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Terry Riley—Analog Organ Works

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

Original music by Thom Holmes can be found in iTunes and on Bandcamp.

American musician Terry Riley is hopefully a familiar name to most of you. The 89-year-old, currently living in Japan, was associated with the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early sixties, often made a living playing jazz piano in bars, and worked out an approach to composition inspired in part by his friendship with La Monte Young. His compositions, generally categorized as minimalism back in the day, grew from his love of jazz and improvisation. His career skyrocketed when a recording he made for Columbia records was released in late 1968. That record was In C and it was produced by none other than electronic music composer David Behrman. That album was part of a group of Columbia releases made at the same time that also included Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach. Interestingly, Riley said in 2019 that he “would not have written In C if I never had played jazz." Which may be a revelation to many contemporary classical music fans.

In C is not an overtly electronic work, although there have been some terrific electronic renditions made over the years. I think of it primarily as a piece of process music, much in the vein of early works by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. A repeating tempo is established and short phrases of notes are repeated and evolve in a sequence until the process is done. The notes, although certainly melodic, do not have the same function of melody. Rather, they are there to suspend the energy and explore a given mode of the music. It can be hypnotic, mesmerizing to the listener.

Within months, in 1969, Riley released an album called A Rainbow In Curved Air, also on Columbia, also produced by David Behrman. We are listening to this piece in the background right now. The title track featured a technique whereby Riley played all the parts (electric organ, Baldwin electric harpsichord, RMI Rock-Si-Chord, dumbec, and tambourine) and used a slight tape loop delay for the keyboard parts, most notably the organ. The recording itself was one of the first 8-track recordings made by Columbia.

A Rainbow in Curved Air serves as the launching point for the works that we are featuring in this episode. Following its release, Riley was busy with live musical performances, often in Europe, soundtracks and collaborations with rock artists and classical musicians alike. In the concert setting, in order to perform as a solo artist, Riley devised a way to approximate the sound of the organ found on Rainbow. From 1972 to 1977 he used a Yamaha YC 45D combo organ, one of the most feature-rich organs of the time. This heavy instrument, weighing in at 132 lbs. (60 kg) had two manuals. The top manual had 61 keys and the lower had 42 treble keys and 19 bass keys. Terry wanted to play in just intonation, so he had his engineer buddy Chet Wood modify the instrument with some additional knobs peeking out on the top. For the tape delay, Riley applied a technique he was already using with his voice and saxophone, except for the keyboard he used a very short delay of only a second or two between the signal and its repeat, just enough to provide added texture and depth to the music. When he played his works in concert, he emphasized that they were “largely improvised around a predetermined mode” upon which he built themes, layers of melodies, inversions, retrogrades, and juxtaposing them over “a fixed rhythmic cycle.” In 2005, while talking with Henry Kaiser, Riley said about the use of delay, “I must have spent a good decade with this, so I know the fascination with it.” (Henry Kaiser’s interview with Terry Riley.) In 1975, Riley was using a delay system that split the signal coming out of the organ into two channels, with one being recorded and then played back a fraction of second behind the other. No previously recorded material was used in these performances.


Riley’s works prior to 1978 used an analog tape delay as described. In 1978, engineer Chet Wood devised a digital delay that Riley could use in Composed and performed live on a Yamaha YC-45-D electronic organ tuned in just intonation and modified by computerized digital delay. I’m hoping to explore those works and more of Riley amazing music in another episode.


Now, we are going to listen to three complete albums by Terry Riley, all using the Yamaha YC 45D combo organ and the analog tape delay. The albums are presented in the order in which the albums were released. The first will be his soundtrack for the film Happy Ending from 1972, the second is a live performance in Paris called the Persian Surgery Dervishes, also in 1972, and the third is a live performance from Berlin of The Descending Moonshine Dervishes recorded live in 1975.


Details about the tracks are found in the playlist for this podcast. I am presenting the albums in sequence with the characteristic fade-out or pause that happens when you get to the end of side 1. The analog delay is used throughout. The two live performances of the Dervishes were recorded by Riley alone in real-time.  The recordings The Happy Ending were made in the studio and take advantage of multitrack recording, especially on “The Happy Ending” which serves as a stylistic bridge from A Rainbow in Curved Air to the Dervishesperformances. I feel these materials represent an important stage in Riley’s performance practices prior to the introduction of digital delay and instruments.


Of course, it’s important to point out the spiritual and transcendent nature of these works. A contributing factor may have been something Riley referred to once in an interview when he said, “In the early days, I rarely did music without being stoned.” And that’s the way it was.

Episode 127

Terry Riley—Analog Organ Works



Track Time


Introduction –Thom Holmes



1.     Terry Riley, “Journey From The Death Of A Friend” and “Happy Ending” from Happy Ending (1972 Warner Brothers Records). Music composed for the film "Les Yeux Fermes," a film by Joel Santoni. made at the "Strawberry Studio" Château d'Hérouville-France. This is a studio recording. “Journey From The Death Of A Friend” was recorded in real time with the tape delay system timed for a shorter delay, expressly for the Yamaha YC-45D combo organ. The track called “Happy Ending” features Terry on saxophone and uses a longer delay sequence than the organ piece, plus electric piano and organ. Recorded March-April 72.



2.     Terry Riley, “Performance Two,” sides 3 and 4, from Persian Surgery Dervishes (1972 Shanti). Composer, performer, Yamaha YC-45D combo organ, Tape Feedback, Terry Riley. Riley plays a modified Yamaha electric organ tuned in just intonation and using a tape delay system. Performance Two performed May 24, 1972,  Théâtre de la Musique, Paris.



3.     Terry Riley, “Parts 1 and 2,” sides 1 and 2, from Descending Moonshine Dervishes (1982 Kuckuck). Composer, performer, Yamaha YC-45D combo organ, Tape Feedback, Terry Riley. Riley plays a modified Yamaha electric organ tuned in just intonation and using a tape delay system. Recorded in concert November 29, 1975, at Metamusik Festival in Berlin.




Opening background music: Terry Riley, “A Rainbow In Curved Air” from A Rainbow In Curved Air (1968 Columbia). Electric Organ, Electric Harpsichord, Rocksichord, Dumbec, Tambourine, Terry Riley.


Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

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