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Music review: Terry Riley launches West Coast, Left Coast Festival

November 22, 2009 |  5:10 pm



The capitalized sentiment leapt off the page in Terry Riley’s program note for “Eureka!” the late-night opening event for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s West Coast, Left Coast festival Saturday night.

And thus -- after more than two hours of regimented warm-up from the Kronos Quartet, the electronic duo Matmos and guitarist and composer Michael Einziger -- did Riley commence the act of seduction, in the dictionary sense of leading a listener astray. As midnight neared, the godfather of Minimalism mounted the organ loft of Walt Disney Concert Hall and began his hourlong siren song.

A rainbow of organ colors poured forth. A shaman at work, Riley sometimes sang as he improvised channeling all that is mystical and magical in our glorious if dysfunctional state.

California, here we come.

Ktittunc There hasn’t been much of a mission statement for West Coast, Left Coast, which will continue for three weeks at Disney Hall and around town. Composer John Adams, the philharmonic’s creative chair, is the festival curator. A brief description in the L.A. Phil program book speaks of California’s renegades and its wide-open welcoming environment. Riley perfectly encompasses that.

He is not the first of the state’s maverick greats -- the festival is short on pre-‘60s history -- but his “In C” in 1964 is the work that got the East Coast’s and the musical world’s attention and made clear that the West really can be different, especially when it looks left, to Asia, not to Europe.

So it made perfect sense to devote Saturday’s opening event to the ramifications of Riley, showing his influence on several generations of musicians in classical music and pop. Kronos has been collaborating with Riley for three decades. Matmos got its start in San Francisco 14 years ago and has been much influenced by Riley. Einziger, a founder of the rock band Incubus, seemed to fit in because he is a questing musician who has branched out into writing classical ensemble pieces.

Unfortunately, the philharmonic treated the concert like a pop event. The program book was a mess, making it difficult to follow along. The pieces were not listed. Instead, information about them was embedded in long program notes, mostly gleaned from biographical materials that read like PR. And you couldn’t read because the hall was kept dark.

The audience was noisily filing in when Kronos began the evening with the premiere of “It Got Dark” by 10-time Academy Award-nominated composer Thomas Newman. Though hardly an outsider, Newman has more to offer than what Hollywood permits. His quartet consists of small evocations of the Westside, its short, moody movements, and excited ones, equally affable. Pre-recorded environimental sounds help suggest Santa Monica.

Matmos provided two appropriately Riley-centric scores. In “For Terry Riley,” the studied electronic music nerds (Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt) joined the Kronos to deconstruct material from Riley’s early quartet, “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector.”  The players here became their own sweet dream collectors as they made a new, ingratiating Riley haze. Matmos’ boppy “Supreme Balloon” was equally Riley-esque without the quotes.

Einziger briefly played with Matmos and also premiered “Forced Curvature of Reflective Surfaces” for a dozen strings and a dozen guitars. Elaborately conducted by Suzie Katayama, the score seemed the work of a kid in a glissando candy store. Einziger created plenty of intriguing space-age effects and provided nicely crunched chords. But theory got away from him. Inspired by Frank Gehry’s Disney forms, he has yet to discover a means to make sound and musical structure a whole.

Riley then joined Kronos, Matmos and Einziger for a short group improvisation, which finally set the stage for his by then too-long delayed act of seduction on the organ.

Everything but the Disney organ had been amplified, and that meant that sound dampening curtains were left up, which lessened the impact of Riley's final solo set. But he was in inspired form. His three numbers (not listed in the program) were “Night Music,” “Ebony Horns” and an improvisation on a raga. They made a mockery of musical boundaries, be they geographical, historical or stylistic. Bach’s organ and Delta blues, for example, are not, in Riley universe, separate genres. And once he began his ricocheting rhythms, he covered the room in a mind altering buzz.

It was sad, then, to watch Riley empty the room. His set began without a break from the previous one. People were tired, didn’t know what to expect and had been ill-prepared for musical revelation in a concert presented as an occasion for hipster grazing. There is more than one way to lead the listener astray.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Terry Riley on the organ console, with guitarist Mike Einziger, Matmos and the Kronos String Quartet at the opening event of  the "West Coast, Left Coast" festival in Walt Disney Concert Hall Saturday night. (Bottom) Riley in the organ loft. Credit: Ringo H.C. Chiu / For The Times