In rooms across the world at this very moment, people are setting off on huge adventures. An adventure through the books, the CDs, records and hard drives we have stacked in varying degrees of order in our homes. Whilst many of us now have the ability to beam music through our living spaces, and stream endless stuff, there is an undeniable appeal in spending quality time re-acquainting yourself with the actual physicality of music.
Handling the sleeves, opening gatefolds and flicking through booklets never read before, and hitting play. Scanning along the shelves and sliding out an album that directly connects you to a point in time before all this craziness. Even the actual process of placing the stylus carefully on the vinyl, or the whirring sound of the cd drawer are pleasant diversions from some digital interface that’s too connected to reality these days.
So, browsing at OBLADADA one afternoon recently, my eyes darted over all the options, shelf by shelf. An idea that I quickly settled on was to play music over a few hours by an artist that I’ve loved forever – Terry Riley. Like Captain Beefheart, John Cage, The Incredible String Band, Jim O’Rourke, Ash Ra Tempel, John Fahey and a handful of others, this love meant I’d often not lingered recently to works that feel incredibly familiar.
Whilst my dog-eared original vinyl of 1969’s A Rainbow In Curved Air has sadly now gone AWOL, the CD thankfully does also include that weird poem that originally featured on the back cover –
Terry Riley / A Rainbow In Curved Air
And then all wars ended / Arms of every kind were outlawed and the masses gladly
contributed them to giant foundries in which they were melted down and
the metal poured back into the earth / The Pentagon was turned on its side and painted
purple, yellow & green / All boundaries were dissolved / The slaughter of
animals was forbidden / The whole of lower Manhattan became a meadow in which
unfortunates from the Bowery were allowed to live out their fantasies in
the sunshine and were cured / People swam in the sparkling rivers
under blue skies streaked only with incense pouring from the new factories / The energy
from dismantled nuclear weapons provided free heat and light / World health
was restored / An abundance of organic vegetables, fruits and grains was growing wild
along the discarded highways / National flags were sewn together into
brightly colored circus tents under which politicians were allowed to perform
harmless theatrical games / The concept of work was forgotten
As far as we know, the poem was written by Riley himself acting like some sort of meta lyric to the two extended joys that the album comprises of. Whilst the words reek of a hippy utopian ideal, it’s clearly written from the heart and they’ve always seared a beautiful image in my mind. Whilst many of the concepts are hugely naïve, or just plain out of date, I still see them as some sort of benchmark.
And in the current threat to us all, what better way to dream about how this could be an opportunity to rewire our world beyond this whole horrible situation? Maybe we should be thinking about doing this all radically differently now? Sometimes the dreamers do have a point.
But whatever the effect, this frames how he viewed both the title track A Rainbow In Curved Air and moodier Poppy Nogood & The Phantom Band – as blueprints for his world in the form of psychedelic twins. A completely accessible meeting of minimalism, electronics, a heady eastern infused spirituality, peace and the whole thing double dipped in a sticky lysergic coating.
The odd zoe-troping of A Rainbow In Curved Air groups Riley cascading through electric organ, electric harpsichord, rocksichord, dumbec and tambourine. It’s easy to literally receive this music like a drug entering our body and tickling some tiny switch, deep within your pleasure receptors. Music that’s elaborately and joyfully beaming you from wispy cloud to cloud.
The second half is filled with Poppy Nogood & The Phantom Band and this time, he plays with soprano sax and electric organ. It’s always been a slightly darker piece that hovers and jumps between thick woozy droning tangents.
Normally listening to this album leads me to Persian Surgery Dervishes, All Night Flight or the utterly superb You’re Nogood but on this particular day, further along the shelf, I rested on Shri Camel. This was the first piece of his music I ever owned back as a spotty teenager.
Thinking back, I remember Terry Riley’s name first being tantalisingly mentioned in my dad’s Encyclopaedia of Rock that had become my heavy thumbed musical atlas at the time. Riley was mentioned in reference to Fripp and Eno’s (No Pussyfooting) and cited as a major influence. I knew little more than I had to track his work down.
Whilst I always remember Shri Camel as my access point, it seemed to straddle the period between the fertile 70’s and 80’s that felt slightly less vital in his ongoing discography. It had a crisp almost airless digital sheen that the earlier work didn’t. But my lazy categorisation had been denying me of an album that’s possibly been the single most satisfactory and transformative listen of these last few weird weeks.
Anthem Of The Trinity levitates off the spot instantly – that clean oddly clipped organ tone, as always just intonation to give it a flat footed flow. Each block of sound saw-toothing into its neighbours as rhythmic shadows and reflections move in.
It’s very easy to digest the following almost 12 minutes of Celestial Valley as a trippy flythrough of some neon outlined mandala. Droning interwoven patterns pulse and contract around you as you surge forward. Around 7 minutes in, the whole journey is sprinkled with sonic diamond forms that twinkle as they hit your brain. And Across The Lake Of The Ancient Word does something I remember hit me like a ton of bricks when I first heard it. This track has more of a spectral rhythmic pattern underneath its round foreground blocks. Slowly at first, then around two minutes in, the music suddenly animates. These musical shards fuse to create an effect that actually generates forward propulsion.
In the huge extension of all this that forms the 15-minute closer Deserts Of Ice, a basic thought forms in my mind. Sure, Terry Riley’s music has always been amazing but now, more than ever it feels like a very welcoming psychedelic comfort blanket.
In the coming weeks and months, we don’t know what we’ll all face. But for now, I feel like I’ve had a small system upgrade that’s injected some extra positivity into my world in a Terry Riley shaped capsule. Maybe the overall kosmic far reaching nature of his work and its welcoming surfaces, reveals something at the very heart of his work that I didn’t look for before – the ability to distract and energise.
Whilst I’m not necessarily suggesting you only listen to his work until this whole thing blows over, based on my experience of the last few days, I’ve got something to hand, that was right under my nose all along. And it’s genuinely helpful to have in these perplexing times.
Find out more about Terry Riley here