The minimalist composer discusses his film soundtracks. An exclusive online only feature by Julian Cowley
A long sought after rarity by the minimalist composer is given a new lease of life. By Julian Cowley
"I never did have a desire to write film music, says Californian minimalist composer Terry Riley. "But people approached me." The initial approach came in 1972. "I was living in India at that time," he recalls, "studying vocal music with Pandit Pran Nath. Director Joël Santoni called from Paris and said he was making a film and he thought my music would work well with it." Riley flew to France at the end of March that year and recorded the soundtrack for Les Yeux Fermés (The Eyes Closed) at Strawberry Studio, a converted chateau near Paris favoured during the early 1970s by fashionable figures such as Elton John and David Bowie.
The vinyl release that transpired from that session was called Happy Ending. It's long been a sought-after rarity and now, following rediscovery of the original master tapes, it's being reissued on CD by Tom Welsh's Elision Fields label, together with Riley's soundtrack to Alexander Whitelaw's 1975 movie Le Secret De La Vie (Lifespan). In each case the director had been captivated by Riley's "A Rainbow In Curved Air" and "Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band", paired in 1969 on a Columbia LP. In both instances a version of the film had been made using extracts from that pre-existing music and Riley had been shown those versions prior to entering the studio. "I wasn't involved in any other way in the production process but I knew what their atmosphere was," he recalls.
Happy Ending comprises two side-long pieces: the title track and "Journey From A Death Of A Friend". Riley multi-tracked, played piano, electronic keyboard and soprano saxophone with delay. Less psychedelically brilliant and a little more homespun than A Rainbow In Curved Air, it's nonetheless cut from the same cloth, hypnotically repetitive yet energized by an improvisatory openness reminiscent of ragas and of modal jazz. Les Yeux Fermés has lapsed into cinematic obscurity. It involves a duel between friends, a suicide and a character who feigns blindness with unexpected consequences. "It's a very static film, with not a lot going on," Riley remarks. "The last 20 minutes or so is a single shot. But it's a very interesting film psychologically. I think if it were revived it would achieve cult status. Once when I played in Japan it was shown there and was very well received."
Le Secret De La Vie has recently been resuscitated on DVD, generating interest in part because the cast includes legendary German actor Klaus Kinski. "It's another suicide film," Riley points out with an ironic laugh. The twist in this tale is that the victim is a scientist who claims he has discovered the secret of eternal life. He takes his life while attending a conference in Amsterdam and the story then investigates that paradoxical action. "It has a strange cartoon like quality," Riley observes. "All the actors' voices are dubbed - even though they were speaking English. Sandy Whitelaw had worked previously as an engineer dubbing soundtracks and voiceovers. It was made on a low budget; he filmed scenes of ordinary people in Amsterdam... with Kinski wandering amongst them."
Riley flew from California to Holland to record the music for Whitelaw's film. As before he approached the project as essentially the making of a self-sufficient album - with more available studio time than he was accustomed to. Although his compositions were designed to enhance mood they were not tailored to the visual dimension in a narrowly programmatic way. The issued disc has six tracks, Riley playing keyboards and saxophone and singing too on the moody and mesmeric "In The Summer". There's also the solo original of his alluring "G. Song", which recurred with variations on Cadenza On The Night Plain (GRAMAVISION CD), a 1984 collaboration with The Kronos Quartet.
In 1984, in Geneva on a concert tour, Riley and sitar player Krishna Bhatt were approached by Swiss director Alain Tanner who asked them to record versions of some of the music they were then performing as a creative starting point for a film he was planning. They provided the impetus and colouration Tanner required and the glistening, pulsating music for No Man's Land documents another stage in the flux of influence and invention that makes Riley's music so suggestive and exhilarating.
At the end of the 1990s Gary Todd's Cortical Foundation retrieved some fascinating archival material of Riley music from the early 1960s, derived in part the composer confides from "stuff sitting out in the barn. The rats had eaten part of it and I was going to throw it away. I was sceptical at first but after Gary did it I felt it there was actually a case for it." Now after protracted research and negotiation Tom Welsh's re-issue shifts attention to Riley's 1970s output. Completists may have noted that Riley is credited with supplying music for Michel Polac's 1973 film La Chute D'Un Corps (The Fall Of A Body) but although selections from his earlier work were used he wasn't invited to contribute anything new to that project. There is, however, one more original soundtrack that remains tantalisingly unavailable at present. In 1958 a five minute long documentary called Polyester Moon celebrated the work of sculptor Claire Falkenstein. Photographed by Anthony Denny, its improvised soundtrack featured Riley playing piano, Pauline Oliveros on French horn and Loren Rush on koto. Nearly half a century later, Riley keeps his music current. In May 2007 he will be performing live at festivals in Scotland and Ireland.
By Julian Cowley
(This was an article published online only in addition to the cover feature on Terry Riley from issue #278 April 2007)