Classical guitarist Gyan Riley expands the repertoire
By Stephen Dick from Acoustic Guitar
Guitarist and composer Gyan Riley is one of a new generation of classical guitarists who are building their careers on music that reaches beyond the standard repertoire. His debut recording, Food for the Bearded, contains original works for solo guitar and small ensemble as well as music composed by his father, composer and minimalist pioneer Terry Riley, with whom he often works. Gyan's compositions reflect a broad range of influences, from Indian ragas to American fingerpicking, and have an introspective, improvisatory quality that is well suited to the guitar. Tunes like "Happychap" and "Spiralysis" reflect the influence of his father's minimalism and his teacher Dusan Bogdanovic's polyrhythmic writing. Other pieces, such as the title track or "Sinspiration," have a more contemplative, elegiac quality. Throughout the album, his playing shows a solid technique and musical insight. The closing tracks of Food for the Bearded showcase Terry Riley on piano and singing an improvised raga.
Gyan began his musical studies on violin, veering into a teenage obsession with punk rock bands like the Dead Kennedys before beginning serious classical guitar studies with guitarist David Tanenbaum and guitarist/composer Dusan Bogdanovic at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where Riley earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees. In 1999, Riley won first prize in the Portland Guitar Festival competition and, in 2001, first prize in the San Francisco Conservatory Guitar Concerto Competition. He has performed in Germany, Turkey, England, and Italy, and has toured and concertized in the U.S., often with his father, his teachers, or with violinist/violist Tracy Silverman, who appears on Food for the Bearded. Gyan first recorded on his father's The Book of Abbeyozzud, which features Tanenbaum. His debut recording heralds the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a fascinating musical journey.
What was your early music training?
GR: I began playing violin at age six, studying the Suzuki method. I remember it as a bit of a struggle. I wasn't always motivated to practice, but I stuck with it for five years, nonetheless.
My older brother was singing in a punk band then, and I became fascinated with the electric guitar. When they'd take their breaks, I'd sneak in and noodle around on the guitarist's ax. I really wanted a guitar, but my folks suggested I stick with the violin a bit longer.
One day I was in a music store and entered a raffle, not thinking much of it. It turned out I won the grand prize-a $50 nylon-string guitar and four free lessons. I was thrilled, not realizing that they were in classical guitar. I wasn't that into it until the last lesson, when the teacher, Brent Weaver, busted out a rendition of "Malagueña." "Wow," I thought, "that's cool." So I ended up studying with him for three years. When I wasn't practicing classical stuff, I was learning every Dead Kennedys, Dead Milkmen, Descendents, Misfits, etc., song I could get my hands on.
You grew up in a musical household. How was your own musical life like or unlike that of your parents? Were you listening to the same things? Did your folks turn you on to music you might not otherwise have encountered?
GR: I grew up hearing lots of Indian raga and jazz around the house, those being my dad's major interests. But I didn't pay too much attention to it until high school, when I began to explore contemporary classical guitar pieces. Then I realized that my folks had quite a bit of cool music in their collection, and some of it turned out to be my dad's music.
Did you turn them on to stuff they hadn't heard?
GR: My dad never did get into the Dead Kennedys, but he eventually began to get into the sound of the classical guitar, once I actually started making music with it.
Did you study forms of guitar playing other than classical?
GR: I took a few flamenco lessons in high school, but most of the other "studying" I was doing was just listening to a lot of Hendrix and John McLaughlin.
When did you begin studying with David Tanenbaum?
GR: I began coming down to the Bay Area for occasional lessons with David when I was still in high school. It was completely inspiring. He would give me a lengthy lesson and was so knowledgeable, perceptive, and efficient as a teacher. Plus, he would send me home with scores, books, and CDs to fuel my interest. He introduced me to a ton of repertoire, especially contemporary music, like [Leo] Brouwer, [Astor] Piazzolla, and Lou Harrison. And at that time he was one of the few guitarists with any expertise in that field. It was during this period that I realized I wanted to go to the [San Francisco] conservatory and pursue music professionally.
Where you studied with Dusan Bogdanovic
Yes. I took an improvisation class at the conservatory with him. We started with species counterpoint [a method of instruction in 16th-century counterpoint promulgated by Johann Joseph Fux] and modes and moved through Baroque and jazz and various ethnic traditions. It was so inspiring. There were four of us in the class, and we would basically just play for the whole two hours. He also helped us to play classical repertoire with a spontaneous and improvised feel.
I did my graduate studies with him. At our lessons, we would usually jam together for at least an hour and then we'd cover the repertoire I was studying. He would give me pointers on how to expand my improvisational technique, as well as guide me in the realm of composition. He always had insight on how to develop my own ideas, without imposing his own style on me.
Is that also when you started composing?
GR: Composition is actually still relatively new to me. I'm just beginning to branch out and write for ensembles. I think that, as a guitarist, I bring a heightened understanding of the instrument to my compositions. I'm really into utilizing the instrument's special properties to create original sounds. So I'm often very particular about things, like which position or fingering to use, or how to get the most resonance out of a chord, etc. For example, in the first rubato section of "Quasitremelodo," I use a cross-string fingering over four strings, which is really awkward for the right hand, but it achieves a resonant sonority that is both arpeggio and melody. Similarly, in the middle section of "Spiralysis," I wanted to hear the overtones sustain as much as possible. So I spread the melody out using open strings, natural harmonics, and fretted notes in the positions that seemed to have the greatest sustain. Sometimes I choose to let the chords ring for a few moments to allow all the notes to intermingle, producing the broadest spectrum of overtones possible.
As a composer, do you see yourself focusing on works for the guitar?
GR: Well, my ideas usually originate through improvising on the guitar, so yes, so far that seems to be my focus. But that is because that's what I'm most familiar with, and also because I know my works will get played, either by myself or other guitarists, guitar ensembles, etc.
Which guitar composers excite you now?
GR: If you mean guitarist/composers, I like Nuccio D'Angelo and, of course, Dusan Bogdanovic.
His Father's Footsteps
Composer Terry Riley's influence on contemporary music reaches far beyond that of most contemporary classical composers. Much of Riley's music is marked by the layering of sound elements, which grew out of his work with tape loops in the early 1960s. Before PCs put digital sampling into everyone's hands, many composers experimented with sculpturing sound by layering multiple tape loops. John Cage in particular created a long series of works involving spliced tapes created through highly ritualized processes. Riley's "A Rainbow in Curved Air" was a landmark piece in this style, combining early electronic instruments and tape loop delays. His pivotal work "In C," from 1964, uses live musicians to imitate the effects he'd achieved earlier with tape loops. This piece was the start of what later became known as minimalism, influencing the work of avant-garde composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams as well as rock groups like the Who, the Soft Machine, Tangerine Dream, and Curved Air.
In 1970, Riley became a disciple of north-Indian raga vocalist Pandit Pran Nath and performed in concert with him as a vocal accompanist and tambura and tabla player until Pran Nath's death in 1996. Pran Nath gave Gyan Riley his name when he heard that Terry and his wife, Ann, were expecting.
Most of Terry Riley's guitar compositions are found in a group of works entitled The Book of Abbeyozzud, recorded by David Tanenbaum and Gyan Riley. The album includes ten of a planned series of 28 pieces for solo guitar and ensembles with guitar. The pieces draw from the music of Spain and the various musical traditions influencing Spanish music.
How has your father's work influenced you as a composer?
GR: Mostly in the way he has managed over the years not to be confined to any one style of composition. Although he pioneered minimalism, he's explored so many possibilities and managed to successfully incorporate various traditions into a style all his own. I think he's a great example of the potential freedom artists possess, and a lot of that is due to his willingness to be completely in the moment, free of any constraints or external expectations.
Your recordings so far focus on your own compositions or those of your father. What music of the standard repertoire do you like to work with?
GR: Bach probably inspires me more than anyone else. But I love playing [Francesco Canova] da Milano, [John] Dowland, [Giulio] Regondi, [Joaquin] Turina, and Antonio José Martínez Palacios. Palacios wrote only one piece for guitar to my knowledge, the "Sonata para Guitarra," which, in my opinion, is a masterpiece.
I understand you've started a band with violinist Tracy Silverman. What kind of music are you doing?
GR: Tracy and I have collaborated on several different projects, resulting in a rather large and eclectic body of work. It's kind of a classical/rock crossover thing, a lot of his songs, some of mine, some Hendrix renditions, and always lots of improvisation.
I also understand that you're playing with the Modern Mandolin Quartet. What kind of music are you guys playing now? Are you touring?
Yes, I'm the mandocellist. We toured a bit last year and just recorded a CD to be released this winter. We do anything from Bach and Vivaldi to Bartók and Dvorák to Brazilian choros and contemporary music like that Terry Riley guy. This CD will feature a rerecorded Nutcracker Suite and some new arrangements by Paul Binkley of [Miguel] Llobet's Catalan folk tunes. I also recently joined the Falla Guitar Trio, with Dusan Bogdanovic and Kenton Youngstrom, and the World Guitar Ensemble (WGE), an ensemble of nine guitarists. We have our premiere in Germany in June, when we'll be premiering a piece I'm composing for the ensemble.
Editor's note: The ensemble, to be conducted by Helmut Oesterreich, includes Costas Cotsiolis, Peppino D'Agostino, Aniello Desiderio, Zoran Dukic, Olaf van Gonnissen, Pablo Márquez, Thomas Müller-Pering, Alvaro Pierri, Gyan Riley, David Tanenbaum, and Laura Young.
What kind of music are you listening to these days?
GR: I like various types of Indian, Middle Eastern, and African music a lot, either in their traditional forms or fused with modern means such as jazz or hip-hop.
GR: One of my favorites is Dimi Mint Abba from Mauritania. I don't know if I've ever heard more soulful singing. I'm also into the Gnawa tradition of Morocco. There are a lot of incredible guimbri players over there, such as Abdelah Ghania. A few of my favorite Indian musicians are Krishna Bhatt on sitar, Sultan Kahn on sarangi, Biswajit Roy Chowdhury on sarod, Shamsuddin Faridi Desai on rudra vina, and of course, Zakir Hussein on tablas.
You're the artistic director of the San Francisco Classical Guitar Society. What role do you think such societies can play in building audiences for the guitar?
GR: I think that classical guitar is constantly struggling for validation in the classical scene. So there is always this self-expectation of formality, which keeps guitarists and composers holed up within certain boundaries of what is acceptable. So audiences pretty much know what to expect, and I for one get rather tired of hearing the same repertoire over and over. People go to concerts because they want to be surprised. So, to generate wider interest, societies and presenters can offer a broader range of what we can expect.
What They Play
Gyan Riley plays a 1997 Yuichi Imai classical guitar with Brazilian rosewood back and sides and spruce top. He also uses a 1998 Robert and Orville Milburn guitar (www.milburnguitars.com), with a spruce top and Indian rosewood back and sides and wired with a Fishman Blender system for amplified performances. The Milburn was part of the prize he won at the Portland Classical Guitar Competition in 1999. He uses high-tension D'Addario basses and Savarez trebles.
Music by Gyan Riley
"Happychap" (recorded on Gyan Riley's debut recording Food for the Bearded) is a happy, boppy little piece that skips along with a raggy feel. The rhythmic language of the composition is influenced by Dusan Bogdanovic's work, especially his polyrhythmic studies. "It's the only piece I've written that just flowed from pencil to paper without any struggle," says Riley. "I put it down in about half an hour." Riley dedicated the tune to his niece and nephew, who started dancing along with it the first time he played it for them.
© 1998 Agyanamus Music. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Gyan Riley, Food for the Bearded, New Albion 119 (2002), www.newalbion.com.
Terry Riley, The Book of Abbeyozzud (featuring David Tanenbaum and Gyan Riley), New Albion 106 (1999).