Terry Riley, Riley: Songs for the Ten Voices of the Two Prophets

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 03.28.11 in Reviews

In classical music circles, Terry Riley's insistent, repeating collection of fragments known as In C changed everything. That 1964 piece is generally acknowledged as the work that unleashed the musical movement known as Minimalism. But in the rock world, Riley became famous for his keyboard improvisations, often done with early looping and delay technology. (The Who's "Baba O'Riley," often incorrectly referred to as "Teenage Wasteland," was named after Terry Riley and uses a keyboard sound clearly based on his works.)

A glimpse into a moment where threads in Riley’s varied musical career all came together

This recording, originally released in the early 1980s, is a live performance on two Prophet V synthesizers — hence the title Songs for the Ten Voices of the Two Prophets. By this point, Riley had been studying, and teaching, Indian raga singing for almost a decade, and in addition to creating shifting tapestries of electronic keyboards, he sings in the style of his teacher, the late Pandit Pran Nath. The texts, also by Riley, are simple — one is tempted to say Minimalist — and are in English; but the tuning and the ornamentation is right out of the raga singer's playbook.

The longest and most effective of these pieces is "Embroidery." Using the Prophet V's ability to warp and bend pitches (much the like the whammy bar on an electric guitar), Riley creates a keyboard texture that fits the Indian-style vocals. The lyrics, while spare, are also surprisingly allusive; witness the alliteration and internal rhyming in the opening line: "China man in Chinatown enchanted by an ancient Chinese gown/ looks down." (Of course, a word like "down" can take several measures and lots of swirling grace notes to sing in the raga style.)

The idea of enchantment, of trance, of contemplation, pervades the work. "Eastern Man," paradoxically, has the most Western sound, as Riley builds up a repeating electronic motif that wouldn't have sounded out of place on an album by any of the German electronic bands of the day. "Chorale of the Blessed Day" is the most overtly Minimalist at times, as the looping synthesizers clearly recall his earlier works. Together, these three works offer a glimpse into a moment where the multiple threads in Terry Riley's varied musical career all came together.