"Tread on the Trail" - Terry Riley

The minimalist composer and performer Terry Riley wrote this week's featured work, "Tread on the Trail." When you listen, the first thing you will notice is the use of a pedal tones, the sustained interval heard for the first four minutes. Gradually, this harmony gains life through rhythm, timbre (different saxophones emerging out of the texture), and, eventually, melodic ideas begin to take shape. This concept of a simple idea slowly developing its rhythm, pitch material, harmony, and timbral variety, lies at the heart of minimalist music.

The performance of this piece is largely left to the musicians. Rather than writing out the music in one consequential score like earlier composers, Riley composed the music in short motives spread across the page, with directions on how many times to repeat each snippet, with the instrumentation to be determined. This recording uses 12 saxophones, but any group of musicians can perform this piece, even if they are not found in the orchestra, including saxophones, electric guitars, and bass guitar. Just prior to this work, Riley used this same composition process in his famous and often-performed "In C," according to Jeremy Grimshaw. Like "In C,"  the rhythmic pulse and a relentless tonal center drives "Tread on the Trail." These two qualities give the music, considered to belong in the classical genre, a rock-like sound.

Terry Riley was born on June 24th, 1935. Going to school at UC Berkeley in 1960, he worked with the composer LaMonte Young to explore different concepts of time in music, a reaction to the atonal and unpredictable classical music composed in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s. They wanted to experiment with the listener's perception, when the rate of change of musical elements (rhythm, pitch, harmony) slowed down. This research field at the intersection of hearing, physics, and neurology is called psychoacoustics. Not only a classical musician, Riley also played jazz, an influence often heard in his compositions. After composing in Western styles, he traveled in to India to study with the North Indian Raga Vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath; they became life-long musical collaborators. Riley's immense catalog of genre-bending compositions have been played by soloists, chamber groups, orchestras, throughout the world and he is among the most influential composers of the 20th century. Find out more about Terry Riley, and his music, at his website.