No one would mistake Boston for a historic hotbed of musical minimalism, but in recent years, depending on where you look, a few more flavors of new music have been finding an audience. At MIT, a welcome and ambitious new series called Sounding, curated by composer Evan Ziporyn, has bookended its inaugural season with celebrations of two icons of American experimental music, beginning with a program devoted to Alvin Lucier and culminating on Saturday night with a roiling and joyful 80th birthday tribute to minimalist pioneer Terry Riley.
Back in 1964, Riley’s “In C” seemed to prick up the world’s ear: pulse-based and hypnotic, chugging and coolly cyclonic, slowly spinning like a mobile in sound. The piece became a kind of beachhead for a new style that took jubilantly emphatic leave from the contemporary rites and rigors of the European postwar avant-garde.
That Riley’s creative energy has sustained itself with the endurance of that work’s opening rhythmic Cs, and that his influence remains strong on younger generations of musicians, were both emphatically demonstrated by Saturday’s expansive birthday tribute, which featured a clutch of premieres, performers gathered from as far away as Shanghai, and the warm presiding presence of Riley himself, improvising on piano and vocals, and smiling broadly as a young crowd whooped its approval. With his signature white flowing beard, he looked every bit the old testament prophet of minimalism.
It was a night where one special occasion followed another, beginning with Riley’s 1969 classic “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band” newly reimagined for a giant flock of saxophones. An octet from the University of Toronto commanded the stage while roughly a dozen more players drifted through the aisles. The groups played off each other in slowly shifting patterns that created a canopy of deep and mellow sound, somehow as vast and warm as the California skies under which Riley’s revolution was born.
Pianist Sarah Cahill followed with what amounted to an expertly delivered mini-recital devoted to Riley’s music (“Keyboard Studies” of 1964) alongside brief tribute pieces (many of them premieres) by Pauline Oliveros, Keeril Makan, Christine Southworth, Elena Ruehr, Ziporyn, and Gyan Riley (the composer’s son). Terry Riley’s own first appearance of the night came in a mesmerizing collaboration with the trio known as Eviyan, the composer’s quietly rippling piano solos offset by his son’s alert guitar playing, the soulful vocal keening of Iva Bittova, and the poetic commentary and punctuation of Ziporyn on clarinets.
The night ended with “White Space Conflict” of 2011, Riley’s first work for Balinese gamelan and guests, performed here by MIT’s Gamelan Galak Tika joined by Riley and members of Eviyan. This capacious piece, with its two sets of gamelan instruments in distinct tunings spread across the stage, ultimately charmed by dint of its sheer exuberance, a pattern-based symphony of plinking that reinforced once more the fundamentally inclusive, communal nature of Riley’s creative impulse. The crowd, quick to its feet, did its part to bolster the evening’s sense of affirmation and tribute. The music itself had taken care of the rest.