In mid October visiting the town of Arles, France, known for it’s rich Roman heritage and its most famous resident Vincent Van Gogh, we ventured into the darkened interiors of the Grande Halle at the Parc des Ateliers (a former railway garage). Here the multimedia artist Doug Aitken lit up the space with Altered Earth, a four year project that culminated in the projection onto 12 large screens of distilled images and sounds of the landscapes of the Camargue region. For the opening night Aitkens invited the people of Arles to witness a special live performance within the installation by the reknowned minimalist composer Terry Riley. Terry Riley's soundscapes lifted up Doug Aitken's imagery to an ever more evocative level. We spent the evening with Terry Riley after his performance to talk about the collaboration.
Purple - can you explain how the collaboration with Doug worked?
Terry Riley - His film was done, I had no input into that. When he told me what the film was like i decided that i would get some other musicians involved like Tracy Silverman and Gyan. Gyan being my son. The music didn’t really start until I got to Arles. Doug asked me what I really wanted to do and I really wanted to get into the space. From California I couldn’t really imagine what this space looked like. We decided that we could do it if I could have musical collaborators that I knew would gel with me right away then we could produce it in a few days.
Doug had input when we were developing the piece. He was around everyday filming what we were doing. We would do a take going around the 4 stages and have a little discussion afterwards. He would say what he thought worked best. We communicated the whole time during that. more info
Purple- Did you score the films in advance or was it more improvised?
Terry Riley- There was no scoring. No piece of paper got into this. We didn’t need to do that because we worked together a lot. And I just wrote a violin concerto for Tracy Last year so we had been hanging out a lot together and Gyan and I had been touring a little bit as a duo. So we hardly ever worked with any paper. We can communicate musically. I hate to read music myself. So I don’t expect other people to. I would come up with compositions where I’d just sing to them. Then they would take the ball and run with it.
The duration of the film was something always on my mind. Where do we make changes, because we broke it up into 4 stages. So that’s essentially four big parts of the film. So all of us had to orient ourselves in to the film.
Purple- You don't normally work with film. Is it something you have avoided?
Terry Riley- I haven't avoided it, but Martin Scorsese hasn’t been knocking on my door. And I’m happy with that because basically I feel music is totally a complete art to occupy your senses. It is interesting to work with images but it hasn’t been something I’ve pursued because I’m very satisfied with music as a complete obsession.
Purple- Your work for Altered Earth is reminiscent to the work you did for the film Operation Crossroads by Bruce Conner.
Terry Riley- This is closer to the work I did with Bruce than anything because it’s not a narrative piece. And I think that’s probably my preference. I would be less likely to work with a film that has a story. Bruce was a long time collaborator and Doug is somebody I’ve admired.
Purple- For the performance did you try out different ways of which to situate yourself in and around the installation? Or did you know that you only wanted to have a certain narrative within 4 sections?
Terry Riley- Doug said when he was explaining the piece that it would be a cruciform. First I said I don’t want to be in one place like a concert because it didn’t make sense and Doug felt the same way. Well my first idea was to get a donkey and a cart and I’ll ride on the cart with a harmonium, and the donkey will just pull me around the screens. And this is when I thought I was going to do it all myself. I said why don’t I just do it with a microphone and a harmonium. That would have been great too but it would have been much less dynamic. Doug said that he wanted the music to be in every section of the piece. Also, Charlotte Gainsbourg was meant to be in the piece and that didn’t happen. We decided that it would be me doing two solos and then two with Gyan and Tracy.
Purple - How is it working with your son?
Terry Riley- That’s been an exciting development in my life. He went to the conservatory and was a straight A student and I was kind of a dropout. We are very different but we have a very strong bond. Musically and i think it has even more to do with our relationship. We really love playing together and it’s a very high intuitive level. Very little verbal communication goes on. He has also studied Indian classical music with me and my guru. That vocabulary came to him so easily. He didn’t do it so deeply like i did by going into all the ragas but he understand the soul of it. So that makes it really great for us to work together. I’ve learnt from him. That’s what’s really exciting for me. I don’t mind being influenced. It’s something that’s really beautiful.
Altered Earth now has an extended view until December 2nd 2012.