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Music Review

Getting the most out of minimalism

Gamelan Galak Tika (pictured last year in New York) presented a world premiere and other works at MIT.Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times/file

CAMBRIDGE - Young, hip, and notably hirsute was the large and appreciative audience at a lively performance (really, it felt more like a happening) given by the Gamelan Galak Tika gamelan orchestra on Thursday evening at MIT. But the most hirsute of all was the guest of honor, composer and keyboardist Terry Riley, often called the father of the “minimalist’’ movement, whose luxuriant white beard now extends well down his chest.

Judging by his masterful contributions on Thursday, at age 75 Riley has lost none of his legendary power to synthesize diverse musical traditions (Indian, Balinese, jazz, classical, acoustic, electronic) in provocative and inspirational ways.


Riley’s performance was made possible by his longtime admirer, MIT professor Evan Ziporyn, a composer, musician, and Gamelan Galak Tika’s founder. Ziporyn, dressed (like the members of the orchestra) in traditional Balinese garments of a royal purple hue, complete with sash and headband, took on numerous roles: master of ceremonies, conductor, drummer, and clarinetist. Also appearing as soloist in several numbers with Ziporyn and Riley was Riley’s son Gyan, a virtuoso guitarist. The evening suffused the mellow glow of a multigenerational minimalist family reunion.

The world premiere of Terry Riley’s “White Space Conflict,’’ scored for gamelan orchestra, electric guitar, and electronic keyboard, was the highlight and climax. In a brief introductory comment, Ziporyn explained that the title emerged from a garbled e-mail exchange between Cambridge and the composer at his home in Nevada. In fact, the title’s “chance’’ quality suits the content well.

Here, as in all the works on the program, the musical structure begins with a small repeated melodic or rhythmic gesture. This gesture gradually grows in volume and intensity, with various forces joining in and dropping out. Riley achieved mesmerizing effects at the electronic keyboard, from what sounded like car horns to Indian sitar, jazzy interludes and weird drumming. Around him, the metallic clatter of the gamelans, hand cymbals, and reed pipes rose and fell in shimmering waves of sonic color. The sense of progressing toward a harmonic or structural goal found in “classical’’ music of the modern Western tradition was absent. The point is to be here now, in the moment and at one with nature, a concept treasured in Balinese spirituality.


A similar sensibility informed the other works. These included one piece for gamelan ensemble, “Penyembrama’’; one for gamelan ensemble and dancer (the remarkably agile Shoko Yamamuro); one for solo organ (“The Bull’’) with its creator Riley at the keyboard; and several of Riley’s compositions for instrumental trio. These were performed with improvisatory élan by Ziporyn joining Riley father (on piano) and son.

Harlow Robinson can be reached at harlo@mindspring.com.