Sarah Cahill: Eighty Trips Around the Sun: Music by and for Terry Riley
Irritable Hedgehog Music

A remarkable achievement on many levels, Eighty Trips Around the Sun honours Terry Riley by featuring a collection of his works for solo and four-hands piano spanning fifty years and augmenting them with tribute pieces written in celebration of his eightieth birthday in 2015. Obviously it's an essential recording for Riley devotees, but it's just as invaluable a portrait of pianist Sarah Cahill, who performs on twenty of the four-CD set's twenty-two settings (Regina Myers, who joins Cahill on the four-hands pieces, plays the other two). She's long been admired as a champion of contemporary music, but the realization of this project must constitute a career high-water mark of some kind. Recorded during 2015 and 2017 at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's White Hall, the project splits neatly down the middle, with the first half devoted to Riley compositions and the second homages, including a forty-minute tribute by Pauline Oliveros.

One of the project's most significant takeaways has to do with revealing the incredible stylistic breadth of Riley's output and his seemingly effortless command of those idioms. His minimalism roots naturally show in some pieces, but most reveal how great a distance Riley has traveled from such beginnings. For the listener only familiar with In C, Eighty Trips Around the Sun will be a revelation of sorts, considering that it includes atonal explorations, heartfelt ballads, and settings that have as much to do with blues, jazz, ragtime, and stride as anything classical-related.

In the case of Liszt or Chopin, the pianist's interpretation is guided by the composers' notations; in Riley's case, the musician has the benefit of studying him performing his material, whether it be onstage, on video, or on recordings. Such resources enabled Cahill to better understand and appreciate his command at the keyboard, the way a particular passage might take a sudden lyrical turn or how a theme blossoms from a trance-like pattern into something grandiose. Even when a piece ranges widely from one style to another, the material never feels disjointed; instead, the developments, even at their most daring, feel natural. The resources also allow one to note the degree to which improvisation informs Riley's notated material, despite the fact that lines often blur in these pieces when the relationship between the two is so fluid. Freedom and rigour abound equally in works that manage to be both experimental and accessible.

The opening disc features solo performances by Cahill and Myers. Composed in the late ‘50s, Two Pieces inaugurates the collection with a startling delve into twelve tone-styled atonality, Cahill's elegant yet robust renderings consistent with the strictures of the form. Representative of the composer's minimalistic leanings and written five years after Two Pieces, the twenty-five-minute Keyboard Studies is Riley at his most systems-based, the pianist here riding rollicking waves of rapidly cycling patterns like it's the easiest thing in the world. Fandango on the Heaven Ladder, by comparison, is Riley at his most lyrical and receptive to where the muse takes him. During this expansive travelogue, triplet figures dance across the full span of the keyboard, and Cahill moves from animated passages that vaguely hint at stride and jazzy flourishes reminiscent of Erroll Garner to Satie-like melodicism and R&B-flavoured swing. Wide-ranging too is Be Kind to One Another, a euphonious piece from 2008 (revised in 2014) distinguished by elegiac blues-tinged sequences that might well remind you of Bill Evans at certain moments. Of the seven selections, the most delicate, naturally, is Simone's Lullaby, a disarmingly gentle reverie rendered with exquisite grace by Myers.

The ‘Four Hands' disc pairs Myers and Cahill on five settings that map denser terrain, though the presentation is never so dense clarity is sacrificed. From the alternately robust and placid Cinco de Mayo and playful Jaztine to the folk-inflected dynamism of Etude From the Old Country, the virtuosos navigate complex pathways and rhythms with poise. In truth, on grounds of compositional quality the second half is the lesser of the two, though that doesn't take anything away from the sincerity of the individuals who wrote the commissioned works in Riley's honour. Seven composers' pieces are played by Cahill alone on disc three, while Samuel Adams joins her for the concluding disc's Oliveros opus, A Trilling Piece for Terry.

In the release's third part, Danny Clay's softly chiming Circle Songs offers an affectionate, three-part homage to Riley in what Clay himself characterizes as a “set of love songs.” Its title a clear reference to his father's 1968 Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, Gyan Riley's Poppy Infinite nods in Satie's direction as well as jazz improv over the course of its mercurial, nine-minute run. While ragtime and blues seep into Elena Ruehr's In C Too to charming effect, sine waves are worked almost subliminally into Samuel Adams's quiet Shade Studies, whose sound design emphasizes gentle cadences, silences, and the counterpoint between the piano's acoustic resonance and the sine waves. Noting Riley's interest in Indian music, Christine Southworth based her Sparkita and Her Kittens on a Bollywood soundtrack, which she compressed, edited, and re-shaped into a playful, intricately woven piece that arguably could pass for one of Riley's own.

Oliveros's A Trilling Piece for Terry parts company with the other performances in the dramatic alterations applied to the piano. Small resonators were placed on the strings, and Cahill prepared the instrument using dimes, weatherstripping, and other objects, plus bounced a small stone against the strings and rubbed the inside and outside of the piano using mallets. What might be totally captivating experienced live turns out to be somewhat less satisfying on record, simply because the considerable momentum generated by the performances during the first half is often absent from what turns out to be a mildly interesting yet overlong and meandering piece. Certainly the percussive textures generated by the prepared treatments make for an engrossing sound design, but all things considered, the release might have been better served by omitting this last performance and issuing it instead as a three-disc set.

For the record, Eighty Trips Around the Sun is but one of many recent Riley-related recordings deserving of recommendation. This year saw Sono Luminus release the Del Sol String Quartet's own Riley set, Dark Queen Mantra, itself a superb companion to the label's 2015 release ZOFO Plays Terry Riley, which features pianists Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi tackling a number of pieces also included on Cahill's set. As worthy of one's attention as they all are, it's Cahill's that obviously offers the most comprehensive sampling of the composer's work, even if its first half is the more essential of the two.

December 2017