ZOFO: ZOFO Plays Terry Riley
Sono Luminus

To his credit, Terry Riley hasn't spent his career spinning countless variations on his most famous work, In C, though he very well could have, given how seminal the 1964 composition has become. There's a whole lot more to Riley than hypnotic pulsation and interlocking repetitive patterns, however, as is amply demonstrated by this splendid collection of piano performances by Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi under the name ZOFO (shorthand for twenty [20]-finger orchestra [FO]). The recording includes everything from a waltz and etude to a rag and tango, and ZOFO Plays Terry Riley ends up making as much of an argument for the group's pianistic artistry as the composer's music. Photos within the release's booklet show Riley intently listening to Zimmermann and Nakagoshi as they're playing, and the images say much about the eighty-year-old composer's involvement as he worked collaboratively with ZOFO on the project from its inception.

The sixty-eight-minute collection certainly presents a rich portrait of Riley. The album includes material originally conceived for piano-four-hands (“Cinco de Mayo,” “Jaztine,” “Waltz for Charismas,” “Tango Doble Ladiado,” and “Etude From the Old Country” are from The Heaven Ladder, Book 5), piano arrangements of two pieces composed for the Kronos Quartet (“G Song,” which appears on the 1985 album Cadenza on the Night Plain, and, from 1989's Salome Dances for Peace, “Half-Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight”), and even a short piece commissioned by ZOFO itself (“Praying Mantis Rag”).

Though, as mentioned, the album material doesn't adhere strictly to the style associated with In C, signature traces of Riley's composing persona do naturally surface. A powerful rhythmic drive animates “Etude from the Old Country,” for example, in a way that suggests the presence of pulsation but does so subtly, with the emphasis primarily on melodic themes and dynamic contrasts than repetitive patterning. The macabre character and relentless momentum that distinguishes Kronos's rendering of “Half-Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight” is present in ZOFO's, too. Considerably different in tone and tempo are “Simone's Lullaby,” which sets aside any connection to pulse-based minimalism for six tender minutes of piano-generated dreamscaping, and “G Song,” which, while propulsive, shimmers in similarly dream-like manner. And so far removed is the rollicking, high-spirited “Praying Mantis Rag” from the world of In C, it would be hard to imagine anyone deprived of such information identifying it as a Riley creation.

As one might expect, the album dazzles sonically speaking (look no further than the episodic “Cinco De Mayo”), and the listener comes away from it impressed that music of such complexity and density can be executed by four hands at a single keyboard. Apparently there are few such outfits devoted exclusively to piano duets, but the virtuosic San Francisco-based ZOFO, which Zimmermann and Nakagoshi established in 2009, is proudly one of them. ZOFO Plays Terry Riley isn't their first recorded venture, though; it was preceded by Mind Meld, a collection that brought them two Grammy nominations in 2013. With the duo's four hands constantly in motion, their latest recording achieves a level of sonic richness more typical of an orchestral ensemble. (Note: as per usual for Sono Luminus Records releases, the package presents the material on both a CD and a Pure Audio Blu-Ray disc.)

July-August 2015