Being well established in the great cannon of 60s minimalism, a local and an alumni of UC-Berkeley nonetheless, the great crowd for Terry Riley’s L@TE performance on Friday was no surprise. The environs were chilling, the Berkeley Art Museum that looks like the inside of a giant mausoleum with great balconies and intense art everywhere. Riley was there to perform his piece “Pipe Dreams,” as he sat at a grand piano in the middle of the hall with a grimacing smile. He was flanked by a circle of fallen and seemingly napping young adults, looking like the ring of fell trees around Mt. St Helens. Riley was the crater of the dormant volcano.

Riley began with his familiar incessant rhythms, but the piece is different on the right hand where the sound of old silent pictures is evoked. This could be backing imagery of a prehistoric Buster Keaton riding the back of a dinosaur, or a moral lesson from D.W. Griffith, or the looming terrorism of Dr. Mabuse. Or this could be an update on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” not a minimalist piece but a maximalist one, trying to encapsulate all of American musical history up till that point.

Then a guitarist pops out of the crowd to accompany Riley, and the biggest surprise of all is when Riley begins to sing evocative, unintelligible chants in a slow and gravely voice. The clean, melodic guitar seals the idea of Terry Riley’s early work as the precursor to kraut-rock. This was some of the best kraut-rock I’d ever heard!

From there, we move to a more meandering and new age section of the evening that begins to inspire frightful thoughts. If Riley represents the collectivism, proletarian love fest of Berkeley in the 60s, this has all disappeared now. A closer inspection reveals that the audience is not a fell forest but pairs of trees that fell that way together at a time of their own choosing. There is a man in the ring who begins to freak out, unable to keep still, clearly under the influence of some mind-altering substance that once must have seemed like a good idea. From my balcony perch I feel like screaming down to him, “didn’t you know?” The collective is gone.

When Riley comes to a break, the sound of the room takes over. Cell phones ring, LCD lit faces begin to chatter and move about in a multitude of footsteps, somewhere an elevator door rings. While Riley waits patiently for the noise to dissipate, he takes on the presence of Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot in Mon Oncle, lost in the din of a trite modern world. Riley is nonplussed, but clearly part of an other. The dream is over.

Note: The L@TE series music performances take place on the first Friday of the month at the BAM. Admission is a just $5. Next month will feature composer Ellen Fullman.

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