Terry Riley – St George’s, Bristol. 13th April 2019

I was quite surprised when I saw this concert in the listings for St George’s in Bristol. What, the Terry Riley? At the lovely little 500 seater venue in Bristol?
Yes, that Terry Riley – he of “In C”, “A Rainbow in Curved Air”, half of the inspiration for Baba O’Riley by The Who, and one of the pioneers of minimalist music.

So we booked.
As an aside, it was really unfortunate timing, as we then found out that Exeter Music Group’s next concert was on the same day, and they were going to be performing Carmina Burana in Exeter Cathedral, complete with a large choir. Our friend Rachel plays viola in the orchestra so we go down and see most of their concerts – Carmina Burana (which I can’t help thinking of as Carminal Buranal in the Bristol vernacular) is a big piece that I have actually heard (and not just in the Old Spice adverts from the 80s!) and like, and I would have liked to see the performance. But how often do you get to see someone like Terry Riley?

Looking around on Google before the show, information about it was thin on the ground – no indication of what he was going to be playing, just the fact that he was appearing with his son, Gyan, on guitar.

The Rileys strolled on stage at 7:30, and it’s obvious that Terry Riley is not young – he’s actually 84 – and moves like it. But as SWMBO commented, he moves like an 84 year old man until you get to his hands. He sat at the Steinway and immediately started off with a trademark minimalist piano line, fingers moving very fluently. It’s obvious even to a musical dunce like me that he’s still a very good piano player. And through the show, it’s apparent that his son is a very good guitarist as well.

I have absolutely no idea what he played – they could be legendary pieces, although I have heard In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air so know he didn’t play those.

In the main, the pieces featured the main man on keyboard (piano, electronic keyboard and even a melodica) with his son adding body and effects on the guitar. Some of it was a bit too jazz-noodling for my liking, but a couple of pieces really stood out.

This is where I start to struggle, as I don’t have the musical language to describe this sort of thing. My musical language is rock, and this isn’t!
The first of these two pieces was at the start of the second half – the electronic keyboard was sounding quite like a Farsifa Organ as he played what I think of as typical minimalist phrases, but he changed the sound of it throughout the piece so we had an evolving sound, ably supported with the guitar sounds.
The first half had been OK but this piece was strikingly better.

The other striking piece showed that Riley has continued to evolve and very much isn’t stuck in the 60s or 70s – he played it entirely on an iPad. I don’t know whether it was on a commercially available app or something produced for him, but he produced an amazing array of sounds from it – starting with fairly straightforward keyboard-type sound, but moving through much more abstract noises. His son mainly played pretty standard guitar through most of the show, but went to town on the effects on this piece – echoes, delays, all sorts of fiddling with controls, producing sounds that complimented his father’s electronica. All in all, I thought it was a pretty stunning piece.

One of the joys of classical concerts is that they finish so early – this was done and dusted before 10pm, even with a 30 minute interval.

So in summary, while it was a shame to miss out on Carmina Burana, this was probably a unique opportunity to see a live performance from a pioneer of minimalist music, and it was well worth going to see.

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