Sites of Formation 1963

Terry Riley's The Gift

Peter Margasak

During an extended stay in Paris in 1963, composer Terry Riley noticed trumpeter Chet Baker shooting pool at a hangout on Rue Pigalle where gigging musicians would pick up assignments from local booking agents. Baker had recently been released from a prison in Lucca, Italy, for drug possession. While in Europe, Riley earned money as a pianist playing pick-up jazz gigs, and as he told Robert Dean about spotting the photogenic trumpeter in a 1995 interview published in the liner notes of a Cortical Foundation CD, “I was very excited because he was a hero of mine.” The sighting was instrumental in the creation of Riley’s Music for The Gift, a paradigm-shifting tape piece that’s arguably one of the first remixes ever created. The composer recorded each individual member of Baker’s quartet—trombonist Luis Fuentes, drummer George Solano, bassist Luigi Trussardi, and the leader—performing the Miles Davis modal standard “So What,” which Riley manipulated with an early iteration of his time-lag accumulator to forge richly dynamic deconstructions of the performance’s component parts. Apart from its stunning formal innovation, the work would also provide a template for Riley’s widely celebrated masterpiece In C in late 1964.

Before leaving San Francisco in 1962, Riley had begun experimenting with tape music, producing sound pieces for Anna Halprin’s dance workshop. Working with Ramon Sender at the fledgling San Francisco Tape Music Center, he eventually produced a work called Mescalin Mix, a wonderfully raw 14-minute sonic trip warping the laughter of dancer Lynn Palmer, various found sounds from the dance group, and a murky blues piano riff of his own into a viscous, vari-speed mélange of repeated, refracted, distorted articulations aided by an echoplex and primitive tape loops.

Shortly after, he and his wife, Anne, left the United States for a two-year visit to Europe. They might have remained longer, but following the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 23, 1963, the U.S. Army clubs in Europe, where Riley had been landing lots of work, shut down, and the loss of income precipitated his return to the U.S. a few months later. The encounter with Baker was part of a French production of The Gift, an experimental theater piece by American director Ken Dewey, who Riley had met back in San Francisco. The director had enlisted various dancers from Halprin’s workshop and rented a chateau in Valdomois, just outside of the city, rehearsing and developing the play in a barn on the property. Sculptor Jerry Walter created a large kinetic suspended steel structure that swung across the stage during the performance, with some actors riding it, and required all participants to pay close attention to its motion. Riley told Dewey that he’d seen Baker in Paris, and the director successfully lobbied for the trumpeter’s participation. All of the cast would gather at the chateau for rehearsals, with actors, musicians, and the sculpture interacting.

During the day Riley would develop his tape pieces, which also included recordings of text from the play read by John Graham. Working with a sound engineer from French National Radio (ORTF), Riley described what he wanted done with the material. As he told scholar Edward Strickland, “What you do is connect two tape recorders. The first is playing back, the second recording, the tape stretched across the heads of both. As this machine records, it feeds back to the other machine, which plays back what it’s added. It keeps building up.” The set-up allowed him to control the time between the initial playback and echo—manipulating the tape by hand—as layering sound upon sound. The Davis tune was the perfect vehicle for the experiment: its main sixteen bar section is in D-Dorian, with the eight-bar bridge moving up a semitone to E flat-Dorian. When the passages from each section were combined, Riley described it as “a wash of color,” and then he would re-move the initial D-Dorian section for a subtly gorgeous modulation.

For the performances, Riley’s tape pieces were combined with live performances by Baker’s quartet, but on the final night of the run an overzealous actor destroyed the tape machine. A five-movement, 23-minute version of the music survived. The first part focuses on Baker, judiciously looping short sections of his lyric improvisation that pile up in aspirated, psychedelic curlicues upon the slow-motion groove, which adapts with energizing stutters that suggest acceleration by dint of the accrual of loops. The second part is jumpy and terse, with pointillistic horn dabs and then the appearance of the Graham quote—“she moves she,” which edits out the final word of the spoken phrase, “she moves, she follows”— swirling back and forth, displacing any sense of fixed time. The third section sticks with a more fluid swing groove, stretching out the horn bleats into a wonderfully cacophonous multi-linear chatter steeped in overheated cool jazz aesthetics, with Graham’s looped line only adding to the sense of disorientation. As he told Robert Palmer in a 1975 interview in DownBeat, “I took the bass part and stacked it up so that I had six layers of bass, and then I looped it, put it through delays, things like that, so that by the time I finished putting the piece together there were like 20 trumpets, 15 basses.” Part four feels comparatively light, with nothing more than jaunty trumpet-trombone interplay crashing in on itself, while the final section isolates the Graham quote followed by an elusive percussive thwack, repeating over and over for just over a minute until the loops kick in, rapidly refracting the statement with a hall-of-mirrors effect that’s seriously twisted. Eventually, sections of the Baker quartet bleed in distantly, accenting the machine-like thrum of the tweaked Graham quote—presaging the phasing experiments of Steve Reich a couple of years later. The final moments cut the voice and return to a wide-open bass-and-drums lope with Baker blowing tart, bluesy phrases that are chopped and piled during the increasingly smeared conclusion.

Upon returning to the U.S., Riley began envisioning the same principles applied to live instruments, without electronics. As he told Strickland, Music for The Gift “was probably my first orchestral piece, but I made it all out of tape. That . . . was when I first really started understanding what repetition could do for musical form. That’s the forerunner of In C.” Still, heard outside of that particular prescient context, the music remains astonishing in its formal invention and sonic excitement. Riley forecasts ideas explored in popular music—whether hip-hop or club music— decades later, yet his pioneering work doesn’t feel dated or quaint. It still crackles with vitality. He would go on to do more remark-able work with tape and proto-sampling, such as The Bird of Paradise in late 1964 and You’re Nogood in 1967—the latter a veritable disco remix, again, ahead of its time.

Terry Riley's The Gift