Terry RILEY (b. 1935)
Dorian Reeds (for Brass) (1964) [42:24]
Matt Starling (flugelhorn; arranger)
rec. Joćo Pessoa, Brazil, mixed in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.
Private release [42:24]
I first came across Matt Dixon, now known as Matt Starling, with his Salt Lake Electric Ensemble’s recording of Terry Riley’s ground-breaking minimalist work In C (see review). That was a premičre in that it was the first time the piece had been recorded with mainly electronic instruments.
With Dorian Reeds (for Brass) Starling has made a solo recording. He has adapted a less well-known Riley score from the same period as In C, originally composed for solo performer, microphone and two tape recorders and performed by Riley himself using a soprano saxophone. Details on how Riley performed and made his effects are given in the notes for this release. A pretty rough 1966 live recording can be found online of this work in its original form, Reed Streams (Dorian Reeds). The family resemblance in this can be heard in sections from the commercially released Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band which it preceded. 2015 is Terry Riley’s 80th birthday year, so what better time could there be to greet one of his masterpieces anew in this way.
Starling has been a brass player since childhood, and his choice of the flugelhorn for this recording is a good one. This is an instrument with a mellower tone than the trumpet and has the potential for plenty of depth and colour. Think of Chet Baker’s gorgeous solo in the Elvis Costello song Shipbuilding and you’ll know the sort of sound I mean. The use of mutes adds further layers of colour, even sounding not unlike a saxophone at times. The saxophone-like timbre at certain points can be quite striking. This breadth of sound quality also allows for further clarity of counterpoint in this kind of recording, which involves much looping. Starling cites this typical early Riley technique as that also subsequently made famous by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp on albums such as No Pussyfooting and Evening Star. Actual tape loops are alas a thing of the past, and after the initial recording sessions Starling produced the music over several months using studio technologies such as high resolution digital audio (24/96), computer audio editing, digital signal processing and precision mixing tools. The intention was to reproduce the effect of those early tape loops as much as possible and this is indeed a resounding success, though with modern technology the sound quality is very good indeed. There is no reason to fear lossy sound due to masses of old-fashioned overdubbing.
If you know Terry Riley’s In C then you will know a little about his ability to vary and develop material in overlapping lines and layers, creating tonal fields and rhythmic ostinati and in effect giving birth to what we know as ‘minimal music’. Minimalist techniques have been exploited and adapted ever since, and in fifty years there are now very few artists or composers who you could call truly minimalist. Terry Riley’s minimalism is utterly distinctive and ‘the real thing’ in the same way that a symphony by Bruckner is ‘the real thing’ in the sense that, whatever you feel about it, it commands respect through its sheer sense of purpose and identity. The feel of groovy meditation which is a 1960s signature is very nicely preserved in Starlings’ adaptation of Dorian Reeds. You could easily transplant this recording retrospectively into one of those all-night concerts and imagine minds being expanded all over the place. This recording is in that sense a sort of authentic revival of a neglected classic, but it also reminds the listener of how relevant the power of strong ideas can be in a world where composers are spoilt for choice when it comes to sonic sources and influences. I have to admit to being someone who is very interested in the seizing and stretching of a moment in time, of creating vast horizons with the most stripped-down of means, so you can expect me to be biased in favour. I also grew up with the sounds of Don Ellis’s looped trumpet echoing through my imagination so there it is; I’ve been pre-programmed to relish this experience.
True ‘minimal’ music won’t be for everyone. This is the kind of piece which requires you to relax your expectations of thematic development and contrasts of tonality, and to suspend your impatience with clock time. If however you have ever found yourself grabbed by an abstract painting, finding your imagination making transformative interpretations of lines and forms and losing yourself in inner spaces created by yourself and an unspoken dialogue with the artist, then you should find your ears will take up the challenge of Dorian Reeds in a similar way. Just to pick a moment at random, there is for instance a section from about 31 minutes in where just four notes tumble over each other in a joyous rhythmic consonance. If you enjoy change-ringing from English church towers of a Sunday then you can close your eyes and imagine a choir of shiny bells – blown rather than struck, but creating a comparable soul-tingling effect.
Masses of effort and time – three years from start to the final mix – have gone into this project, but the results show in the quality of what is delivered. Matt Starling’s affection for this music is watermarked through the entire performance. He deserves every acclaim for an achievement which not only revives a 20th century minimal classic, but shows us all how much good music there is still to be made with the meagre handful of conventional notes at our disposal.