Review of Chanting the Light of Foresight: Imbas Forasnai by Terry Riley and the Rova Saxophone Quartet. New Albion NA064CD

This article originally appeared in 1/1: Journal of the Just Intonation Network, 6, No. 3 (October 1995) 14-15.

© 1995 by Bill Alves

The day of minimalist purity seems like a distant memory today. Those were the days (the late sixties and early seventies) when Terry Riley would jam for hours with his justly tuned Hammond organ, tape delays, and soprano saxophone, enveloping his audience in his raga-inspired reverberant improvisations, with perhaps a few blue notes now and again. Since then, at least three of the canonical four minimalists -- Riley, Glass, and Reich -- have enriched their vocabulary and maximalized their processes.

Riley brought us several new things in the 1980s, including a decidedly idiosyncratic set of chamber tone poems. In such works as Cadenza on the Night Plain and Salome Dances for Peace, both written for the Kronos String Quartet, he set myths of his own devising to long, rhapsodic, almost rambling, music -- music that was, for a former minimalist, almost embarrassing in its variety.

His newest release is Chanting the Light of Foresight: Imbas Forasnai, written for a different sort of quartet: the Rova Saxophone Quartet. It is also an extended programmatic work, but with certain important differences, including references to his past. Riley wrote the work in response to a commission from the Rova Quartet after having been inspired by an abandoned collaboration with a playwright based on the Taín Bó Cuailnge (The Cooley Cattle Raid), an Irish epic. Briefly, the story concerns a battle between the army of the story's hero, Cúchalainn, and that of Queen Medb. She convinces Cúchalainn's foster brother Ferdia to fight him, resulting in a heroic battle that Cúchalainn finally wins.

The first movement, "The Pipes of Medb," consists of two parts: "The Tuning Path" and "Medb's Blues." It is meant to evoke the night before the great battle, "the only sound being the wind blowing through giant organ-like pipes to signal time's static passage," as Riley says in the liner notes. The "path" of the title refers in part to the way that the movement "unwinds systematically from simpler relationships to the more complex areas of the tuning." In order to get the saxophonists to play the just intervals precisely, Riley recorded the pitches with his old Prophet 5 synthesizer as a reference. The players of Rova hold the vibratoless tones remarkably steady and precisely in tune. In the liner notes, Rova's Larry Ochs refers to the "difficulties involved in mastering the altered tunings (requiring false fingerings, jaw manipulations, superhuman lungs and lips of steel)."

"The Tuning Path" is a seventeen-minute journey through a very gradual unfolding of crystalline intervals. It is definitely the clearest nod towards Riley's minimalist legacy in recent years, and it might even inspire comparisons to the drone music of Riley's friend La Monte Young, were it not for the fact that this music breathes. There are long silences amid the completely non-metrical opening, and the players' breath literally determines the durations of the notes. The section consists mostly of a series of 3/2s, 5/4s and 6/5s, but in reference to different tonics. These chords then gradually overlap, and these overlapping sections form the more complex and interesting sonorities. The overlapping 3/2s, for example, result in quartal chords towards the end.

"The Tuning Path" is a very evocative work, and one of special interest to lovers of just intonation. However, its length does seem out of proportion to the rest of the work, and its starkness also a little out of character. I have heard from more than one person who love this CD except for this movement.

While "The Tuning Path" may remind us of Riley's minimalist days, the second section, "Medb's Blues," brings back the jazz inspirations behind such early improvisations as Persian Surgery Dervishes. This section also includes improvisation, as Riley lets the talented players of Rova take turns playing riffs over chord patterns in a 10/4 meter. The result is decidedly bluesey and rather attractive, though it's hard to see how it's supposed to be evocative of ancient Ireland.

The second movement (third track) is "Song Announcing Dawn's Combat," which, according to Riley's liner notes, uses Hindustani scales. This movement definitely contrasts with the others through the use of "exotic" chromaticisms and augmented seconds, though the scales aren't always Hindustani ones with which I am familiar. The use of Indian elements is yet another acknowledgment of Riley's past, as well as an attempt "to link this Irish epic with that of its more famous brother, the Bhagavad Gita." While the use of Indian elements to make this connection may be a little abstract for the listener, there is an undeniable similarity between the Taín Bó Cuailnge and the famous Hindu story of moral duty before a decisive battle between brothers.

The middle movement is, fittingly, a representation of the actual battle and is called "The Chord of War." Larry Ochs suggested the need for this movement to Riley, only to have Riley suggest that Rova compose it. Ochs and Steve Adams of the Rova obliged. The movement is based on the modes and harmonies from the other movements, so it does not sound completely out of place, but there is clearly a difference in personality. It gives free reign to Rova's improvisatory talents, but they go a bit too far into the land of bebop for my tastes. The movement also lacks the tight unity that characterizes those of Riley.

The fourth movement is a lament for the fallen Ferdia, "Ferdia's Death Chant," a moving homorhythmic chorale. Riley says that it uses the same tuning as the first movement. What that seems to mean is that the players pay close attention to the intervals and play in a clean, vibratoless style. The tuning itself does not use very exotic intervals.

The last movement is a jazzy title track, which represents the scene in which Cúchulainn is given the gift of prophecy, called imbas forasnai or the light of foresight. Cúchulainn's teacher (whom Riley refers to as a "guru") chants his future to him. Though this scene seems to belong chronologically before the previously-depicted battle, Riley suggested to the Rova that they try playing the movements in different orders. It does seem to fit here and forms a balancing counterpart to the second movement, just as the fourth did to the first. While all of Riley's metrical movements in this piece have asymmetrical meters, this one in particular has an engaging, almost Bulgarian, alternation of two's and three's.

In general, I must say that, in many ways, I like this piece more than Cadenza on the Night Plain or Salome Dances for Peace. While those works have beautiful moments, those moments in Chanting the Light of Foresight are extended into highly unified, but never boring, movements. Lovers of just intonation will find its beauty in the unexpected hands of a virtuosic quartet of saxophones; fans of Riley's early work will certainly find that it resonates here more obviously than in his other recent works; and anyone else interested in intelligent, accessible new music should give this CD a try.

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Updated on May 14, 1996 by Bill Alves (