My friend (and former co-worker) Ben and I were recently discussing similarities across several different types of music that he likes to call “Trance Music.” His boundaries on the music – long, repetitive pieces with minimal chord or tempo changes – encompasses a lot of music that happens to be my favorite music in the world: extended pieces of African music like those of Fela Kuti or the longer soukous workouts of Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau; Miles Davis’ extended 1970’s electric music; James Brown’s stretched out funk; the artier side of the Velvet Underground in pieces like “Sister Ray” and “European Son”; minimal techno and house music or much of the disco that preceded it; Kraftwerk styled electronics; Fripp & Eno ambient drones. All of these (and much more) seem to fall under a certain idea of repeating and slowly evolving patterns, but the daddy of all these styles has to be the minimalism that grew out of experimental American classical music of the late 60’s, a style for which composer/performer Terry Riley is often tagged as one of the founders (along with the great LaMonte Young).
But Riley, whose music stands in contrast to some of the more austere works by folks like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, was interested in Indian classical music and also with jazz, all of which (and more) was channeled into his early works. Here he’s tapped into the burgeoning psychedelic music scene as well, playing two pieces that took up one side each of the original LP; one a bubbling fantasia for keyboards and percussion, the other a shorter example of what he was playing at his all night live concerts of the late 60’s, featuring him playing soprano sax and keyboards with echoing delay effects that tapped into the “turned on” audiences very nicely. The keyboard and saxophone improvisations reflect his interest in jazz while drones and percussive devices throughout reflect the Indian music he was about to study in depth shortly after this album.
On the title cut, we kick off quickly into speedy, overdubbed keyboards that provide a constant rhythmic drive and pulse while Riley delivers some blindingly fast runs over the top of the drones that underpin it. And just when it seems like you’re gonna get the hang of what he’ll do for the whole piece, a percussive interlude around the 6:40 mark introduces elements (tambourine and the African dumbec) that change up the flavor and expand the piece into new territory. It mellows for a bit, but has again picked up the pace after the 11-minute mark as the dumbec enters the picture in second half and begins to be the dominant voice in the work. On the second cut, “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band,” the sound slowly emerges like some giant beast rising out of the sea. And at first it seems like it’s just a drone, though there seem to be a thousand small pieces making up the total sound. Like the first piece it takes a little bit to let us know what it’s doing, then about five minutes in the music switches gears to let us know it’s got more tricks up its sleeve as it reveals that drone as the infinite echo of who knows how many saxophones laid on top of each other. Those thousands of pieces are actually sax lines that have been played and echoed with a decay, then over the echoed playback Riley has improvised a new line in harmony or counterpoint with the first, which is then also echoed and played against for the next line. And once the music has shown its structure, it shifts again when the keyboard drone takes a front seat over the soprano sax, and Riley begins to play back and forth between the two instruments for the remainder of the piece.
All in all, it’s a heady mix of things – different styles at play, simple-seeming structural elements creating a complex whole – but even if you’re not picking it apart by structure (as I have had years and dozens or maybe hundreds of listens to do), it’s a great album that sounds like nothing else in the world (even Riley’s other famed works like the earlier In C sound more in the classical Minimalist mode than this, though the later Shri Camel mines some similar territories). And the influence of Riley and this album is felt all over to this day: The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” is named in tribute to him (and Meher Baba) and its famous keyboard intro approximates Riley’s style; Riley and the Velvet Underground’s John Cale made a 1971 album together; in the 1970’s he met and began working with David Harrington, founder and leader of the Kronos Quartet, and has made more than a dozen works in conjunction with them since; and this album’s title track was even featured in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV. But when it boils down to it, even more than its influence or its specific artistic value, this is simply a great album to immerse yourself and get lost in. As Ben would say, it’s great Trance Music.
- Patrick Brown