Terry Riley & Gyan Riley brought their minimalist improv to 24 Kitchen Street, Getintothis’ Matthew Loughlin was there for a fascinating evening.
For support acts, there can be fewer more heartening sights than that of a busy venue.
The all-too-familiar scenario of playing to a half-full/half-empty venue (depending on one’s level of optimism that night) made up of half-interested punters who blather away during your set, only for the room to fill up just before the headlining act is one that any band who’ve played more than three gigs will have experienced and lamented.
Therefore, it was pleasing to arrive at 24 Kitchen Street to see the venue packed out for tonight’s first act, Ex-Easter Island Head. Recently upgraded to a four-piece and for tonight pushed onto the dancefloor (on account of the actual stage being dominated by Terry Riley’s grand piano), their set begins unannounced, with all four members, clad in black, stood to attention behind their instruments. What these instruments are is somewhat harder to describe.
Proceedings get underway with a cacophonous, repetitive drill emanating from instruments that look like a cross between guitars and Geiger counters. Further examination of this reveals that the order notes are played are apparently led by the vibrations from the room dictating where the needle lands on the open-tuned guitar, entirely dependent on chance.
In contrast, beneath this buzz lies a floating, innocent melody, played on an electronic pad that bounces about carelessly. The juxtaposition of the two is not unlike the sound of the scratching, sinister strings that haunt Scott Walker’s beautiful melody of ‘It’s Raining Today’ and is highly effective. A single hi-hat cymbal is slowly introduced, creating a swirling, random ring that allows the overall song to build into a hypnotic, cyclical movement, in which it is difficult to know where one element begin and another ends.
Although reliant upon these unpredictable, uncontrollable eventualities, nothing about the band themselves suggests anything is done on a whim. Rather, every move of theirs appears meticulous and planned. Members deconstruct instruments, literally stripping away layers of sound by removing components of these bizarre instruments in an almost ritualistic manner, never rushing and always precise, treating their tools with a reverie and respect.
Songs segue into one another, as apparently the instruments themselves do, as during the second song, guitars (still suspended horizontally, naturally) are played that sound like synthesisers; the bodies of bass guitars are used as percussion; and at the heart of everything is something that looks like a cross between a harmonium and a barrel organ. Except it’s played with a bow.
Taking things even further, for the final song, sticks are placed underneath guitar strings (making the ‘normal’ guitarists in attendance wince, we’re sure) and are twanged in time with chiming bells. Not only is the sound transfixing, but from a visual perspective, watching the sticks vibrate as they rebound whilst creating the sound that reverberates around the room is as satisfying as it is mesmerising.
Across their set, the sound grows gradually, based on repetition and it’s easy to see why they were selected for tonight’s bill; they are experimental but not unfocussed and adventurous without ever losing sense of melody. A quick “thank you” and they’re off, leaving an enraptured crowd understandably wanting more.
DJ Lupini weaves in and out of our consciousness with a tasteful selection of songs before Daniel Thorne takes to the (actual) stage. Armed only with a saxophone and a pedal or two, he opens with ‘Due Point’, a tender song that hears him play his saxophone so gently at times as to render it inaudible above his breath. His playing at times makes the saxophone sound almost like a flute, flittering and shrill, which, given the nature of the instrument and its inclination to parp in your face, is no easy feat.
Second song ‘Everything I Knew’ starts in a similar vein, but evolves into an eerier beast, with added echo and more sinister tones aiding things along. Certain notes are a struggle, but this is soon explained by a malfunctioning reed.
Thorne takes this in good humour, leading to some woodwind banter (a niche market, granted) in between songs. Reeds quickly replaced, the following two songs employ effects to continue to add further layers to the sound, preventing the set from becoming pleasant but empty. ‘Double Helix’ in particular benefits from some murky, brooding ambient tones underneath that allow the notes of the saxophone to swim around and breathe more.
It’s a well-timed set, as any longer than half an hour would arguably be labouring the point; inevitable one considers, given the restricted nature of one bloke and a saxophone, but his set is again treated with the respect it deserves from the crowd; that is, silence during the songs and generous applause afterwards – something that does not go unnoticed by Thorne, who thanks us all and is clearly just as excited to be seeing Terry Riley as the rest of the room is.
One of the paradoxes for many artists who break new ground, making all that came before it obsolete, is that this in turn can lead to said artist being pigeon holed and defined by that innovation. Subsequently, any following work is judged against this once-in-a-generation revolution and perversely dismissed as same-old or not as important; “so you’ve invented the wheel, what else can you do?”
There is a danger in describing Terry Riley as a minimalist composer that we fall into this trap. Ever since practically defining the genre with releases such as ‘In C’ and ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ during the 1960’s, Riley has continued to push sonic boundaries, using improvisation to build on hypnotic rhythms, drawing influence from jazz, Indian classical and electronic music, influencing giants such as Steve Reich, Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields along the way, yet he is often (somewhat ironically) reduced to the simple label of a minimalist.
That’s a bit like saying Piet Mondrian only painted with lines, or Miles Davis played trumpet; it acknowledges what they did, and to ignore this would be wrong, but it totally misses the essence of what they’re about.
Tonight’s set, a two-piece effort featuring his son Gyan, illustrates this point to some degree. From the opening ‘song’ (if that can be the correct term), it is clear that this is not an exercise in minimalism.
Although many of the inherent components of the genre (repetition and bare-bones) do play a part, they don’t define the set, which at times is a much more sprawling, free-form jazz-informed affair. With Riley Senior on key duties (piano, Nord synthesiser and melodica) and Riley Junior on guitar, the two play a largely improvised set that at times sees them playing against each other, trying to outrun one another and at other times, locking in together with an almost telepathic instinct for timing and tone.
The pair clearly enjoyed their set and their joy at discovering their synchronicity is at times palpable. Songs meander and motifs are returned to via happy accidents and exploration. If, as James Joyce suggested, mistakes are the portals of discovery, there were several times during tonight’s set where this was evident and the process of this was fascinating to watch unfold.
Anyone expecting the Terry Riley of ‘In C’ or ‘..Rainbow’ will have been either surprised or let-down by the concert, and indeed there were points mid-set, where things resembled the cutting room of a horror film soundtrack (a menacing, aimless, glitching, atonal movement four songs in) where one or two folk decided to vacate the building.
To come tonight expecting that however would be missing the point. Both Rileys are masters of their instruments, displaying a fluidity as they move between sounds and instruments. Some songs start out as meditative Bill Evans-esque blues-tinged movements before lurching into wilder rhythmic pieces, seeing Terry Riley jumping between the piano and the Nord, which at times sounds like a harpsicord and at others has a more modular electronic sound. Gyan similarly leaps from playing trance-like repetitive themes into more colourful, wistful movements that Vini Reilley would kill for.
The highlight of the set comes with the final song. Terry takes to microphone to chant a wordless mantra with almost Tibetan inflections on top of a reflective piano line and subtle guitar runs. Space is given to this as it slowly evolves, morphing into a mesmerising motorik number that bedazzles and entrances. Both Rileys beam as they stumble upon new directions to take the song and play off each other until the song fizzles out to a, yes, minimalist ending.
Great to see Terry Riley and his son Gyan slipping in and out of interlocking improv consciousness at @24KitchenStreet last night. Piano, melodica, guitar and effects galore – deffo heard Charlie Brown's teacher deep in the mix. Mighty support too from @ExEIH and Daniel Thorne.
— Damon Fairclough (@noiseheatpower) April 11, 2019
A post-curfew encore does fall somewhat flat, arguably due to the amount of the crowd leaving in order to catch last trains, but this is a minor quibble; the show ends with a rapturous applause and both Rileys are keen to show their appreciation to the crowd.
Not quite everything worked tonight, but that is to be expected given the nature of improvisation and, to again labour the point, isn’t the point. Tonight was a fascinating insight into the minds of two truly seminal artists, who, regardless of what we call it, exist in a genre of their own.
Also, in considering tonight, time must be taken to reflect on the venue. For years now, 24 Kitchen Street has continued to offer a truly eclectic range of events, catering for all interests and niches, without pretence. Tonight’s venture was a bold, brave step that could easily feel misguided.
The fact it didn’t and there was no element of novelty speaks volumes for everyone concerned with the venue and the event. Although there are other more appropriate avenues to channel this, it must be said that if, as feared, the venue is swallowed up by town planners in the name of redevelopment, it would quite frankly be a civic scandal.
Liverpool has a long history of fantastic venues being confined to the dustbins of memory due to short sightedness and an inability to appreciate what it has; a trend that continues all too predictably with the imminent closure of Constellations. If we lose 24 Kitchen Street, we genuinely lose a bit of what it is that makes the Liverpool arts scene so magical.
Images by Getintothis’ Mark Holt