, At the Royal Majestic. Tracy Silverman, electric violin. Todd Wilson, Martin Foundation Concert Organ. Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor. Naxos 8.559739. Total Time: 69:21.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – In 1964, then 29-year-old composer Terry Riley shocked the musical world with In C, a piece that both challenged the very basis of classical music and opened up a whole new world of possibilities. The challenge came in the form of the piece, which nearly drove some listeners to the point of insanity with its seemingly endless repetitions of the note C; the new world came soon after the premiere of In C in the form of the minimalism movement.

Terry Riley’s new compositions have ventured far beyond ‘In C’.

But Riley himself was about more than just minimalism. The two recent works on this new CD demonstrate that while he still shows a fondness for repetition, his compositions have ventured far beyond In C.

Riley has always been eclectic in his interests; in the apt words of music critic Mark Swed, he is best described as “a musical accumulator.” Over the years, he has explored a wide range of non-Western musical styles, including the music of India. He has also been heavily involved in pop and rock music.

For Riley, the variety is all of a piece; music is music and he has no problem melding together Western classical music, jazz, rock, Indian music or any other genre that captures his attention and excites his creative imagination.

Taking a bow: Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and Silverman.
World premiere, Nashville Symphony, May 2012.

Riley also enjoys coming up with unusual titles for his pieces – The Palmian Chord Ryddle (2011) being one of many examples. The Palmian is a mode that Riley recalls discussing in one of his dreams. It contains the notes D, E, F, F#, G#, A, B, C, and C#, a sequence that Riley uses either as a melody for the basis of variations or as a cluster of notes to be played all at once as a chord. To the Palmian Chord, Riley adds what he calls “Moorish-infused energies,” Charleston rhythms, blues harmonies, Indian dance music and more, producing a rich tapestry of fresh and original sounds and rhythms.

Violinist Tracy Silverman assisted in the development of a six-string electric violin, and The Palmian Chord Ryddle was inspired by Silverman and his unique instrument. As many musicians and music-lovers can attest, an acoustic violin can have a tough time being heard against the power of a large symphony orchestra. An electric violin has no such problem, although it necessarily sacrifices the purity and subtleties of sound of an acoustic instrument.

Silverman and the Nashville Symphony – which commissioned The Palmian Chord Ryddle and presented its world premiere with Silverman in May 2012, followed by a performance in Carnegie Hall – give the piece an exuberant and committed performance. That said, while the range of Silverman’s violin is impressive, its sound is not particularly ingratiating, and Riley doesn’t give it much to say that is truly memorable.

At the Royal Majestic (2013) is another recent Riley piece that is concerto-like in spotlighting a solo instrument with a symphony orchestra. The title of the piece, says Riley, evokes “the mighty Wurlitzer housed in the grand movie palaces.” Just as the Wurlitzers were called upon to play anything and everything to accompany silent films, in Riley’s piece the organ gives us “fragments of calliope, Baroque chorales, [the] occasional craggy dissonance of clashing pipes and boogie.” Riley has a way with words, but all too often those words seem unhelpful in giving the listener a clear idea of what the music is all about.

Image by psychiatric patient Wölfli in ‘From the Cradle to the Graave’
(Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts Bern, Switzerland)

The first movement of At the Royal Majestic was inspired by the drawings and poetry of an obscure Swiss artist named Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), who lived out his life in a psychiatric hospital. In his description of the piece, Riley says that he wondered what Wölfi thought about Negro culture, even though Wölfi never traveled outside of Switzerland and never expressed himself on the subject. He then gives us some 1930s Waldorf-Astoria dance hall music “transformed by a dreamlike vision.” I have no idea what Riley is talking about, but composers are certainly allowed to find inspiration anywhere they like.

Riley’s description of the second movement, colorful and hyperbolic as it is, didn’t help this listener follow along on either the first or second hearing: “`The Lizard Tower Gang’ attempts to juggle chaos and symmetry in its opening statement, displaying a jagged alto saxophone solo, alternating Chinese gong pulses, water drum heartbeats, string glissandos, ripping elephant tubas, chattering flutes, bassoons, and trumpets. The organ enters with rich chords punctuated over a suspended drone. A slow, ragtime-like sequence in the organ introduces part two, a grinding blues dirge giving way to the coda closing the movement.”

From my perspective, this is just composer bafflegab that tells us more about Riley’s prose style preferences than the music he is apparently describing.

Riley must have had fun combining a big organ with a symphony orchestra and giving the musicians a kitchen sink full of musical elements to play with. After listening to At the Royal Majestic, however, I concluded that although his imagination was as fertile as ever, the titles and descriptions he gave the piece often promised more than they delivered. At the Royal Majestic does have its moments of freshness and delight, but on the whole, it strikes me as a slew of random ideas in search of cohesive development.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for theartoftheconductor.comwww.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org), and www.myscena.org.

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