Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Talented Mr. Riley

May 26, 2008

Terry Riley and the WDCH organ

The L.A. Philharmonic programming folks have been busy invigorating some of their more staid series with new life these final weeks of the season with some guest stars in unusual places. Last week we had Thomas Adés show up in a “Baroque Variations” bill and this week (though perhaps less surprisingly) we have Terry Riley in a recital on the mammoth Walt Disney Concert Hall Organ. The usual Baroque and 19th century fair of these organ programs was put aside for some music this rather beautiful machine has not seen before in the shape of two updated works and a new commission from Riley.

In his own notes, Riley mentions that he was offered an opportunity to compose for the organ following the L.A. Phil’s “Minimalist Jukebox” shows two years back and jumped at the chance. Of course, he is famous for electronic organ performances of his own throughout the 60s and 70s that were often all night psychedelic affairs. While Sunday didn’t quite approach those bounds, it was clearly filled with enough other-worldliness to stimulate more than a little nostalgia for those in the audience who were there at the time. And the Philharmonic obliged with shifting colorful lights in the otherwise pitch-black hall for effect. Riley chose to sit at the main fixed console of the organ as opposed to the remote console typically placed on the main stage for these performances. For two hours he played away, periodically vocalizing in a hypnotic stream of sound.

Of course, the Disney pipe organ, which Riley nicknamed Hurricane Mama, is also a substantially different instrument from the ones he composed for and performed on back then, and Riley visited L.A. on several occasions over the last few years learning about the organ and its capabilities, often experimenting and rehearsing into the wee hours of the morning. The result on Sunday was three pieces. The first two A Persian Surgery Dervish in the Nursery and Salome Dances for Peace were adaptations of prior works here blown up to a grand scale and played essentially without pause for the first hour of the program. The second half consisted of a new composition Universal Bridge specifically written for the occasion. Filled with all the hyper-determined meaning that the phrase implies, the work is about many things beyond the specific occasion of its performance and provided plenty to consider. All three works represented Riley at his wild and woolly best with meandering melodies and rhythms, interlocking repetitive figures and influences from a plethora of areas from Middle Eastern music to the Blues. It was fun-loving stuff and certainly the trippiest experience yet for this young but spectacular centerpiece of the L.A. Philharmonic’s home.

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