An afternoon with Terry Riley

This a transcript of the interview I did with Terry Riley for The Japan Times earlier this year. It's a long one (even after some judicious editing), so feel free to skip ahead if you want to read what he had to say about dream music, Just Intonation, La Monte Young and the time he went to the dark side. The interview took place on April 21, 2021 at Terry's apartment in Yamanashi Prefecture, with cups of chai courtesy of Terry's student, Sara. It had been arranged by the nice folks at boutique streaming service Oda, who'd tapped Terry to be one of their artists in residence, so I started off by asking him about that...

As a model for performance, is live streaming appealing to you?

I kind of like this. I mean, especially now. I did a lot of touring in the last few years, up until COVID started. So having settled down here for a year and not being on the road, I like the idea, now, of being able to not have to spend most of your energy travelling, and checking into hotels, and cabs. I think a lot of musicians are missing the stage, but a lot of them are also liking the fact that they're not on the road. Most of your energy goes into that.

You were touring with your son fairly regularly for a long period of time, right?

Yeah. I came here in February [2020]. I'm doing a project in Sado Island, and so we came to Sado Island to kind of educate myself about the place, and talk to the organisers about the project. I was on my way to a three-and-a-half month world tour – Japan was an early venue on the stop, Sado Island was an early location – so I got here, and then everything cancelled. In the two weeks I was here, emails were coming in every day. They were saying "postponed" at that time. So at that point, I had no work, and nowhere to go, really. So I ended up living here.

Was that an easy decision to make?

Well... you know, I really like being here, and I thought it would be a good opportunity. I've always come to Japan for, like, a week or two weeks at the most, and really didn't get to settle in, to know the place at all. So I thought, well, maybe this is kind of an opportunity the universe is giving me, to check this place out. The longer I've stayed here, the more I've liked it, and the more settled-in I got. Now I'm really very comfortably settled here… I have a little network here, and Sara has been fantastic, while I'm trying to learn the language and get kind of oriented, helping me interface with the community. Having a translator – and that's bad, making me lazy, because she's doing all the work! But she studies music with me, so it's kind of worked out for both of us.

I understand you spent some time in Paris, and then obviously you were in India during the '70s, but otherwise have you basically been living for most of your life in California?

Most of the time, yeah. I lived in New York for 3 1/2 years, '65-'68, and kind of got my career going there, during that period: you know, got signed by Columbia Records, and did a lot of touring and concerts. But then I came back to California, because I didn't really like living in New York. I mean, I liked the energy, but it was kind of hard on the nervous system – it's too frantic. I'm sure Tokyo is similar: the energy, it can beat you down.

How do you find living here, compared to the ranch in California?

This is a lot like the style of where I live in California. You know, it's rural. This is a semi-rural area – there's not much city feeling here, as you see. I like it. It suits me really well for writing, composing and stuff. I can focus really better when I'm out of the city. I'm a little bit unfocused, more, when I live in the city.

Reading other interviews, you've often talked about how you have this sort of daily routine of music, and of improvising. What does that involve?

Well, as I get older and older, the routine has been less intense. When I went to India in 1970, I lived with Pandit Pran Nath – the great Indian vocalist, my guru – and I was kind of undisciplined when I went there and met him. I was really attracted to his music, and learning from him. I remember, at the beginning, it was really hard for me, because he already got up at five in the morning and began practising, and I was just the opposite. I was staying up all night doing music, and going to bed when the sun came up – or later – for years. So he made me really get into a schedule, and be disciplined about practice times. I was like that for many, many years. As I've gotten older, I don't feel I need to do that any more. I just kind of go wherever my energy takes me. This is all bonus time! (Laughs) You know: average life expectancy is 77. I'm 85, almost 86. I feel this is all bonus time.

Yeah, that's like Japanese life expectancy, right?

Yeah. (Laughs) You know, so I'm just grateful for every day, and whatever I feel like doing, I do. Basically, I'm just here working. I like working, so I'm either composing, or drawing, or writing – doing something to occupy myself.

Do you do a lot of drawing?

I've done more since I've been here. They're more like cartoons, doodles, but I like to do it. It's kind of like your mind can just kind of drift with the pencil and paper. I haven't tried oil painting or anything. I like just paper and pencil, because I like the feeling of a pencil gliding across the page, just that kind of tactile experience. And then your mind kind of falls in line.

So you'll start drawing without any fixed idea of what you're going to draw?

A lot of times, it's a steam-of-consciousness thing. It's more like when people are talking on the phone, and noodling, doodling, or whatever it's called.

With your composing recently – I read a comment you'd written for the Sado Dommune performance last September, when you were talking about how coming to Japan has had a very inspiring effect on your music. What sort of direction has your composing gone in since you got here?

Well, I think that the main thing I feel like, here, is that I've tried to simplify my ideas, make them communicate more directly: try to make more powerful, simple statements, rather than complicated things that engage the mind more. I want to really engage the body more, and the emotional machine that people have. "Emotional machine"! Nice idea. (Laughs) So, the Sado Island project: it hasn't happened yet, actually, but we went over to do a concert – Sara and I performed there, at this old gold mine. Maybe that's what you were reading about?


So that was kind of like a prelude to help publicise the event, and to get the gears rolling towards the event. Since I've been here, I've been sketching a lot of ideas for that, but I don't have, yet, a really clear idea of the musicians I'm going to be writing for. It's mainly just been musical ideas that will then probably have to be tailored for whatever musicians I can muster at the time.

So what kind of shape have those musical ideas taken, if you don't know about the instrumentation or anything?

I don't know about that. They're kind of like these things you see here [gestures to pages of sheet music stuck to the wall]. They're kind of like sketches of melodic ideas or rhythmic ideas, and I've got books that I've done, just full of that. They're all kind of in that realm, just notebook ideas. I often do that, and then when I have to make a score, then I have all the material, and the details can be filled in later.

So it's kind of almost like this composite...

Yeah. I'll go through my journals. [He shows me an artists sketchbook, containing a mixture of illustrations and musical notes.] This is for Sado Island. I'm going to be writing for taiko drum groups, so some of these are taiko parts, I'll be using these for taiko drumming. I do this daily: gather materials, whenever I think of them, and poetry. It's fun. It's like a way of just gathering a bunch of forces together, and pretty soon they'll suggest how they should be organised in the final score. But I've never worked quite as intensely this way, before I came to Japan – because here, I haven't had any distractions. I can work every day. Before, I'd be on tour for a month, and then I'd come home and have to recuperate for a few weeks before I go out again, so it was very sporadic. I wrote several concertos for orchestras, over maybe 10-15 years. When I would do those, sometimes between tours, I'd just sit down and try to do the whole thing: write the whole piece, you know, over a period of six months or something like that. But here, I haven't had to tour, so I'm able to just gather materials and get ready for the time when I will write it.

I was reading a Japanese website as well, which mentioned something about acoustic sculptures?

Oh, yeah. I can show you what's being built. [Shows an illustration of two enormous hands with long metal chimes dangling from the fingers.] This will be about three meters high, and these are metal bars that are all tuned to a melody, and then people can walk through here and they will have a wooden (stick) to activate the pitches of that. As you walk through, it makes the melody, and it goes up, and then as you come back this way it makes the melody that comes down. They're talking about how they want something that can be on the island for hundreds of years, so I didn't want to use any technology. Because technology changes – if I use some kind of electronic thing – so I wanted it to be acoustic.

Have you done anything like this before?

I did a piece called the "Time Lag Accumulator," which is an even bigger project, which is a room with microphones and computers and stuff. It's quite a large room, with eight or nine chambers inside, and each chamber has a microphone and a speaker in it, and then they go to delays. So people, when they go in: if you talk or sing or whatever, it's picked up, and then maybe they'll hear it 50 seconds later in another room, and then a person mixes the sounds of everybody that's in there. And the inside is all mylar, so it's also like a house of mirrors, and it's a maze. You get in, it's very hard to find the doors: there's only one door in and out. That piece, I had two versions. I did the first one for Nelson Atkins Gallery in Kansas City – that was in '69, it was a smaller one and used tape machines instead of computers and digital delays – and then there was another one built in Lille, France, when they were the European Capital [of Culture] and they had a big festival. The latest one was built in Bochum, Germany, and is now in Geneva, I think. Every time it moves, actually it's cheaper for them to rebuild it than tear it down and ship it. (Laughs)

That's a good incentive.

But, yeah, in general I haven't done much for that, although I've always been interested in drawing. I did the artwork – let me show you – for my latest album that's coming out, the Bang on a Can All-stars. I have this piece called Autodreamographical Tales, which I first recorded myself...

It was a solo thing, right?

Yeah, it's on Tzadik. So my son orchestrated from my version; he arranged it for the All-stars. We did that, so the album's going to be coming out soon, and I did the artwork for that.

And was that recorded pre-pandemic?

We recorded it quite a long time ago. Like, four or five years ago, I think. It's been really slow getting it out. David Cossin, who's the drummer, is the producer, and he was really busy, and he could only work on it sporadically, in terms of all the editing that had to be done. There was a lot of music. I think it's going to be a double LP, that's what they're planning for. Anyway, these are the drawings I did for the album. This woman in Copenhagen, who does the artwork, put all these together.

Oh, I like that one!

So these are all sketches I made for the different dreams. What happened was, I kept a dream journal for a couple of years, not knowing why I was doing it. And then I got asked to do, for NPR, there was a commission for composers to do a radio piece. So I did this originally for a radio show. It was a shorter piece – only, like, a half-hour or something like that originally. When I was asked to do the radio show, I went to my dream journals, and decided that I'd make music for them all, for all the dreams. These drawings are also kind of sketches of what the dreams were like.

Did you find that keeping a dream journal kind of changed the way you were dreaming, or made you better at remembering what you had dreamt?

It was an amazing influence. (Laughs) I started having the wildest dreams! Because every night, before I'd go to sleep, I'd kind of know it was going to happen, and as it went on they got crazier and crazier, and longer and longer. If you want to have really great dreams, I'd suggest doing that. I don't know why I haven't done it again. It was a good period for dreaming!

The subject of dreams comes up in a lot of interviews that you've done, and you had the "Palmian chord”…

The Palmian Chord Ryddle, yeah.

...that came to you in a dream?

Yeah, I often get ideas for music in dreams, where I'll actually hear the music. It's never... the actual music in a dream is way too good to ever manifest in an earthly situation, because the instrumentation is celestial in a dream, and you can't reproduce that with an instrument. I mean, I'd have this amazing dream of, you know, a melody which I'd hear – maybe even somebody singing or something. I'd get up in the middle of the night and notate it, right away, but whenever I'd try to manifest it on an instrument or voice or something, it would never be as good. Dream music is its own media!

But then can that be frustrating, sometimes, if you're trying to make it work in a real-world context?

Well, I think you come to understand, after a while, that they're two different things, and you let the one influence the other – you let the dreams influence your work, without an expectation that they're going to be the same thing. Like, in terms of this concerto I wrote for Tracy [Silverman], The Palmian Chord Ryddle, it was more of a dream about the scale that I was going to start the piece in. I'd been trying to work with this particular scale, and the only thing the dream suggested there was the name. But one time, I was writing a piece for Just Intonation on the piano – retuned piano – and I had designed a tuning for the piece, but the way the tuning worked out, if I tried to do that I'd break certain strings. There'd be too much tension on some of the strings. So I was trying to figure out a way – you know, in my waking state – to make this tuning work out, and then I had a dream and it told me to invert a couple of the intervals, and they were the right intervals to invert to make the tuning work. So that was like a solution, that came in a dream. Somebody told me, in a dream – I don't remember if it was anybody I knew, it was just somebody telling me, "Well then, why don't you invert these two intervals?" (Laughs) It was a very obvious solution, but I hadn't thought of it.

It's fascinating, isn't it? Whether that knowledge is somewhere out there, or if it's actually just buried somewhere in your subconscious...

Yeah, I think that's what it is. The subconscious mind is always at work, and the more we can tune into that, I think the more we can solve a lot of our dilemmas. Even when we're asleep, the dreams and everything are coming out of that reservoir of subconscious activity.

That seems to have been a recurrent theme throughout a lot of the work you've done, and just maintaining access to the subconscious – and, I guess, the unexpected.

Yeah, and trusting what's going on there.

I've been really interested reading about your composition approach. You were saying this earlier as well – when you'll just be kind of sitting down, and letting things come without having a clear sense of what you're doing at the beginning of it.

Yeah. Well, it's been said – by a lot of people besides me – that if you know what you're doing, you're not doing something right. You know, if you know what you're doing, then something's wrong – as an artist – with your process. You have to be really engaged with the mystery, in a way. Because that's what's really exciting about creating work, is that you don't know. I mean, you can have skills – you can learn things, you can learn techniques, you can learn all this – but as far as composing, composing is another thing altogether. That's why there are so many different, great approaches to composition, because there's no real method there. Somebody just decides: an Eric Satie decides one way to write, Stravinsky decides another way. They all work on different principles, because they are different people, and they're in touch with different ideas, different inspirations. I don't like to know what I'm doing. I mean, sometimes it's very uncomfortable, but I like to kind of dive into chaos – as far as not having a clear image of what I'm feeling. It's usually an emotional thing, and the emotion is guiding you, gently, towards some kind of physical structure that you're trying to reach. So you trust the emotions – what you're feeling – is going to take you to something that will reveal a shape to you, that will become the basis of what you're doing. But sometimes, you don't find that until you're way into the writing process.

Lost in the woods...

I mean, I have pages: I write pages like this [gestures to sheet music], and out of stacks of paper, maybe only two pages, I'll end up using. The other pages are kind of, I'm writing my way into the piece.

Yeah, that does make sense. Just since you mentioned it just now: what, for you, would be an uncomfortable experience in a musical context?

Er... well, knowing that you're close to some beautiful thing that you can't touch.

Have you been in that situation a lot?

Almost every time! (Laughs) And you get to trust that that discomfort is good for you.

So what, you just stop when you've got as close as you think you can get?

Yeah, yeah. I don't know... I don't feel there's such a thing as perfection in art. Sometimes things seem like they are, but it's usually, at a certain point, you feel something is good enough to share with the world. But I never like to let anything go out until it's really moved me. If it's moved me, then maybe I can share this with other people.

Is that the most important criteria for you?

Yeah. Otherwise I like to just stay in the notebooks. But if something really is moving, then you feel it's beneficial to the world to share it. Not that everybody will get it: not everybody gets anything, you know, because people have different tastes, and susceptibilities to aesthetics and artistic ideals. But usually, a large percentage of the people will get it, and be moved by it.

Have there been times in your career where you've consciously resolved to change the course, or the focus, of what you're doing, so that more people do get it?

Mmm. Well, there are times when you pull back, for various reasons. You know: when I just don't feel like it's time for me to be writing. But the reasons for that, I think, vary a lot, and a lot of it has to (do with) how you're feeling energetically. Because when you're really in a good writing mode, the obsession with whatever you're working with carries you. That energy carries you through the work – and if you don't feel that, then you just do kind of a maintenance thing, you know. Maybe I'll just do stuff like write stuff daily: it kind of keeps my hand into writing. But when you get into a work that really excites you, and it starts feeding back a lot of ideas to you, then you're drawn in by it – you work really long hours, and are working compulsively. That's the kind that's most exciting, but that doesn't happen all the time... at least for me, it doesn't. I was reading Jack Kerouac, talking about writing – oh, no, it was actually Ken Kesey. Ken was being interviewed, and he was talking about why he wasn't – at this time, he was only like 45 or 50 – that he didn't have the youthful energy to write 30 hours a day. That compulsive thing, you know – and that's true. Jack Kerouac would write for two days – Gary Snyder told me that he would write for a couple of days straight.

Like the famous roll of paper...

He would just be fuelled by caffeine and alcohol, and typing like crazy. This kind of thing is obsession, you know, which carries artists through. But I think it's true, what Ken says: it almost takes a youthful energy to be able to burn yourself out like that. Just burn and burn and burn: just keep working on the idea. And you can't stop, because you can't help it. Ideas are coming, fast and furious.

But then people do literally burn out on it. I think Kerouac was, what, in his 40s when he died?

Yeah, and he'd quit writing before that. I think what's been said about Kerouac is that he really suffered from being famous, and it stopped him, artistically: the fame was too heavy a burden. He became so famous, all of a sudden – after not being recognised at all, to suddenly being a household name. So he just went home, drank himself to death.

Do you think there was ever a point for you, where you were at risk of becoming too famous? Because, looking back, it seems like at the end of the '60s, when you'd had these albums on Columbia, and they were going out to much a wider audience, and then you made the decision to go to India and become a student of Pandit Pran Nath, that it was almost like you were taking a step away from that potential... I don't know, that route to becoming a much bigger star?

Well, I think it was... you know, I was just lucky that, somehow, I was getting the messages that something was wrong, towards the end of the period that I was in New York. I was getting offers to start playing with some of the famous rock musicians of that time, and I was recording in the same studios, seeing them in the halls all the time when I was over at CBS, and I had to weigh that against the way I was feeling. And somehow, I felt it wasn't the right direction for me to take, that I'd kind of completed – by recording Rainbow in Curved Air, and even Church of Anthrax – I'd kind of ended a period of what I was doing in New York. I felt that it's time to move on to something, but I didn't know what. At that time, I hadn't met Pandit Pran Nath, but I met him about a year later, after I moved out of New York and went back to California. And then, for a long period, I was mainly just involved in Indian classical music, and didn't want to do anything else.

From this distance, it seems like that must have taken an incredible amount of humility to do, but perhaps it didn't feel like that to you at the time?

No, it was really self-preservation. I could tell my nervous system wasn't quite right, and I was having a lot of anxiety. And I was attributing it to, you know, just the way I was working in New York, and the energy there that wasn't what I needed then. I was done with that: didn't have to stay there longer.

Listening to the music you were making at that time, it doesn't sound like there’s any connection with anxiety.

Well, you know, Poppy Nogood has some of that in it. The flip side of Rainbow... I always associate it with my dark side! I think there's a joy in that piece, too, but there's also a dark side in it. I remember when I was recording it, I was having some kind of difficult nervous system events happening. (Laughs) So, yeah. I mean, Rainbow in Curved Air was an expression of joy for me. I don't know what that was about – I mean, why that came over me like that – but it was more of a joyous... a joy ride.

So have there been other times where you've really sort of gone into the darkness, like with Poppy Nogood, or do you think that was an isolated example?

Yeah, I mean, I think it happens periodically, and it's definitely good to explore as an artist. You don't want to all be cotton candy: you want to have some depth, and I think you need that. So I have done some very dark pieces that people don't even know, because they haven't... well, they have been recorded, but on obscure labels. I wrote a piece called Assassin Reverie, which actually scared the audience. It was right after they started the war, bombing Iraq. I was so angry at the government, the American government...

Was this in the '90s, or the 2000s war?

It was the second Bush, the Iraq War. I was having these fantasies, and even a dream, that I would get invited to the White House and I would kill Condoleezza Rice and Bush. I'd have a violin case, and I'd take a machine gun out. Of course, that couldn't happen, right? (Laughs)

It's so divorced from the image I think most people have of you!

Yeah! No, but I was really... I thought that was so unjust, what we were doing. We were bombing and killing so many innocent people. And Americans were dying, too, but mainly killing people because they were different from us, and because there was oil there. So I wrote this piece called Assassin Reverie, which was a theatre piece. It starts out with a kind of ballad, a really pretty jazz ballad, with four saxophones, and then at one point there's kind of an explosion in the hall – that happened sonically, on tape – and the saxophone players just become crazy, and start rolling on the floor and playing, and strobe lights come on. The only time I was at a live performance was in Switzerland, in Zurich, and the audience actually got scared, and some of them moved to the back of the hall. I talked to a couple of them later, and they said they were really terrified that something was going to happen, because it was so violent, the way the music happened. There was a tape background, with explosions and helicopters, and then this wild, frenetic saxophone music, and it went on for about 10 minutes. But I wanted to represent what real terror of war is. I don't usually get that desire – or I never did – but I was driven to do it by my anger at the war. I just had to write this piece. So, yeah, that's the darkest one!

Do you remember being that angry about Vietnam, or other examples?

Pretty much, yeah. Kent State, where they shot the students. (In) the '60s, I was very angry at the presidents during that time – even Kennedy was involved in Vietnam, and especially Johnson – but I think I never expressed it in any way. I would go to demonstrations and peace marches, or even Be-Ins, which were kind of like the hippy answer to a war demonstration. (Laughs) Poetry, drugs and sex. (Laughs)

Well, I can think of worse ways to express your opposition! But then, having sort of funnelled that anger into a piece of music, did you feel like you had achieved something through that?

It was a confusing piece for me, too, because the feedback I got – realising that I'd scared an audience – I realised that, probably, I wasn't doing something that I should have been doing. And I never wrote anything after that like that. But sometimes things just have to come out, you know, that you almost can't control. You have to get that off your chest: you have to write that piece. And I think I did feel better after I wrote it, that I'd actually expressed something that would maybe wake people up. I felt the worst thing about America at that time – which was really horrifying to me – is that all Americans were driving around with pick-ups with big American flags on them, and this false kind of patriotism thing. I felt everybody was asleep: they were all, like, being hypnotised by Fox News and other television news. When you watched television, it looked like the Americans were right, they were saving this part of the world from Saddam Hussein – who actually didn't create half as much suffering as we did.

Do you think, perhaps, people might have been surprised as well to be getting that from you?

Yeah, especially the few people that saw this piece. You know, not a lot of people saw it, because it was performed at art galleries and stuff – small audiences. (That was) probably good for me, too, that it didn't get to be too popular. (Laughs)

But then I guess you don't have much say over that yourself, do you? Once the work is out in the world then it kind of becomes its own thing.

No, this one kind of died on the vine. It did come out on a CD, the ARTE Quartett of Switzerland performed it. They did a fantastic job of staging it, it was really good. As far as the piece goes, nobody could do it better.

You have a very substantial body of work, but a lot of it doesn't seem to be that readily available. Does that ever frustrate you?

I wrote a concerto for the Kronos (Quartet), which was also kind of similar. It was written at my frustration with the first Bush, when he started the war – what was it called, Desert Storm? The night that he started the bombing, I couldn't sleep, so I went down to my studio – I have a studio, separate from the house – and I set up my MIDI system, and I improvised this long piece into the MIDI system from the keyboard. I'd had a commission to write a concerto for Kronos, and I realised that this was the first movement of the concerto – that I'd perfectly improvised a concerto movement – when I listened back. You know, with all the different sections and everything. I spent about two months trying to transcribe it from a crazy... I don't know if you know about MIDI, but when you play, things have to be quantised to make things line up, otherwise you get all these strange 32nd notes, 64th notes, all in different places. So I had to decode all of that into a score. I spent about two months, but I had the form – because I'd improvised the music – and I had the recording of it to go by, to reconstruct it. So that's... how did we get on this, what was the question?

I was asking, really, about the availability of your work.

Oh, so that piece (The Sands) was written in 1990 – was that the date of the...

Was it like '91 or '92 or something? Yeah, early '90s.

Yeah, it was around then, right? Yeah, so ECM... Kronos was in Switzerland at one point, I was there, and Dennis Russell Davies and the orchestra, they'd all agreed to record this piece for ECM. So we got a really great recording. We had a great opportunity, because they played it three nights, we had three live performances, and then we had an all-day studio recording of it, and they spent a lot of time putting together this performance tape of this, and ECM never put it out. Everybody – you know, Kronos, my manager, many people were (contacting them), and they would always just kind of give us some lame excuse why it wasn't out yet. And this recording was done about 15 years ago, and it still hasn't come out. Then the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded it with another quartet, Calder Quartet, and now we're working with them – the Philadelphia Orchestra – trying to get it out again. I've signed all the release papers and everything, but because of COVID, nothing has happened this year. But, you know, I keep working on these pieces that I want to have available. It's a long process, and you can only move it ahead so quickly, because you have to work with labels and different organisations to get a product out there.

Do you think that you could have done more to sort of nurture your image as a repertoire-type composer? Just thinking about how some of your contemporaries – like, for instance, Steve Reich, I think his pieces have entered more into the canon.

Well, the difference is – my other contemporaries, they're really different kinds of musicians.


Because I'm a performer-composer, and I've satisfied my career a lot by performing my own music, and my own performances, or working closely with other musicians who know my music well. I've been able to get my aspect, my interpretation, of my work out there. There's a certain disadvantage of having a lot of people play your music, and there's certain advantages, but one of the disadvantages is that you don't work with everybody. So you don't really get to convey your ideas, by having as much control over it. And I didn't feel it was something I really wanted to do – to have repertoire for groups to play. I mean, this one piece of mine, IN C, gets played every hour, on the hour, somewhere in the world. (Laughs) There have been performances at the South Pole...

The South Pole?

Well, almost. I mean, Patagonia – and everywhere, just the craziest places on Earth, you know, at the highest altitude that any concert hall exists. I get wonderful emails from people that are playing it in unusual circumstances. So that's been my kind of calling card. The other pieces I've written, which nobody knows about, they've just been kind of a bonus. And I think, gradually, they'll be played. I think, especially after I'm gone, there'll be a lot more interest in the concertos that I wrote. I wrote an organ concerto, electric concerto, string quartet concerto, concerto for violin and two guitars, you know – I could go on and on. I was really into writing a lot of kind of concerto music, and learning how to write for orchestra, during this time.

When you were writing that music, did you have specific performers in mind?

Well, they were all commissions. They all at least had one performance! One of my violin concertos has only been played once, and that's another one I'm working on trying to get released. There's only one recording, and that was from the premiere, and the premiere was the only performance, but fortunately it was recorded fairly well – in Bari, Italy – so that's another project, right now, that we're trying to... at least get up on some Internet platform, Bandcamp or something, so that people can hear it.

So for each of these pieces, when they were commissioned, was there always the possibility that they would eventually be released as an album?

They all have been released, now, all the concertos – except The Sands, which is this one that I wrote for Kronos, and then this violin concerto from Bari. I think those are the two that have never been... Oh, and the first orchestra piece I wrote. It's called Jade Palace, and that was for Carnegie Hall's 100th anniversary. That's on YouTube now. I didn't know it was on YouTube; somebody just pointed it out to me recently. That's a 50-minute orchestral piece, a huge piece for a large orchestra. It was the first time I'd ever written for orchestra, and I pulled out all the stops. I was always kind of thinking I'd overwritten it, and maybe I should wait and revise it, but then I went and listened to it on YouTube the other day and I was like, "God, there's some really good stuff in there!" (Laughs) And I get a lot of comments from people that have heard it, and said, you know, this is really a very unusual orchestra piece. And they think it's a lot like Charles Ives, because it's very complex textures – you can listen to it many times and hear different things. It's on YouTube, so I'm kind of satisfied. I think it only had something like 40 hits. (Laughs) I mean, I didn't even know it was there, so I guess you can't expect fans to find it.

And like, the way that people can stumble across this music now – it wasn't possible before.

I love it. I mean, I spend so much time listening myself – especially since I've been here. It's been great to take periods of music. Lately, I've been really listening to the bebop period in America, and all that. It's great to just, any area you're interested in, kind of just dive into it deeply.

Do you find, going back to bebop now, that you're hearing it differently, or getting something new from it?

I'm hearing more of it. I had some of the records when I was younger, but now I'm hearing so much more of it, and more artists are available to hear – artists that I didn't know about. I knew the main guys, like Parker and Gillespie, and Bud Powell. Last night, I was diving into Bud Powell. He was probably, as much as Parker, responsible for the shape of bebop. I was also listening to Dizzy Gillespie say that the piano players, playing with him and Parker, in the beginning didn't know how to play. You know, they were playing "oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah," and he says he had to show how to comp behind them. He said they were screwing up their music, because they were playing the old piano style. That was interesting: that Dizzy Gillespie actually might have – at least according to him – influenced the piano players to how to play behind the horn players.

That makes me think of what Miles Davis did with rhythm sections during his electric period or something.

Yeah. Well it really kind of went back to the ideal that Dixieland had, of polyphonic improvisation. Like when Miles, instead of just people playing choruses, people were all contributing to the fabric of the music – that's where jazz started out. I mean, the music was much different, of course, by the time it got to Miles Davis's late period, but he kind of realised that this formula of just having solo after solo was getting a little bit old.

I've never made the connection between that and Dixieland, but yeah.

Well, I don't know if... that's what I think.

No, that does make sense.

It was polyphonic improvisation, in Dixieland, and with Miles it was too: everybody was a contributing part of the fabric. And Miles was in there, but sometimes he was buried.

It's music that, to me, still sounds quite radical now – which is amazing, given it was recorded nearly 50 years ago.

Well, he was undoubtedly one of the greats. There were so many really great geniuses in jazz, and American music is heavily tilted towards jazz – as far as the improvisation and, really, greatness of imagination, performing. So many wonderful people – geniuses, actually, a whole bunch of them! And mainly Black musicians, who never got any credit for anything, were the innovators, pushing it all forward. It was essentially their music.

And then also there seemed to be such resistance from the institutions to recognise them as composers, rather than just as, you know, "mere" musicians.

Just as somebody tootling on their horn. Yeah. Changed the face of music.

Definitely. With your own music, I feel like there's been a certain kind of kinship with jazz, even if you haven't exactly been making what you would call "jazz" yourself.

No, I never considered myself a jazz musician. I mean, I play tunes. I've always been interested in the Great American Songbook, and all the great tunes that have been written – you know, McCartney and Lennon's writing. I've been interested in really great songform tunes, as a source of inspiration. You can draw a lot of ideas out of that whole thing. I mean, jazz fed on that very heavily, using the tunes as a model for improvisational charts, but it could be used in other ways too: just bringing more lyricism in the music, and finding other ways to use the lyricism. And for me, that's been kind of the inspiration for my music.

When you were first making your mark as a composer, it was at the end of an era where I don't think "lyricism" was held in very high regard. Do you think you were kind of reacting against how arid everything had become during the postwar period?

I wasn't reacting. I was pretty young when I was doing a lot of my own innovation – relatively young in my career, anyway – and instead of reacting, I went through all that: I tried to learn all the different styles of music that were happening during the early part of the 20th century, up into Stockhausen and Boulez and Nono and these composers, and I tried to learn from them and experimented with writing a bit in those styles. What happened with me was, instead of reacting to that, I just realised it was like I had the wrong suit of clothes on. (Laughs) You know? And I didn't feel right in it. So I tried to find out, well, what do I feel comfortable in? And that's what kind of pushed me into the music that I'm known for, or people associate with me. I mean, I have pretty catholic taste in music, so I incorporate a lot of those ideas in my writing, but they're not… they don't dominate it. There's another something that is core to the music that I do, that gives it the flavour.

Yeah, it doesn't feel like you're just quoting something.

I had an interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony – who's also a wonderful composer – and he was telling me that he was listening to my music, and he felt that there was something that tied it all together: It was the stamp of a personality. And I think that's what – not that I'd aimed for that – but I think that that is kind of what you recognise when you listen to Stravinsky or Bartok or Gershwin. You know, you're dealing with a viewpoint or personality, even though they might be... like, Stravinsky wrote in quite a few styles over his career, but there's always kind of a Stravinskian sound, you know? A little kind of acid bite in there, that you recognise.

I guess it's probably hardest for you to say, but what do you think yours is?

Yeah, it would be hard for me, and very arrogant for me as well! (Laughs)

We can move on! That's fine...

I'd say, one thing I've always liked, is (to have) some kind of a little bit of feeling of humour in whatever is there: don't take yourself too seriously. That's been something that I kind of remind myself all the time. Occasionally, like with Assassin Reverie, I took myself too seriously! (Laughs) But over the long haul, that's kind of a guiding principle. Levity is a good approach.

Definitely. So do you think there are people who do take themselves too seriously, then?

Oh yeah. I won't name any names, but... (Laughs)

No, I'm not asking you to! We don't need to go there. Actually, speaking of names: I was told that you've been reflecting recently on some people from your past…

Yeah, I have done a lot of reflection, and even started to write. I would like to write a book that's essentially stories: stories about an encounter with this person or that person, or a certain period, or something I did in a certain period. It's a goal I have, and I've written maybe three or four of these, with the idea of eventually putting enough to have a book of them. Rather than have nothing out there, you know. Because most of my colleagues have written some kind of autobiography. I don't want it to be an autobiography, I want it to be just, like, some interesting stories about something that happened. Something that amuses me, that I think might amuse somebody else.

Yeah, that seems more in keeping with your approach to life.

Yeah, yeah. Pandit Pran Nath was the most extraordinary person I've ever met. It's really almost, he was so extraordinary, it's hard to write about him. I was with him for 26 years, a pretty close association, and thought about him a lot since then, but I've never really written about him. I've written a few things. When he died, especially, I wrote for a few magazines, kind of stories about his life.

Are there other people from your life, who you feel didn't get the kind of attention that they deserve?

One person that nobody's gotten a straight story on is La Monte Young, because... well, partly because of him. People haven't had access to him. And La Monte and I have a lot of stories together! (Laughs)

Are those stories that you would actually be at liberty to share?

I think at this point, yeah. I mean, everything that La Monte has done that has had some kind of negative impact, has already been written about.

Yep. Tony Conrad certainly didn't hold back...

Yeah, and his whole drug-dealing past and everything, it's all come out now. He was one of the biggest drug dealers in New York for a while! (Laughs) But, you know, La Monte is a genius. He's an amazing genius, and I think, of all the people that are in this kind of camp of contemporary music, La Monte is, to me, the most important. Because he really set the tone.

Yeah, he really planted the flag in the ground for it, right?

Yeah. And usually other people are credited more. Part of the reason is, he doesn't have a huge catalogue of works. But the ones he has are so important. To me, that's what's of value. You could write endless works and none of them would have any impact on anything, but La Monte's work has had a big impact, even though it's been hard to find, and hard for people to hear. The general public doesn't really understand a person like La Monte Young. There hasn't been anybody exactly like him – or even close to him – in music history. You know, if you get another innovator – say, like Debussy – who changed music... even Richard Wagner, there's many people who changed music in their time. La Monte did that, but not through repertoire. Repertoire is only a part of it. Like, people haven't even heard these pieces that changed history, but you hear it in everybody else's work!

But then people say the same thing about you, as well.

Yeah, yeah. But we're so different. I mean, although we're really close, as friends, and we've had a long history of being together. Pandit Pran Nath used to say that La Monte is “the most serious person I've ever met” – and he was the most serious person I ever met! (Laughs) La Monte is incredibly focused on his work, and he's, philosophically, very deep about musical sound, and that's what changed things. Probably the easiest example is The Well-Tuned Piano, because now that's recorded, and people can hear it. So maybe that's what, basically, he will be known for, and it's also the most accessible of his works to listen to. But The Dreams of China… these pieces, I don't know if you know these?

I don't, no.

There's one version out, for twelve trumpets, that Gramavision put out, I think. It's really, really gorgeous, but very few people have heard it, I'm sure. But just a few pieces: when they hear them, they'll realise that there's nothing that sounds like this, nothing that sounds like him. The only thing it sounds like from now is Michael Harrison, because his music is really La Monte's music, being brought out to a wider audience. But he uses the same tuning, and all the same compositional techniques that La Monte developed. But otherwise, you know, nobody sounds like La Monte.

You were working in Just Intonation for quite a long time, and then you went back to equal temperament, but was that a hard shift for you?

I haven't gone back or forward with it. I always did both. If you stay exclusively in Just Intonation, you really limit the scope of where your works can be done. For an orchestra, a Just Intonation piece is a catastrophe, for the most part. To cite you an example: John Adams, when he wrote The Dharma at Big Sur – it's one of his really popular works – he wrote it first in Just Intonation, and it sounds like a bad high-school band playing it, because it's out of tune, right? So he finally withdrew that idea, but the first performances – which I heard – of the piece were really embarrassingly bad. So, you know, writing for an orchestra with Just Intonation – unless they would devote a long time to learning the tuning – is senseless. So I decided I'd have two parts of my career. I didn't want to not be able to do music, so all the stuff I've done in equal temperament has been because I wanted to keep doing it. But every day I practise raga, which is Just Intonation, and I'm always working with pure intervals.

So is it just like speaking a different language, and you kind of switch in your head?

Yeah. Pandit Pran Nath used to have this great, great expression: "A needle can't do shovel's work." So that explains Just Intonation. If Just Intonation is the needle, it can't dig a hole in the ground, right? But what it can do is sew a beautiful fabric of different frequencies. I feel like, when I'm working with Just Intonation: OK, I have this opportunity to do really pristine, crystalline sound that's all harmonic resonances that are beautiful, and it's an opportunity to work in that kind of beautiful sonic landscape. But if I don't, I'll take the shovel! (Laughs)

You can still do beautiful things with a shovel!

A little cruder, yeah.

Okay, I think I've already taken up far too much of your time, so I'll wrap things up.

It's good, the chai is driving me…

Yeah, it's excellent. I wasn't expecting to cover so much ground.

You've got a book here!

Yeah, yeah! Was there anything else you wanted to...?

No, I never have anything more to say. (Laughs)