Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Terry Riley’s Persian Surgery Dervishes. Listen to some excerpts from the record and read Schnipper’s thoughts after the jump.
Summer of 2003, on a ratty couch at a fun party in a shitty part of town, one of my friends taught another how to smoke weed from a bong. The couch was blue. The bong had moving parts, a contraption so complex it seemingly wanted to stop you from getting high. But then, water in place, stopper stopped, suction holed, smoke started to flow. Though they were happy because they were soon stoned, the camaraderie and teaching provided its own natural high. Me, I still was a few years away from even drinking alcohol routinely, and though I had no qualms with those who chose to partake in weed, it was above all a foreign routine to me, one I saw at arm’s length.
This was most clearly illustrated when I—in a story I’ve told on this blog before—inadvertently offered to sell weed to a crew of Bay Area rap street teamers crisscrossing the country in a van pasted with Mac Dre posters. I thought I was quoting from the song “I Got Grapes;” they thought I was parading my wares.
I’ve wizened up over the years, as happens, and know more intimately the language over which I’d stumbled. Though I’ve long loved the heavily stoned giant riffs of Black Sabbath and their followers—The Melvins, Sleep, Fu Manchu, etc—I found the truly weediest music to be that which drones. By definition, a drone is a mechanical buzz, nothing warm, just a prolonged and unchanging sound that signifies production. At its worst, the music that yields closest to that party line clatters and pings steadily, an undying audible annoyance. I once booked a concert of drone artists where one of the performers canceled. In her place, one of the bands brought along a solo artist whose unendurably dull, weakly crude, 30 minute set finally came to a close. Then everyone sighed when he announced that that was just his first song.
Clearly there’s a fine line. At its best, and maybe at its origins, drone is warm, loving. Emerging from the avant classical experiments of the ’30s and ’40s, stabs at tape loops of the ’50s, the ’60s saw minimalism finally emerge, nurtured, fittingly, by weed. Terry Riley, a San Francisco hippie, blew the nut open when, legend has it, stoned on a bus he conceived his landmark piece of simple repetition, In C. Performed last year on its 40th anniversary at Carnegie Hall, clearly this movement has gained a good deal of mainstream acceptance. But In C’s precedence in the classical community did not necessarily give way to a groundswell of mainstream embrace for Riley, nor did it prompt any especially embraceable work. It did apparently give him enough money to buy some pretty nice weed and jam out on his organs.
Persian Surgery Dervishes is a double LP recording of two solo concerts Riley gave in Los Angeles in 1971 and Paris in 1972. It was released on French label Shanti and is a gatefold, Riley’s bald swami image screened in gold and purple ink. Bearded and balding, he’s clad in a loose and white outfit, the type of long sleeve, light gear you wear in the desert to avoid brutal burns. He’s sitting on the floor, cross-legged before a primitive synthesizer, frayed wired stemming from its circuits, a regulated mixing board and modest speaker. He’s looking down, so you can’t really tell if he looks insanely baked. But it sure sounds like it.
Persian Surgery Dervishes is a simple composition, the same piece presented twice showcasing the improvised variations. You could listen back to back and not notice they were the same, nor notice they were different. Riley scampers up and down the high end of the keys. The piece has a glistening tone, as he wriggles quick from note to note. When he pauses occasionally, it’s as if the air’s gone out of him, as though he’s lost his focus. There rarely is anything but either extreme of pause or pitter-patted play. It sounds like it was awfully fun to produce, something alternately lulling and peppy. One side opens with an organ churning that resembles something like a digital heartbeat quickening. It quickly dies down, maybe all the energy exerted for one sweet burst.
Last year, for Riley’s In C anniversary, I had the opportunity to attend the rehearsal, filming his lackadaisical advice to the large orchestra for this episode of FADER TV. Essentially, with satisfied ease, he told his performers, “Play the piece as you like.” The next night I donned a tie and headed uptown for the proper performance. Just before entering Carnegie Hall, however, a friend suggested we smoke. Never having partaken on the street during the day, I was nervous and inefficient, entered the great room disappointingly unstoned. Until just before the piece started when my friend went to the bathroom and I sat there in my nice plush chair staring at a crowded room and empty stage and it hit me and, uncontrollably, I began to laugh.