Wellspring Does Tribute To Founder of Minimalist Music

Nov 3, 2016

Composer Terry Riley
Credit courtesy of Wellspring

If you're a fan of The Who, you probably know the song "Baba O'Riley." What you might not know is that the name comes from two of Pete Townshend's influences - spiritual leader Meher Baba and composer Terry Riley


Riley was considered to be the father of minimalism - a style of music known for using repetitive sounds in unique ways. Composers like John Adams and Philip Glass were heavily influenced by Riley’s work.

Wellspring dancers (file photo)
Credit courtesy of Wellspring

November 10th through 13th, Wellspring Cori Terry & Dancers will perform to Terry Riley’s compositions, played by the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra’s Burdick-Thorne String Quartet.

Wellspring Artistic Director Cori Terry says she was ecstatic that Riley agreed to the collaboration, but his compositions proved challenging to choreograph.

Some of his work has sections that are left open for the musicians to improvise. Sometimes members of a quartet are playing different rhythms at the same time. Terry says this makes the timing in Riley’s music almost impossible to count out.

“So for that first one that I choreographed, I didn’t count. I used landmarks. And we kind of get inside the music and flow with it and then we have landmarks so we know when the next section starts,” says Cori Terry.

Wellspring’s first dance is called “The Solace of the Trees,” performed to Riley’s “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector.” Terry says when Riley composed this with the Kronos Quartet, they were in his picturesque studio in San Franscisco: 

“So they were in the middle of this amazing natural environment with these giant trees all around and listening to the rain - it like rained all day the first day they were there. And he was feeling very connected to nature when he was making this piece. So I took that in a different direction. Cause I didn’t want to just do ‘this is a piece about nature.’ But for me what nature is about is a counterpoint to the rushed lives we live nowadays. So the piece starts out with a dancer running, just running in place - because I feel like that's a lot of what my life is about, it's a lot of what lots of people's lives are about. Where you're going from one deadline to another and one appointment to another - you know this rushed existence where you don't have time to stop. But then you get to go walk in the woods, and there's something about the presence of trees that I just find extremely calming."

Wellspring’s Rachel Miller choreographed to three of Riley’s compositions for her dance called “nameless.” In it, Miller uses hoop skirts to talk about how women are confined by fashion norms.

“So they’re judged by how little clothing they have on or how much clothing they have on. It’s the way that a lot of people in our culture will look at women and immediately make a judgement,” she says.

Miller says she had actually considered using corsets instead, but they couldn't move in them. 

“It was that confining, so it was impossible to wear them," says Miller. "And the hoop skirts really limited our movement as well.”

Miller says the piece is also partly inspired by the Brock Turner case. Turner was a Stanford University swimmer convicted of rape last January. The case caused public outrage when Turner was sentenced to just six months in prison and was then released after serving half that sentence.

As a survivor of sexual assault, Miller says the case has had a big impact on her.

“He ended up serving three months. It’s really…it’s no justice, you know. And it’s really hard to see that happen when I know that the woman who was raped by Brock Turner is going to have to deal with this for years and years to come psychologically,” says Miller.

The Burdick Thorne String Quartet (file photo)
Credit Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra

Terry’s dance “G Song” - after Riley’s composition of the same name - is more light and upbeat. The dancers use chairs as props.

“Dancers have this thing about chairs, everybody does a chair piece at least once or twice in their career. This is definitely not my first time,” Terry laughs.

Terry says she also used a lot of geometric shapes to try to show the patterns that she hears in the music:

“There are very countable patterns that come over and over and over again and descending notes. That is a repeated motif throughout the whole thing, but then he manipulates it in different ways and sometimes we can count it and sometimes we can’t. It just…it’s like sort of a play on control and not control in terms of rhythm.”

Terry Riley himself was going to attend the concert, but can’t travel due to his health. Instead his son guitarist Gyan Riley and percussionist David Cossin will improvise with the dancers for a full 30 minutes at the end of the show.

“Cause I don’t know if people know this about Terry Riley, but he loves improvisation and he uses it in an amazing way,” Terry explains.

You can see Wellspring’s fall concert with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra’s Burdick-Thorne String Quartet featuring the work of Terry Riley next week, Thursday through Sunday at the Wellspring Theater in Kalamazoo’s Epic Center.