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Saturday, November 12, 2005
Terry Riley's Assassin Reverie
Assassin Reverie
Terry Riley – vocals, piano, harpsichord
The ARTE Quartett
Beat Hofstettet – soprano saxophone
Sascha Armbruster – alto saxophone
Andrea Formenti – tenor saxophone
Beat Kappeler – baritone saxophone, sound design and effects.

By way of a warning, I should say up front that a significant portion of the population won’t be able to enjoy Terry Riley’s new disc Assassin Reverie. Some people won’t be able to get past Riley’s idiosyncratic version of Hindustani vocal style in the first movement of Uncle Jard. Others won’t be able to get past his hoary, wavering voice as he belts out his blues in the second movement. Those who tried and failed to get past cyclic repetition probably did so long ago and won’t even bother coming near Tread on the Trail, a 1965 piece constructed of melodic modules like the canonic In C. Of course, the Zen koan of Terry Riley’s music is always that “getting past” the surface doesn’t actually get you anywhere. The joy of this music is the surface, in the snippets of saxophone melody, played here with gorgeous aplomb by the ARTE Quartet, which don’t need to lead towards anything.

As a Californian living in New York, I like to maintain the conceit that there is something quintessentially West-Coast about the ability to relax and laissez le bon temps roulez musically. In truth, while a fondness for Telegraph Ave and a residual level of THC in the blood might help, all you really need for this music is a willingness to bring your pop ears along with your “new music” ears. Riley’s voice, like that of Lou Reed or Bob Dylan (or Charles Mingus when he let loose) is an acquired taste which for some will not be worth the acquiring, but I find that Riley’s enthusiastic warble adds enough momentum and feeling to his stomp-blues piano to overwhelm any potential distraction.

The three pieces on Assassin Reverie each feature the ARTE Quartet in a different capacity. Uncle Jard displays the quartet first as accompaniment and counterpart to Riley’s harpsichord and voice, then as the driving center of his Oh Yeah period Mingus-isms, and finally as the back and forth moving parts of the perpetuum mobile third movement.

The contrasting Assassin Reverie is an unapologetically political piece (Riley calls it “a result of living in the post 9/11 world”) which melds more complex and climax-directed saxophone lines with a tape section that uses helicopter and gunshots sounds for dramatic effect. The potentially disturbing nature of the tape section is actually made more palatable by the ARTE Quartet’s impressive ability to weave the sounds of their horns into the tableau created by Riley’s tape. The unity of sax and sound effect becomes very important to any success this piece achieves, as even when the violence implicit in the music become uncomfortably direct, one is still able to derive pleasure from this synthesis.

The final piece on Assassin Reverie, Tread on the Trail was inspired by a performance by Sonny Rollins, and sounds a bit like if In C were rewritten for 12 saxophones using snippets from one of Rollins’ famous solo cadenzas. If that sounds like fun, then you will probably enjoy Assassin Reverie. If it sounds like something you’ll need to “get past”, then I would stay away.


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