Inle Lake, Burma
NPR: There was a critic who suggested the whole point of your music is—and I'm quoting here—"transformation and transport." Would you agree with that?
Terry Riley: Well, that would be a goal... Definitely one of my goals would be that music should somehow change our lives; if we practice it enough, it will make us better people. And by that token, if we give our music to the world, it should help other people in changing their lives.
The first piece I ever saw Meredith Monk perform live was a set of duets from Facing North, with Robert Een. As a listener/observer I was absolutely awed by the grace with which they performed this mind-blowing music, and the focused joy of performing that came off the stage. Neatly hidden from view, though, was the complete mental presence and mindfulness required on their part to get to that point.
One of the M6's interests is to explore some of the music that Meredith doesn't perform anymore (or often) with her regular ensemble. The March 6 program at Symphony Space, for example, opens with a set of solos from Songs from the Hill (1976) and Volcano Songs (1994); the piece I'm doing in this set, the solo version of "Boat Man," has never been performed by anyone other than Meredith. It's a piece I used to sort-of-kind-of sing along with while listening to the CD, and, as a passive participant, I was lulled into a sense of "hey, that's not so hard, I can do that."
Then I started to transcribe it.
Every single measure is different. Patterns can be found, but they are never carbon copies. If the notes are the same, the rhythm changes. If the notes and the rhythm are the same, the vowels change. If the notes and the rhythm and the vowels change, the timbre changes. Every time you think you've settled into a meter for a couple of measures, it pops from four to three or three to two or SURPRISE! let's just drop half a beat and continue on as though nothing's happened. The shifts are often miniscule and dramatic simultaneously. My transcription has track timings about every three measures so that I could find my place again each of the hundreds of times I hit rewind. It was an outrageously entertaining process, unraveling the structure behind the piece.
Then I started to memorize it.
That was when the panic set in, and when the anxiety dreams began. Imagine trying to memorize a pattern like
and knowing that you will eventually have to recite it alone on stage, in a spotlight, in front of people—people who, I should like to point out, include Meredith Monk, the person who created the pattern in the first place. And that you have to do it kind of fast, and that you have to look like you're having a blast doing it. Actually, it's not even "looking like" you're having a blast; you actually have to be enjoying yourself literally beyond words, because the moment you think the words "ah, I'm at variation 1a the 2nd time but with the oo" is the moment you have stepped out of creation and into analysis, and then you're guaranteed to miss the shift into that 3rd iteration of figure 2 with that little 16th note squiggle you haven't named yet.
But after many hours of work, the anxiety dreams have disappeared, and the pattern is pretty firmly implanted in my brain at this point. (Let's just say that it is alarming to discover you've been involuntarily singing Meredith Monk's music while lathering up your hair.) Now I'm on to the stage where I get to think about the Boat Man as an archetype, find his movement in my own body, and revel in the delight he's experiencing as he spontaneously creates these patterns through playfulness and improvisation. In other words, to try to find the joy that came from that first performance of Facing North I saw.
In the process of getting here, I was reminded of what Terry said, that in the practice of making music our lives can be changed and we can be made better people. This is the ultimate joy in preparing Meredith's work, for me. In learning the music, I learn another way to think. In preparing for performance, I must prepare not to perform and instead simply allow performance to happen. In making sense of her consciousness, I discover a different awareness of myself. Transformation and transport—if I practice enough, I will be a better person.