A Composer on the Edge : Minimalist Terry Riley, on a journey of spiritual and artistic discovery, is deeply moved by the concept of artist-as-madman

Howard Hersh is a composer living in Nevada City and director of Music Now, a Sacramento-based new music group.

It’s an 18-mile drive from Nevada City, down through the Yuba River canyon, across the WPA concrete bridge, and past the sleepy gold-mining town of North San Juan, to Terry Riley’s 26-acre Sri Moonshine Ranch here. For the past 18 years, this has been home to the composer, his wife Ann and their children--Gyan, 15, an accomplished classical guitarist, Shahn, 19, an aspiring recording engineer, and Colleen, 34, a physician living in Oakland. Once a cattle ranch, then blacksmith’s and lumber mill, it is now a silent player in the creation of some of America’s most celebrated new music.

At 57, Riley has the poise of an artist in the full bloom of his powers. Known variously for his pioneering of minimalism, or his fusion of European and Indian music, or his long improvisations played in concert with tape-looped-phases, he has now stepped beyond stylistic classifications and into an individual journey of spiritual and artistic discovery. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the spacious new music room that perches atop the old ranch house, Riley encompasses his world with a wave of his arm--not only what’s outside, the open rolling fields, the pine trees and the blessed quiet, but everything that’s missing--the noises, the distractions, the pressures of urban life, anything, in other words, that might interfere with his impassioned devotion to music.

“I feel it’s such a blessing, such a special dispensation to be living here,” he says. “You don’t belong to any cultural cliches, there’s no particular boundaries you have to conform to. At the level I’m working at I feel free to do whatever I want, because I’m not worried about acceptance at this point--and I feel that living out here reinforces that, because I’m in harmony with my surroundings and I know that the ideas that come to me come with no baggage from any other cultural viewpoints.


“I live a pretty hermetic existence: I just get up and work, day in and day out. I don’t have a social life to speak of and I don’t need--or want--one; work is the biggest enjoyment I have. Certainly, we live in the world, I go out and do concerts and get to see people, but it’s in little spurts--then I come back.”

These days, Riley is less interested in discussing his own work than that of Adolf Wolfli, the early 20th Century artist-schizophrenic who spent 35 years of his life in a Swiss mental asylum, painting, composing and chronicling the bizarre wanderings of his tortured mind.

When Riley speaks of Wolfli, he has a pleased, proprietal air, as if he were showing off the work of a child or brother. Clearly, he is also deeply moved by the concept of artist-as-madman and sees in Wolfli’s life the seductive brilliance that tempts artists to cross the boundary from “reality” to “madness.”

“I feel a kinship with Wolfli,” Riley says, “I keep thinking about him. All artists work out of some inner necessity but his was a compulsion, and it was the only refuge he had. He had to do it, he was just driven to it. He’d work 16 hours a day, and when he didn’t, the demons would come to him. His life must have been exciting, although it was torturous. What’s amazing is that he works through his whole torture and gives us the ecstasy in the drawings. . . . It’s kind of like the redemption idea of Christ, you know, dying for us. Wolfli did that, actually, he had to do the suffering.

“The part of us that opens up to art is not the part of us that pays the grocery bills or does the laundry--it’s the part that is very vulnerable, that gets into the spiritual world and is very, very dangerous--mentally, psychically, every way. When we’re really delving with art, we’re very open. The insane’s desperation is almost what we want but are a little afraid of--to be totally consumed by art because it means that we’re laying ourselves open to death and destruction. The insane had no choice because they had already died. It’s the shamanic ideal: first you have to die, then you can come back as a kind of vapor and help other people, without having a body and your own desires. Because it’s your own desires, I think, that prevent you from helping other people. . . . That’s a very hard thing; nobody wants to die.

“Discovering Wolfli was like finding a colleague, but it’s more like a teacher or a kindred spirit--but for sure, someone who’s farther advanced. The only thing I could do was create a piece as a way of honoring someone who has been a teacher through his work.”

Riley had already played for a major Wolfli opening in Philadelphia when he was contacted by the L.A. County Museum of Art and invited to collaborate on its “Parallel Visions” exhibition. This time he enlisted the help of actors, video and sound artists and created “The St. Adolf Ring,” an evening-long multimedia theater piece based on Wolfli’s life and work. It was premiered last October at the museum, then went to the New Music Across America festival in Atlanta and, finally, to Nice, where it was part of an international gathering of innovative works.

The composer is planning to extend this theatrical tribute into a four- or five-evening cycle. In the meantime, Southern California music lovers will have another chance to intersect the Riley-Wolfli nexus Wednesday, when the California EAR Unit premieres his “Four Wolfli Portraits.”

In a kind of metaphysical twist that Wolfli himself might have employed, the “Four Portraits” actually have only three movements: “The Central Star March,” “The Violoncellist of Salamanca” and “The Lysol Apes’ Polka.” The outer two movements appeared, in altered form, in the original theater piece and pay tribute to Wolfli’s single-minded devotion to the march and polka forms.

According to Riley, the opening movement is “a kind of bizarre, eccentric march, with a quirky rhythmic aspect to it. I thought it would really be fun to make something like what Wolfli might have heard if he’d opened his window and there was some kind of drunks’ band passing by, or like some bands that play at weddings in India--village bands, with a kind of quaintness which is really touching.

“The other piece (from the show) is ‘The Lysol Apes’ Polka.’ In Wolfli’s story, which is really hysterical, he’s in one of the jungles in some part of the world and he’s describing these Lysol Apes and their antics, how some of them are kind and considerate and some are greedy and abusive and, as you get into it, you realize he’s really talking about the guys who came to the hospital to scrub down the wards. It gave me an idea for an exuberant kind of polka, with regular rhythms and an oom-pah bass that gets turned around into pah-oom . . . funny, like apes stumbling around.

“While I was working on these pieces, I came across Wolfli’s painting of ‘The Violoncellist of Salamanca.’ Immediately, it just hit me in the heart, it’s such an incredibly beautiful painting of a cellist (portrayed by one of Wolfli’s trademark fantasy creatures), the bow has a face, and the scroll has those faces with crosses coming out of it. When I saw it I knew I had to make a piece from it, a ballad that shows the beautiful tone of the cello in some heart-rending way, without being sentimental or syrupy, something that the cellist would be able to sing with and make beautiful. . . .”

Riley will be part of the audience at the Bing Theater performance. Afterward, he’ll make his way back to his Moonshine Road retreat and his single-minded work schedule, delving into new collaborations with his phantom Swiss collaborator and, even more important, finding new modes of expression for his particular union of sound and spirit.