Terry Riley

Terrence Mitchell Riley (born June 24, 1935) is an American composer and performing musician best known as a pioneer of the minimalist school of composition. Influenced by jazz and Indian classical music, his music became notable for its innovative use of repetition, tape music techniques, and delay systems.

Riley is best known for his 1964 composition In C and 1969 album A Rainbow in Curved Air, both considered landmarks of minimalism and important influences on experimental, rock, and electronic music. Since the 1970s, he has collaborated extensively with chamber ensemble the Kronos Quartet.


Born in Colfax, California in 1935, Riley began performing as a solo pianist during the 1950s. During that decade, he studied composition at San Francisco State University, the San Francisco Conservatory, and University of California, Berkeley, studying with Seymour Shifrin and Robert Erickson. He was involved in the experimental San Francisco Tape Music Center, working with Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, and Ramon Sender. Throughout the 1960s he also traveled frequently in Europe, taking in musical influences and supporting himself by playing in piano bars.

His most influential teacher was Pandit Pran Nath (1918–1996), a master of Indian classical voice who also taught La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and Michael Harrison. Riley made numerous trips to India over the course of their association to study and accompany him on tabla, tambura, and voice. In 1971 he joined the Mills College faculty to teach Indian classical music. Riley also cites John Cage and "the really great chamber music groups of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, and Gil Evans" as influences on his work. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Music at Chapman University in 2007.

Riley began his long-lasting association with the Kronos Quartet when he met their founder David Harrington while at Mills. Over the course of his career, Riley composed 13 string quartets for the ensemble, in addition to other works. He wrote his first orchestral piece, Jade Palace, in 1991, and has continued to pursue that avenue, with several commissioned orchestral compositions following. He is also currently performing and teaching both as an Indian raga vocalist and as a solo pianist.

Riley continues to perform live, and was part of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in May 2011.


Riley's music is usually based on improvising through a series of modal figures of different lengths. Works such as In C (1964) and the Keyboard Studies demonstrate this technique. The first performance of In C was given by Steve Reich, Jon Gibson, Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick. Its form was an innovation: The piece consists of 53 separate modules of roughly one measure apiece, each containing a different musical pattern but each, as the title implies, in the key of C. One performer beats a steady pulse of Cs on the piano to keep tempo. The others, in any number and on any instrument, perform these musical modules following a few loose guidelines, with the different musical modules interlocking in various ways as time goes on.

In the 1950s Riley was already working with tape loops, a technology still in its infancy at the time; he would later, with the help of a sound engineer, create what he called a "time-lag accumulator". He has continued manipulating tapes to musical effect, in the studio and in live performances throughout his career. An early tape loop piece titled Music for the Gift (1963) featured the trumpet playing of Chet Baker. It was during Riley's time in Paris, while composing this piece, that he conceived of and created the time-lag accumulator technique. He has composed using just intonation as well as microtones. In New York City in the mid-1960s he played with his longtime friend La Monte Young, as well as with John Cale and tabla player Angus MacLise, who were founding members of The Velvet Underground. Riley is credited as inspiring Cale's keyboard part on Lou Reed's composition "All Tomorrow's Parties", which was sung by German actress Nico and included on the album The Velvet Underground and Nico, recorded in 1966.

Riley's famous overdubbed electronic album A Rainbow in Curved Air (recorded 1968, released 1969) inspired many later developments in electronic music. These include Pete Townshend's organ parts on The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley", the latter named in tribute to Riley as well as to Meher Baba. Charles Hazlewood, in his BBC documentary on Minimalism (Part 1) suggests that the album 'Tubular Bells' by Mike Oldfield was also inspired by Riley's example.

Riley's collaborators have included the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Pauline Oliveros, the ARTE Quartett, and, as mentioned, the Kronos Quartet. His 1995 Lisbon Concert recording features him in a solo piano format, improvising on his own works. In the liner notes Riley cites Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Bill Evans as his piano "heroes", illustrating the importance of jazz to his conceptions.

Personal life

He has three children: one daughter, Colleen, and two sons, Gyan, who is a guitarist, and Shahn. He was married to Ann Riley until her death in 2015.


  • 1963: Music for The Gift (Organ of Corti 1, 1963)
  • 1964: In C, Columbia MS7178
  • 1965: Reed Streams, Mass Art Inc. M-131
  • 1967: You're No Good, recorded in 1967 but unreleased until 2000 (Cortical Foundation / Organ of Corti, 2000)
  • 1968: Germ, with Gérard Frémy & Martine Joste (Spalax CD 14542, 1998). Includes a Pierre Mariétan track.
  • 1969: A Rainbow in Curved Air, CBS 64564
  • 1971: Church of Anthrax, with John Cale (CBS)
  • 1972: Happy Ending (Les Yeux Fermés film soundtrack), Warner Bros. Records France 46125; Les Yeux Fermés & Lifespan, for solo electric organ; two soundtracks (2007 reissue)
  • 1972: Persian Surgery Dervishes, Shanti 83502
  • 1975: Le Secret de la Vie (Lifespan film soundtrack), Philips France 9120 037
  • 1975: Descending Moonshine Dervishes, Kuckuck Records
  • 1978: Shri Camel, CBS Masterworks M3519, for solo electronic organ tuned in just intonation and modified by digital delay
  • 1983: Songs for the Ten Voices of the Two Prophets, for two Prophet 5 synthesisers, Kuckuck Records
  • 1984: Terry Riley: Cadenza on the Night Plain, a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet
  • 1984: Terry Riley and Krishna Bhatt: Terry Riley and Krishna Bhatt Duo, a collaboration with Krishna Bhatt
  • 1985: No Man's Land
  • 1986: The Harp of New Albion, for piano tuned in just intonation
  • 1987: Chanting the Light of Foresight, with Rova Saxophone Quartet in just intonation
  • 1989: Salome Dances for Peace, for the Kronos Quartet
  • 1995: Lisbon Concert, solo piano concert, recorded live July 16, 1995 Festival dos Capuchos, Teatro São Luis, Lisbon, Portugal., New Albion Records
  • 1997: Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles, experimental album recorded with contrabassist Stefano Scodanibbio.
  • 1998: Piano Music of John Adams and Terry Riley, performed by Gloria Cheng
  • 2001: Moscow Conservatory Solo Piano Concert, recording of a live performance on 18 April 2000
  • 2002: Sun Rings for the Kronos Quartet
  • 2002: Atlantis Nath, hand-numbered signed edition of 1000 copies
  • 2004: The Cusp of Magic, with the Kronos Quartet, composed for his seventieth birthday, an ode to the rite of Midsummer Eve
  • 2008: Banana Humberto, piano concerto with Paul Dresher Ensemble
  • 2008: The Last Camel in Paris, live solo electric organ performance in Paris, 1978
  • 2010: Two Early Works, the first-ever recordings of two of Riley's early compositions, performed by the Calder Quartet
  • 2012: Aleph
  • 2015: G Song, Kronos Quartet, in honor of his eightieth birthday
  • 2019: The Lion's Throne, with singer Amelia Cuni, recorded live (Sri Moonshine Music, SMM008)


  • 1970 – Corridor. Film by Standish Lawder.
  • 1975 – Lifespan. Film by Alexander Whitelaw feat. Klaus Kinski, Tina Aumont and Hiram Keller. Soundtrack released as Le secret de la vie in France, on Philips LP 9120 037 (1975).
  • 1976 – Crossroads. Film by Bruce Conner.
  • 1976 – Music With Roots in the Aether: Opera for Television. Tape 6: Terry Riley. Produced and directed by Robert Ashley. New York, New York: Lovely Music.
  • 1986 – In Between the Notes...a Portrait of Pandit Pran Nath, Master Indian Musician. Produced by Other Minds, directed by William Farley.
  • 1995 – Musical Outsiders: An American Legacy – Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, and Terry Riley. Directed by Michael Blackwood.
  • 2008 – "A Rainbow In Curved Air" features in the in-game soundtrack of Grand Theft Auto IV. It can be found when listening to the fictional radio station, "The Journey".
  • 2017 – Hochelaga, Land of Souls. Film by François Girard.

    Further reading

  • Carl, Robert. 2009. Terry Riley's in C. Oxford University Press.
  • [Anonymous] (2002). Album notes for The Who: The Ultimate Collection by The Who, 12. MCA Records.
  • Potter, Keith (2000). ''Four Musical Minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Music in the Twentieth Century series. Cambridge, UK; New York, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Edward Strickland, "Terry Riley". Grove Music Online [ (subscription access)].
  • Meigh-Andrews, Chris, 2006. A History of Video Art.