Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Terry Riley's Persian Surgery Dervishes

Terry Riley is considered a founding member of the Minimalist school of music, a movement which burst forth mid-twentieth century, from which issued forth such popular composers as Philip Glass, John Adams, and Steve Reich.  Riley is lesser-known, but extremely prolific.  His orchestral masterpiece, In C (1964), is pinpointed as officially putting Minimalism on the map, though the whole thing started years earlier with the lesser-known Lamont Young, from whom Riley and a handful of others learned and collaborated.

A Rainbow in Curved Air (1968) was an album marketed to jazz and rock fans through adverts in Rolling Stone, and my brothers and I were delighted in the odd combination of hypnotic, playful, and lyrical electronic organ concatenations Riley produced with the benefit of an Echoplex, or some device, which helped him improvise with the line he had just played.

When I spied the intensely blue cover of Persian Surgery Dervishes at Dobell's, a fine London record store, I was thinking of Howard Riley, the English avant-garde jazz pianist, with whom I had a passing interest.  I think it took a second trip into London for me to connect this with Rainbow in Curved Air's Terry Riley.  Upon first hearing, my impression was that it was very scaled down from Rainbow.  But that's what you would expect from a live performance versus a studio creation.  The double LP is the record of a Los Angeles concert performance--and one in Paris--of the same long piece.

I became, slowly, enchanted with the music.  My uncle was puzzled, because he couldn't hear a beginning, middle, and end: none of the normative structure found in previous Western classical music.  "It's pleasant," said Uncle Jens, "but it just goes on like that and doesn't seem to have significance."  I didn't have the vocabulary to give Jens a solid rebuttal, but I knew I wanted to keep listening.

Upon my return to the United States, I fashioned my closet into a dark meditation chamber, and used an extra long headphone cord to be able to listen to Persian Surgery Dervishes unimpeded.  I found when I meditated to Side One, the rest of my day went better than days I didn't.  To this day I have not tired of the music.  My kids went happily to sleep with it during naptime (my son still calls it "the washing machine music" after some of the repetitive rhythms in the piece).  I even listen to it when I tire of all other music and need to take a break.  Persian Surgery Dervishes can be used to clean house, study, read, or listen with abandon.  My answer to Uncle Jens, after all these years, is that the structure is there, but it is at levels so subtle, it invites the listener to open up to a universe of sound so refined and pared down that it creates a sensation of that which mystics have long sought:  the eternal now.

If you like, you can buy Persian Surgery Dervishes AND support KPCC at the same time.