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Riley Shows His

Riley Shows His


Renowned composer Terry Riley uses the sound of children's toys and the spirit of Native American rituals in his latest work The Cusp of Magic. Ironically it is one of his most accessible works to date.

Composer Terry Riley is a bit of a living legend. As one of the foremost leaders of the minimalist school, he's interacted and associated with many of the major names of modern classical and avant-garde music, including La Monte Young and South Asian Kirana master Pandit Pran Nath. At 72, his music is enjoying a renaissance among young listeners. Reissues of some of his earlier works, such as Poppy Nogood and Les Yeux Fermes (both available on Elysian Fields) are now available on CD, and his latest work The Cusp of Magic hit record stores on February 5.

The Cusp of Magic was written for and recorded by Riley's long-time collaborators the Kronos Quartet (who also have a certain legendary status among the cutting edge crowd) and the distinguished pipa virtuoso Wu Man. The pipa, a lute-like Chinese instrument, features prominently throughout, making Cusp unique among Western works. The Cusp of Magic, which astrologically is the week between Gemini and Cancer, patterns itself after the Native American peyote ritual in which each musician makes an individual contribution to the ceremony.

The first two movements constitute about half of the Cusp's length. Like much of Riley's music, they rely on patterns established by minimalism and Indian influence. The first movement begins with an insistent and constant percussive beat from drum and rattle that remains throughout its ten minutes. The quartet soon introduces itself with short, staccato chords (for which minimalism is known), followed by the entry of the pipa. Within a few measures, the pipa comes more into the foreground, creating an almost improvisatory experience. Toward the end of the movement, the music grows more fluid, allowing for greater virtuosity from the players, and culminating in a very brash, electronic, thrash-like conclusion.

''Buddha's Bedroom,'' the second movement, is a fine contrast, with the string soloists plucking their instruments pizzicato in imitation of the pipa. The overall feeling is light and jazzy with a real swing. This atmosphere changes during the movement's central section, a haunting lullaby with a text written by Wu Man and sung beautifully by Elisabeth Commanday.

The Quartet starts the third movement, ''In the Nursery,'' playing a soft chorale-like melody under busier solo pipa passages and electronically sampled nursery sounds.

A radical change occurs in the fourth movement, ''Royal Wedding.'' It opens with a grand Neoromantic theme, full of energy and optimism, but ends on a somber note that leads into the most eccentric--and riskiest--part of the work. At its base ''Emily & Alice'' is a collage of children's toy sounds (from a collection amassed by the Kronos Quartet during their travels) combined with the whimsical theme to a Russian cartoon series called ''Cherburashka.'' While the use of all these elements might have made for a cacophony of disparate sounds, it blends instead--though it does draw attention away from the soloists.

In the final movement, ''Prayer Circle,'' The Cusp of Magic draws to a satisfying conclusion. While the toy sounds may have provided an unusual ground bass in the previous movement, Riley now turns to a more conventional one: Flamenco music. It casts an odd Spanish tone to the piece's final bars, which end abruptly and without resolution.

The Cusp of Magic is certainly one of Riley's most optimistic, light-hearted, and easily accessible works to date. Brevity is the soul of wit here, and nothing is tedious or long-winded, a common criticism of minimalist work by those with less talent than Riley. And despite Riley's years, The Cusp of Magic has a fresh and youthful feel that is lacking in the music of many of Riley's younger colleagues. Those who already love Riley will most likely adore it, and even those who don't may find themselves charmed by it. It is hard to imagine a performance of the piece being given with as much care, love, clarity and tough-edged musicianship than the one exhibited here by Kronos and Wu Man, and, as usual with Nonesuch, the engineering is faultless. Recommended to those who love new music--and even to those who have shied away from it in the past.

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