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Sensing the mystical: Get lost in Terry Riley’s concert on Dutch TV in 1977
The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is good as dead. – Albert Einstein
The above quote, which introduces Terry Riley’s hour-long televised 1977 concert in the Netherlands, precisely captures the essence of not only the composer’s mission but the aim of deep, focused listening in general. To experience the mystical is to allow music (or film, visual art, literature, etc.) to take full control of your psyche; all other thoughts and internal mutters be damned.
Riley was in his early 40s when he took the stage. He’d already earned worldwide acclaim for his pieces “A Rainbow in Curved Air” and “In C,” collaborated with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale for Church of Anthrax, and become an in-demand performer, thinker, and lecturer.
All of that is on display in the program, which opens with a pond-side conversation with interviewer John Bird. That 7-minute chat is deep and instructive, and puts what follows in a sublime context.
“Midway through the set I feel this guy has mastered life,” wrote one commenter beneath the YouTube clip, and he’s only wrong about the timing; Riley seems to have mastered life at the start of concert, too, and as the piece progresses, we travel deep inside this mastery as Riley works with keyboards, a reel-to-reel player, and a digital delay to improvise.
Called Shri Camel, Riley had begun writing the structure of the piece a few years earlier on a commission from the West German station Radio Breman and commenced performing and exploring it in concert not long after. He recorded a studio version of Shri Camel in 1978, which CBS released two years later.
The TV performance hits the sweet spot between those dates, when Riley had internalized the piece’s internal logic, allowing him to explore it with an untethered grace.
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