An Echo of the Beats

Last night I went to a fas­ci­nat­ing con­cert. Fas­ci­nat­ing real­ly is the best word to describe it. It was at the Chan Cen­tre at UBC again, but instead of what must have been near­ly a hun­dred per­form­ers the first time I went there, it were just two peo­ple: Ter­ry Riley and Michael McClure. Depend­ing on whether you fol­lowed Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry Music or Poet­ry, these two men are pre­em­i­nent in each of their fields.

Riley is acknowl­edged as the father of Min­i­mal­ism, a move­ment which began in the mid-1960s. With­out Riley, one could argue that there’d be no Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Pauline Oliv­eros, John Adams, or even Tan­ger­ine Dream. His best known work, ‘In C’ was one of the first pieces to use sta­t­ic har­mo­ny, or modal­i­ty, as well as a process or scheme to cre­ate the struc­ture of the piece, rather than strict notation.

As for McClure, he was one of the mem­bers of the Beat Poets of the 1950s, who are main­ly known for their most famous prac­ti­tion­er, Jack Ker­ouac (although we should­n’t for­get Allen Gins­berg, Gary Sny­der or Lawrence Ferlinghetti ). 

Riley, and McClure, who are 71 and 74 respec­tive­ly, were nev­er­the­less extreme­ly charis­mat­ic and vital per­form­ers. If this was a trip back to those decades, it cer­tain­ly was­n’t via a muse­um exhi­bi­tion. The con­cert began as Riley, sport­ing a long white beard and embroi­dered cap, took the stage and bowed, as both would through­out the evening, with hands held togeth­er as if pray­ing. He began with a solo impro­vi­sa­tion on an Indi­an piece (I did­n’t get the name). Like all of his play­ing, it was remark­able in that it was an utter­ly smooth blend of Indi­an music, jazz and clas­si­cal music (in many cas­es, Debussy and Chopin). He also sang some words which I have to assume were Hin­di. After that, McClure, look­ing very pro­fes­so­r­i­al, com­plete with cardi­gan sweater, joined him on stage, and in the same way that he used to work with Ray Man­zarek, spoke his poet­ry as Riley impro­vised. Some­times this worked well. At oth­er times, words would be obscured by a piano (or syn­the­siz­er) flour­ish, or a silence would fall in a place that did­n’t make sense. At it’s best, the poet­ic frag­ments and musi­cal ideas worked well togeth­er. I was­n’t sure if this was a hap­py coin­ci­dence or some­thing they had worked out in advance. This was the first pub­lic per­for­mance of this col­lab­o­ra­tion, which was already on CDs on sale in the lobby.

The most curi­ous thing for me was the way that Riley would every once in a while fall into a stan­dard jazz sequence, like a strange rever­sal of how a jazz per­former some­times dwells on a pas­sage of sta­t­ic har­mo­ny. Instead of a modal pas­sage in the mid­dle of a jazz tune, Riley’s music is like lit­tle islands of jazz chord sequences float­ing in seas of East­ern equilibrium.

The sec­ond half began with anoth­er impro­vi­sa­tion by Riley. Just as this was begin­ning to be a bit too much of the same thing, the two men did a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion by McClure of a Can­tus from Dan­te’s Infer­no. Here the extra ele­ment of sto­ry­telling added a lot, even if if it was psy­che­del­ic (and how could the Sev­enth Cir­cle of Hell be any­thing but phan­tas­mago­ria, man). As McClure described a great beast that Vir­gil and the nar­ra­tor rode above the chasm, I had to work at not get­ting dizzy.

The best part, with all respects to McClure’s poet­ry, was the last piece, an excerpt from Mex­i­co City Blues by Jack Ker­ouac. Ker­ouac’s elec­tric words always worked so well with jazz impro­vi­sa­tion; that’s what it was made for. So, with these two white-haired sur­vivors chan­nel­ing the Prophet of ‘On the Road’ and ‘Satori in Paris’, they gave us a taste of what the Beat Gen­er­a­tion was all about when you wit­ness it instead of read it. I may have been born after all of that, but that does­n’t mean I don’t wig to their Jam, Daddy‑O. (Beat Poet Slang cour­tesy of Beat­i­tude: Dic­tio­nary of Jive)