Thursday, August 29, 2013

Terry Riley: A Rainbow in Curved Air

Released in 1969, a few years after his famous (or infamous) In C was released as an early example of so-called minimalism in classical music, Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air found the composer using intricate overdubbing to layer keyboards and percussion in fascinating ways.

As expressed in the explanatory note on the back cover, "the spatially separated mirror images were adapted for studio recording by Glen Kolotkin and resemble the sound Terry gets in his all-night concerts."  These live performances were another way for Riley to create an experience that was far removed from the traditional concert hall (after all, it was the hippie era), but the fact that he had a growing interest in Indian classical music and in the improvisation found in it and in jazz is reflected in the wild and wonderful sounds on this amazing recording.

Riley performed on electric organ, electric harpsichord, or what he termed the "rocksichord," as well as the dumbec, or goblet drum (used heavily in music from the Middle East), and tambourine for percussion effects for the title track, which spanned about 18 and a half minutes, while for the comically titled "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band," he played the soprano saxophone and electric organ.  ON the 21 and a half minute masterpiece, Riley spins out fantastic runs on the soprano, supposedly inspired by the great John Coltrane, and the organ that reveal his masterly instrumental prowess.  With some studio trickery involving tape loops and a patch cord, Riley and the engineer were able to give the track another interesting dimension of sound

The "flower power era" vibe is further reinforced by the inclusion of an untitled poem by the composer included on the cover and which decries war, the killing of animals, urban malaise, and so forth.  To a more cynical era, the sentiments seem hopelessly naïve and idealistic, but, to this listener, it is part of the historical context of the time and the music doesn't seem to be that tied to period.

Notably, this album and its electric keyboard sounds had a major effect on Pete Townshend of The Who and the legendary song "Baba O'Riley," named for Indian guru Meher Baba and Riley features keyboard sounds derived from this album. 

In any case, the originality and freshness of Riley's 1960s work is epitomized by A Rainbow in Curved Air, as well as with In C.  His career went through many changes subsequently, including years of spiritual and musical study in India, and album with former Velvet Underground member John Cale, and some excellent works with The Kronos Quartet, whose David Harrington studied with the composer at Oakland's Mills College.  For those inclined to an interest in so-called "minimalism," this album is a true standout.

Terry Riley:  A Rainbow in Curved Air (CBS, 1969)

1.  A Rainbow in Curved Air  18:39
2.  Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band  21:38

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