The Age MAY 1, 2006 - by Robin Usher


One of the founders of minimalism in modern music, American Terry Riley, is happy to let his music speak for itself. But he is also keen to let people know of his disappointment with the policies of the Bush administration, especially the invasion of Iraq.

I can't ignore it when things go so badly, he says.That would mean neglecting part of my human duty to speak out.

Riley, who is on his first visit to Australia, helped change the course of musical history, in 1964, when he composed In C, which includes more than fifty rhythmic motifs, which can be repeated as often as the musicians prefer.

He was part of an ensemble of musicians that performed the work at last month's Four Winds festival in Bermagui.

Minimalism has influenced composers as diverse as Philip Glass, John Adams and Arvo Part. Riley's influence led the London Sunday Times to list him as one of the thousand makers of the twentieth century. But English author Norman Lebrecht declared in his book, The Companion To Twentieth Century Music, that a modern version of hell might well contain an unbroken (tape) loop of In C.

Riley says that spiritual values inform his compositions more than any political considerations and his music exists in a world of its own.

It's not necessary for people to know how I feel to appreciate my music, he says. But I am free to talk about how I feel, using this little platform that is available to me as a performer.

Riley, who will perform his work, Beat Sutras for prepared piano, in a concert for Musica Viva's Menage series tomorrow, returns to California soon, after three weeks in Australia. He is trying to reduce the number of such long tours, just as he limits the length of his concerts.

But he says that, last January, he took part in a concert in Norway that was part of an all-night vigil to promote peace in Iraq and around the Middle east: I live in the world, so awareness of the way the world is going effects my music, he says. And I am very affected by world events.

He believes the US could break into four different countries, reflecting the vast range of views in the country.

It's painful to see so many things going in the wrong direction, he says of the current federal government.

In 1985, he composed five string quartets for the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet making up more than two hours of music that they hoped would be performed at the United Nations.

It hasn't happened yet, but you never know, he says.

Riley has been busy in Australia. As well as Bermagui, he has performed at the Brisbane Powerhouse and Sydney's Aurora Festival. He also made a recording with the percussion ensemble, Synergy, as well as recordings of his solo piano works.

His work, Beat Sutras, which he will perform in Melbourne, begins with a prepared piano sounding like a gamalan, before he removes screws to return the sound to that of an unaccompanied piano. Other works will be announced from the keyboard. He says his use of the instrument is determined by whatever music he is composing, and whether he prefers something other than the piano's normal sound.

There are not so many things you can do, he laughs, adding that he used to burn the instrument to be like Jimi Hendrix. In the early days, he included The Velvet Underground's John Cale and The Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh among his musical circle, and is pleased by the diversity of music now available.

It's very exciting that people everywhere can hear music from such diverse places as Indonesia, Africa and India. None of that was available when I was young. That huge field affects the way people are making music.

But he warns there are still dangers for young musicians to avoid. Everybody wants to be in a band that becomes famous and makes lots of money, he says. But that means people are being used by the big companies.

He says that the best safeguard for music to be healthy is for it to be made by independent spirits who have other interests apart from making money.