This past June 23, the eve of composer Terry Riley’s 80th birthday, Nonesuch released One Earth, One People, One Love: Kronos Plays Terry Riley. This is a five-disc box set of four of the albums. Three of those albums are past releases, Salome Dances for Peace (the one with two CDs) from 1989, Requiem for Adam from 2001, and The Cusp of Magic from 2008. The last, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collection: Music of Terry Riley is a new album, which is also available as a single. All of the selections on these recordings are works composed for and performed by the Kronos Quartet, a group that Riley first met more than 35 years ago.
The new recording has a retrospective element of its own. Those who know about Kronos know that three of the musicians are still performing with the group since it was founded, violinists David Harrington and John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt. On the other hand the group is now on their fourth cellist, Sunny Yang, who joined in June of 2013. She performs on only two of the six pieces on the new recording, including the album’s title composition, “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector.” The other selection she performs is the movement “One Earth, One People, One Love” from Sun Rings. Three of the selections, “Cry of a Lady,” “G Song,” and “Cadenza on the Night Plain,” are performed by founding cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. The cellist for the remaining selection, “Lacrymosa – Remembering Kevin,” is Jeanrenaud’s successor, Jennifer Culp.
Only the selections played by Culp and Yang were not previously released. With one exception, the Jeanrenaud selections were included in the Kronos ten-CD anthology 25 Years: Retrospective. “Cry of a Lady,” on the other hand, which included Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, was previously released on A Thousand Thoughts.
All this is still a bit modest when compared with the number of recordings released in celebration of Pierre Boulez’ 90th birthday, but we should remember that those Boulez recordings documented his work as both composer and conductor. To the best of my knowledge, Riley has never been a conductor, although he gave both keyboard and vocal performances during the three-day Terry Riley Festival that Kronos organized in San Francisco this past weekend. Indeed, much of what has emerged as “compositions” by Riley often had their roots in improvisations; and one of my personal favorite Riley recordings remains The Harp of New Albion, which consists of his improvising on a piano tuned according to just intonation for about two hours.
From an aesthetic point of view, much of Riley’s work involves exploring different ways to combine a few motivic building blocks. His combinations extend in two dimensions. Along the sequential dimension he can arrive at imaginative ways in which the motivic patterns can be ordered and reordered. However, through his pioneering work at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, he also realized that, even as a solo performer, he could explore the dimension of simultaneity, inventing different ways to superimpose multiple layers, each with its own sequential logic. We often forget how creative Riley was with analog equipment so many years before devices like digital samplers became commonplace.
What has emerged from these practices over the years strikes different listeners in different ways. There are those who dismiss it as “mindless minimalism” and will have none of it. (Yes, there are still listeners like that.) Then there are the more spiritually minded, for whom hearing the music serves more as an auxiliary practice for meditation, rather than for the sake of listening as one might listen, for example, to a symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven. Between those two extremes are those of us who appreciate that Philip Glass rejected the term “minimalism” in favor of the phrase “repetitive structures” and appreciate that Glass’ approach to making music with repetitive structures does not have to be the only one.
Nevertheless, what I like most about the new Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector release is that it is not all about those repetitive structures. “Lacrymosa” was written at a time when Harrington, Dutt, and Jeanrenaud all had to contend with the death of a loved one. Riley responded to these events with a “blue jazz” style that is almost never encountered on his recordings (but surfaced briefly during the Festival that Kronos had organized). It is through a piece like “Lacrymosa” that listeners can appreciate how much value Riley attaches to just making the music, regardless of any predisposing philosophies that, for smaller minds, might only evolve into an unchanging personal aesthetic. Thus, while it is unlikely that I would want to “binge listen” to the entire five-CD Kronos collection in its entirety, I am more likely to revisit Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collection often to remind myself of how much diversity can be found in the ways that Riley makes his music.