Sarah Cahill’s Terry Riley Piano Party

Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY; January 29, 2014–Terry Riley turns 80 in June 2015, and already the tributes are starting to roll in. On January 29th Berkeley-based pianist Sarah Cahill offered a Piano Party for Terry Riley at 80, honoring the minimalist pioneer with a program of newly commissioned works to celebrate the occasion. Given the upbeat, exuberant, and generous nature characterizing much of Riley’s work (his iconic 1964 In C is a case in point), it seemed strangely ironic that the program’s five premieres were generally slow and introspective. Faster selections were not particularly pianistic, such as Danny Clay’s Circle Songs, a rather dry barrage of post-minimalist phrases seemingly organized by hitting a random or shuffle-play button and leaving the pianist to pick up the pieces. By contrast, Samuel Carl Adams’ Shade Studies featured stark and sparse slow-motion piano writing gently manipulated with electronic pitch bending and timbre alterations.

The first piece of Dylan Mattingly’s cycle YEAR stood out for its carefully calculated nuances and use of register. The composer’s son Gyan Riley’s Poppy Infinite begins with gentle, searching gestures that gradually evolve into tangy jazz-like right-hand runs. The younger Riley’s solo acoustic guitar guest spot showcased his splendid harmonic sense and refined appropriation of flamenco techniques. The guitarist assisted Cahill at the piano for Pauline Oliveros’ improvisatory A Trilling Piece for Terry, plucking on the instrument’s strings while she commanded the keys, and vice versa.

Ironically the opening work, Terry Riley’s 1964 Keyboard Studies, proved to be the evening’s most original, energetic, inventive, rhythmically interesting, genuinely virtuosic and joyful offering. Under Cahill’s deft fingers, the music’s vertiginous two-part textures and displaced accents proved positively hypnotic. Without warning, the piece stops quietly and abruptly, as if someone had pulled a plug. Elsewhere, the pianist’s sensitively nuanced and lucid artistry made the best possible case on behalf of the new works.