Terry Riley in conversation with Ulrich Gutmair and Martin Conrads
Berlin, January 1997
ug: in the seventies a lot of people - all the krautrockers and people like brian eno - were influenced by your music. as an observer of contemporary electronic music i was astonished when i listened to your music the first time. in a way your early pieces seem to be prototypes for the music they play in the techno clubs of the nineties. firstly repetition is the basic structure and secondly this kind of music is made for people being together. is it wrong to say that you were sort of 'responsible' for that development, the 'communal gatherings', how you once called your All Night Concerts, as a way of creating a situation where communication is important between artist and listener and between the people who are dancing together?
tr: well, i was one of the people doing them, yeah. i think that the development would have happened anyway. the first time for me was in the sixties, when people were gathering because there was a feeling of community and the hippies came together and the bands started forming, pop bands to do music. i think that the newer forms of that - like the raves and the gatherings are just another expression of that. people have to get togehter to get a group feeling. i think i was part of it, but i don't think i was responsible for it. i think the idea of playing music over a very long period of time, that people could be in a dream state and enjoy music in a less entertainment type of way was something i was very interested in in the sixties - and still to a certain degree.
mc: in an interview you said if you were twenty now, you would prefer methods people use in contemporary electronic music, sampling for example. at the same time i read this interview i read a text about steve reich, where he was quoted saying he hasn't any interest in sampling soundbites from music. if he wants to sample then it would be soundbites from speech or spoken words. in your music there has been a lot of sampling or looping from the sixties on, if one thinks of the clusters your early pieces were built of. the repetitive structures in your work seem similar to kinds of looping or sampling used today. why do you think sampling - also the sampling of visual material - has become such a dominant cultural approach?
tr: you have to compare it to the invention of the camera: the tape-recorder, the ability to record sound. when it became available it was like with the camera: people started recording anything, it could be music or speech or anything, but they were using it to capture some moment in time that was a moment in time just like a photograph is captured by a camera. in the early days of recording technology was one of the ways by which sound could be manipulated that was unavailable to musicians before that. they couldn't hear these kinds of sounds - looping, playing them backwards for instance, or collaging sounds so that music became sculptural and kinetic; you could build it one piece at a time, like a piece of sculpture. so these were all new devices for musicians to create a sound that people hadn't experienced before. the difference with today's sampling i think is that it's so available today that there really isn't excitement of it being a new thing. it's just another thing that's being used, but it doesn't create something that is a frontier of music anymore. there's too much of it, at least there's enough of it going on and everybody owns a sampler, every musician owns a sample playback machine.
mc: so you think it's more like a technical invention coming to a broader audience now than a matter of 'consciousness'?
tr: i think for the most part it's less creative today, because there being so much of it. i mean, there is some creativity being done - but there's less room to move, less room to grow - it's all pretty much been done and said at this point. something else has to happen now to create a frontier. and for me the most exciting part is, when a frontier is there, when there's something happening that's on the edge and it's something you haven't experienced before and you don't know what's beyond. music is like that anyway. for the most part music is a very mystical science and an art, it's not like other things. it's hard to pin down what it is that makes it work. people all have their opinions.
mc: do you have a clue, what this could be, the next thing to come to push the frontier further?
tr: no, if i did i would be doing it! (LAUGHS) i think that it always comes to some buddy whose imagination is being stimulated by some idea that somebody else hasn't thought of before. it's probably gonna happen; some young person will think of some approach, and that will put him in an area that no one else is in. and as soon as everybody sees that that is effective they will all go within, try to be there too. that's the way it works. i mean, i know: in the early experiments i did my aim with repetition was successful, many musicians started doing it. and suddenly i felt i didn't have any territory anymore. what i considered to be my own music was being done by everybody, and i had to move on to something else. that's why my music changed, because i didn't feel like it was a place to be alone anymore. then later it didn't become important to me, i didn't care. i think young artists are usually the people who make these breakthroughs, because their brains are fresh, and they're open to thinking about things that nobody has thought of. einstein discovered the theory of relativity as a young man, and he wasn't trying to discover it. that's another thing: if you are trying to discover something new you'll never do it, it's when it comes out of the blue.
mc: so don't you think that there are musicians at the moment creating new sounds -or at least sounds in new combinations- due to the technological conditions which made them possible just as they currently exist?
tr: i don't know about creating sounds in new combinations because there will have to be another medium i think. i don't think it will come out of an electronic medium necessarily. i mean, it's possible, but i think it's more of a conceptual breakthrough than just working with something that's already there. somebody's concept of how to use it would be so different that that will create something that will be a new frontier.
ug: talking about new frontiers: californian netculture is thought to be connected strongly to the movements of the 60s or 70s, when you think about The Well and all those people. are you interested in developments like this?
tr: i am, but i'm not on the internet myself. i think it might be, at least from what i'm hearing, too late for me to hook up. what i'm hearing is that it's starting to become too many people interested in controlling it, to use it for advertising and suck people into things. i think if that happens then it's not gonna be as good as it was when it began. i don't know, if they can keep it free, it's great. i might some day be interested in getting on. but i don't use computers very much. i've done remote concerts, it wasn't the internet, but through telephone-lines, i sent midi-signals to other midi synthesizers across the world in front of a live audience, i've done these kinds of things. i've done it two or three times, it was probably '92, '93, and i just did one in '96 from my home to amsterdam, i played a concert for icebreaker at the planetarium in amsterdam.
ug: do you like the music of sun ra and did you meet him once? i ask because i read that you were fascinated with jazz music before you started...
tr: i still am, i still like jazz, yeah. sun ra has played all kinds of styles. in the beginning he played straight piano, he is quite an accomplished musician. we never met. but i played in france, i was on a festival where he was on, this was the only time where i saw his band live. this was 1970 at saint-paul de vence in france, he played at the maeght-foundation with his big band, also albert ayler was on that festival. but we didn't meet.
ug: yesterday one piece you played reminded me a little bit of how he was playing solo on his moog. it's just a three minute piece, he's playing jazz melodies, very strange melodies.
tr: yeah, he was very original. the show was quite spectacular. it was almost like a las vegas show. he had lots of showgirls with very little things on their (points to his nipples, laughing) and lots of slides of himself all over the room...
last update: 2.3.1997