My first exposure to Terry Riley was many years ago, and entirely by accident. It’s an ancient story–I forgot to tell the record club that I didn’t want the automatic Selection of the Month, and the CD version of Riley’s 1978 album Shri Camel soon arrived at my door. I knew nothing about Riley at the time. I don’t have to tell you that it was a happy accident since these were my post-college days and I had already plunged into a world of minimalist and experimental music, everything from Philip Glass to Arvo Part. Yes, I was up for anything during those crazy years, but Shri Camel was also a hypnotic improvisation on a tweaked Yamaha combo organ, and it was beautiful in many ways. I still have it in my collection and listen to it once in a while.
Fast forward about 35 years, and Terry Riley is still with us at age 84 and he’s still making music that’s utterly fascinating. He’s teamed up with son Gyan, who is just as curious in his approach to the electric guitar as his father is with keyboards and electronic manipulation. Way Out Yonder is a generous slice of Terry and Gyan Riley, released by ORG Music in a 2-LP pressing that is both quiet and dynamic. It’s particularly interesting that Terry Riley has evolved into a more serene musician, one who can still dig deep into structures and harmonies without relying too much on atonality. The younger Riley isn’t necessarily crossing into new frontiers here, but he is providing a worthy counterpoint to his famous father’s love for tone and timbre. Their separate approaches balance each other and eventually merge into an almost perfect harmony.
Shri Camel, as well as many other Terry Riley recordings I’ve heard over the years, can sound like one continuous improvisation if you’re not paying enough attention. Way Out Yonder takes a different approach, with each song sounding distinct from the rest. Much of this is due to Terry Riley choosing more than one instrument for each of these compositions including voice, melodica and assorted electronics in addition to piano. If you know Riley, you also know he’s a pioneer in playing with tape and using various delay systems. His mystical side still emerges in places, but there are also stretches where he sounds downright folksy, as in the aptly-named “Folk Song.”
Despite Terry Riley’s penchant for “twiddling knobs” in the studio, Way Out Yonder has a wonderfully natural feel to it with plenty of decay and a firm grasp of the boundaries within the recording space. I’ve already mentioned how quiet this pressing is, something that’s become second nature to ORG Music, but high fidelity really comes in handy when you’re trying to float off into space with this father and son team. Shri Camel sounds a little artificial in comparison–it’s a studio creation, after all. Way Out Yonder was recorded live in three different locations–Quebec, Tokyo and Berkeley. It sounds delightfully present and alive throughout, and knowing that Terry Riley is still alive and making music like this adds a little stability to a wobbly planet.