Terry Riley

A Rainbow In Curved AirA Rainbow In Curved Air
Church Of AnthraxChurch Of Anthrax
Desert Of IceShri Camel
In CIn C (CBS original)
Poppy Nogood and the Phantom BandA Rainbow In Curved Air
You're NogoodYou're Nogood


Terry Riley playlist



Contributor: Peter Viney

You may find Terry Riley in the classical section, possibly under Minimalist. But then he’s recorded with John Cale, Don Cherry, Bobby Colombey from Blood, Sweat & Tears and Bobby Gregg, who replaced Levon Helm on the 1965 leg of the Bob Dylan & The Hawks tour. Pete Townsend named Baba O’Riley after two of his inspirational figures: Meher Baba and Terry Riley. The list of people he’s influenced runs to John Cale, Pink Floyd, Vangelis, Mike Oldfield, Eno. Curved Air are named after his best-known album. A Rainbow In Curved Air should be in a list of the most influential recordings of the 20th century, on other musicians at least. It leads to Tubular Bells but also to those stacks of CDs in the crystal shop, head shop or health food shop with section titles like Inspirational or Meditation.

I have CDs and albums in pretty strict sections. Most of Terry Riley sits on the shelf bridging the classical and jazz sections. But not A Rainbow In Curved Air. That’s in the bedroom in a rack with Ravi Shankar, a Windham Hill ambient section, Chill Out Classics and other Sunday morning, reading the papers in bed, albums.

A Rainbow In Curved Air gets both of its sides in the list. This is a somewhat unusual Toppermost as tracks are mainly one entire side of an album, or alternatively both sides of an LP, or one track on a CD. The title track, A Rainbow In Curved Air, is a pioneer work of overdubbing, wrongly attributed as early synthesizer: it’s not, because it was recorded in 1967 to 1968, it’s organ, Rock-Si-Chord electric harpsichord, drum and tambourine. But most of what was inspired by it is synth music, and it was a psych favourite album in 1969 and 1970. It’s the best starting place for Terry Riley.

The other side, Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band has Terry Riley on organ and saxophone, but used a time lag machine (think Watkins Copicat tape echo, but much longer using tape recorders and a loop), so what he plays is mirrored. Like Side One, it’s a melodic piece.

I’m taking this list in the order I met them, so next comes his previous album, In C. There are several recordings. I have three, but I’m choosing the original version, which made Riley’s name because he’s involved with it. Deep breath. Any number of musicians can play In C, but he favoured about 35. There are 53 musical phrases, all in the key of C. Each musician can choose which phrase to play and when to start and when to end.

Church Of Anthrax is a collaboration with John Cale, and was recorded before Cale’s Vintage Violence but released after it. It has actual tracks! John Cale plays bass guitar, keyboards, guitar and viola. Riley plays piano, organ and sax. The title track Church Of Anthrax is minimalist, but could have been played on an Ibiza dance floor forty years later (so they tell me … not that I’ve ever been on one). Most of the tracks have persistent piano.

You’re Nogood is described as based on “an obscure R&B number of approximately the same vintage as Poppy Nogood” and is described as “plunderphonics” with a sampled tape loop of the song which gets the chorus stuck in the groove. It’s not the Betty Everett song, by the way. This was recorded in 1967, but the repetitive bass line, looped sample then sudden melodic chorus could be the great-grandaddy of drum ‘n’ bass/dance, with squeaks, hum and buzzing. This is abrasive listening, not the peaceful melodic ambience of A Rainbow In Curved Air.

Desert Of Ice is on 1980’s Shri Camel, and is very much like A Rainbow In Curved Air. As the title suggests, chill out. Shri Camel has four suites. It’s recorded on an organ tuned in “just intonation” rather than standard tuning, which I can’t explain.

Cadenza On The Night Plain is a 1985 album written for The Kronos Quartet, the classical string quartet famed for recordings such as Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. Strings add a panicky urgency to Sunrise Of The Planetary Dream. Then Mythic Birds Waltz is more ambient. The title music is in seven sections. It’s all impressive and varied and often lovely. I’m not picking it though, nor Requiem For Adam with The Kronos Quartet because we’re into Terry Riley as a composer, not as a performer, and I think Toppermost is about performances. Otherwise we’d be including cover versions in lots of them!

I also think six is enough as we’re into whole sides of albums, or with In C, both sides.

YouTube has full albums by Terry Riley. So it means you can sample the whole thing.


Terry Riley’s official website

Terry Riley biography (Apple Music)

Peter Viney has been an educational author and video scriptwriter since 1980. He has written articles on The Band, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. He also writes novels under the name Dart Travis and writes on popular music, theatre and film at his website.

TopperPost #261

1 Comment

  1. Rob Morgan
    Apr 27, 2014

    Thank you for compiling this Toppermost. I’ve loved “In C” and “A Rainbow in Curved Air” for twenty or so years but never investigated further into Riley’s work. Thank you for the recommendations, I’m looking forward to listening to these tracks.

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