Terry Riley – In C & A Rainbow in Curved Air
It’s been such a long time since I last reviewed anything at HFoS, I think I’ve forgotten how to do it. Hold on, it’s coming back to me… Listen to album. Write some words. Get drunk. That sounds about right. I don’t think I even have to do it in that order.
So first up for 2012 and, incidentally, the 300th post on Head Full of Snow, are these soon to be released Terry Riley reissues from Esoteric.
Not to be mistaken with sugar-coated R&B producer Teddy Ruxpin, the albums In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air, are the fruits of the American composer, who, while sporting a Mick Miller haircut, championed, influenced and became a fundamental part of the – then burgeoning – minimalist music scene. Think of a bunch of Beatniks sat around in a New York basement, smoking the contents of a herbal teabag and trying to get a tune out of a chair leg. That’s (possibly) how this movement started.
In C is a 1967 recording of a piece first written in 1964, featuring the composer himself and members of New York State University’s Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, with an array of classical instruments at their disposal. There’s no tune as such, as this is more an avant-garde exercise in musical endurance.
Seemingly repetitive upon first listen, further exploration of In C reveals it to be a gently shifting piece that subtly instils a sense of contentment in the listener; such is the belief after ten minutes that nothing’s going to change. Sit through the whole 42 minutes and you may feel you’ve been drawn into a hypnotic trance, occasionally punctuated by the desolate notes of wind and brass instruments, which, to these ears, sound as though they’re in the midst of a pre-concert tune up. But then, I doubt whether In C was ever intended for a philistine such as myself.
A Rainbow in Curved Air, first released in 1969, is an infinitely more accessible record. Containing two tracks, the first from which the title is taken and ‘Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band’; the album sees Riley playing all the instruments, chiefly the electric organ, harpsichord and a Rock-Si-Chord.
The title track is a wonderful exercise in keyboard ambience, with noodling aplenty, layered atop a steadily undulating underscore, marking it out as a precursor to what Tangerine Dream would later build a career upon.
In fact, A Rainbow in Curved Air would prove to be a guiding light for many of the era’s progressive musicians, with the likes of Mike Oldfield, Brian Eno, Pete Townshend and many more citing it as a direct influence upon their work. The band, Curved Air, even went so far as to take their name from it. High praise, indeed! Shades of both tracks are also apparent in the Soft Machine sound of the 1970s.
Whereas both albums could be described as “challenging”, they remain essential documents of an incipient stage in the birth of the progressive rock genre. In C may not garner as favourable a verdict from me as A Rainbow in Curved Air, but both will have an audience, particularly among the David Bedford and John Cage set.
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