Last night the Center for New Music hosted the launch of the third season of the Soundings project presented by the Del Sol String Quartet (violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates). Each program in the series focuses on a single major musical work by a contemporary composer paired with artwork commissioned from an emerging visual artist. In recognition of 2015 being Terry Riley’s 80th birthday year, the “major musical work” for the Soundings 3.1 program was his “Mythic Birds Waltz,” composed for the Kronos Quartet in 1983.
This is, unquestionably, a “major” contribution to the repertoire of the final quarter of the twentieth century, so major that it threatens to overwhelm the “company” of any other work of art, whether in music or any other medium. Riley seems to have used it to distill many of his key influences, including his work with repeated structures and the polyrhythms that can emerge when such structures are superimposed (both products of early work at the San Francisco Tape Music Center), an indeterminate approach to repetition (most recognizable in “In C”), an appeal to Indian classical music (particularly when singing while playing), and a prodigious capacity for improvisation (captured most extensively in his recording The Harp of New Albion). In many respects “Mythic Birds Waltz” is a summa of roughly two decades of paths Riley had explored with the goal of making music.
“Mythic Birds Waltz” consists of a single uninterrupted movement; but the listener is clearly aware of how it is divided into segments, many of which are separated by pauses. Riley has observed that many of his musical ideas result from improvisation; and it is not hard to imagine that this would have been the case for “Mythic Birds Waltz.” Given his Indian influence, it is not difficult to speculate that improvisation served Riley as an “exercise in meditation” (to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein).
What is interesting, however, is his capacity for an “external consciousness” that can observe those exercises and then select some of the results for more systematic development. Indeed, one of the salient qualities of the music, at least in how Del Sol performed it, was an ongoing interplay between the systematic and the spontaneous. Chamber music (going back at least as far as Johann Sebastian Bach) can often be appreciated for qualities of jamming that are taken for granted in a good jazz combo. Riley’s music is at its most compelling when that sense of jamming emerges from an intricate approach to structure. In last night’s performance by Del Sol, that sense of jamming was alive and well.
Nevertheless, the matter of the composition’s title remains a nagging question. Was it meant to capture a mystic vision? Was Riley just trying to be prankish? Alternatively, is there some deeper semantic level at stake?
As is often the case, a difficult question of semantics often requires a closer look at syntax. Given that there is never any explicit evocation of the sense of a waltz (even if the entire composition amounts to a rather elegant, albeit unconventional, dance suite), it is worth entertaining the hypothesis that “mythic” serves as a modifier of “waltz,” rather than “birds.” In other words over the course of “Mythic Birds Waltz,” the very concept of “waltz” evaporates into myth.
Indeed, the birds are far more present explicitly than the waltz, particularly through some imaginatively haunting glissando passages that begin in the highest registers and gradually descend. Thus the semantic core of the title is the compound noun “bird waltz,” which immediately brings to mind the extent to which avian mating practices are both very dance-like and highly arrhythmic at the same time. All this, of course, is unabashed hypothetical speculation carried out without the approval (or, for that matter, the knowledge) of the composer. Nevertheless, as Fred Lerdahl once said after presenting an impressive analysis of a Schubert song, “It works for me!”