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)