Deaf Jam

Matthew Wilder on Terry Riley's seventieth birthday bash

Los Angeles

Left: Terry Riley. (Photo: Lenny Gonzalez) Right: Acid Mothers Temple.

“Excuse me, do you—is this—do I find the earplugs here?” “I’m sorry—exc—I’m so sorry, do you have the earplug box?” “Hi, hey, yeah, do you—you don’t happen to know—where they put the box with the earplugs?” It’s around 10:30 on Saturday night in the lobby of Royce Hall, UCLA’s home for the performing arts, a dour, doughty, Lombardian fortress erected in imitation of Milan’s Church of San Ambrogio. This is the kind of place you go to for an evening of John Cale burbles, or maybe some Laurie Anderson found-word poems, or perhaps a deadpan morsel of Tom Waits or Lou Reed. You know, the boomer avant-garde as seen in the BAM Next Wave brochure, that annual lineup of well-into-their-fifties, once-edgy cats, as predictable, really, as Marty Allen following Jack Carter and Shelley Berman at Caesar’s Palace back in the day. What you most assuredly do not typically find at Royce Hall is a rush of well-heeled West Side minimalist-music aficionados tear-assing into the lobby to raid the cardboard box of earplugs. But the concluding performers of the night, the Japanese trippy/metallic noisemongers Acid Mothers Temple, are cranked so high their amps are belching Spinal Tap-ian clouds of purplish smoke.

It’s Terry Riley’s latest seventieth-birthday bash. At the start of the festivities—oh, about three and a half hours ago—UCLA Live’s impresario, the effusive David Sefton, informed us that Riley’s birthday was actually in June, and that he has had several shindigs since then, though ours has the distinction of being “the last of the celebrations.” It was clear that Sefton, an excitable Brit, had an agenda. This wasn’t going to be some fuddy-dud, Ph.D.-in-composition, grit-your-teeth evening of “new music” appreciation. No, this was UCLA Live, remember? And so the curator decided to sacrifice the sensibilities of his largely bobo, very academic subscriber base on the altar of Prolonged Sustainable Hipness. Sefton decreed that, after performances by electronic duo Matmos and Riley himself, a bunch of eardrum-searing Japanese neo-hippie hipsters would round out the evening with a rendition of Riley’s landmark keyboard composition “In C.”

As an oldster with fragile ears, I stand in the hallway just outside the auditorium, enjoying the rolling eyes of Vanessa Verdoodt, a Dutch-Belgian UCLA undergrad who can’t believe the wussiness of L.A.’s faux-edgy audiences: “Where I come from, if you come out of the club and your ears are not ringing so you cannot hear, they didn’t do a good job!” I can’t begin to describe the depths of wussiness to which I feel I’ve descended as the sonic onslaught drives me through the Royce lobby to the lounge, where, in a bizarre culture clash, the reward for the evening’s aesthetic rigors is a plastic cup of Bud Light on draft. Of course, even here, a good 200 feet from the big doors to the main hall, you can feel Acid Mothers Temple in your kneebones and the fillings in your teeth. Still, it seems craven not to endure the “permanent damage” Sefton promised, up close and first hand . . . until I notice the gentleman to the right of me in the ersatz VIP lounge. Long white beard, Father Christmas smile, eyes closed in chuckling beneficence . . . who is this dude greeting a gaggle of random well-wishers? An aging biker? A Boyle Heights car-wash owner? No, wait . . . good Lord, it’s Terry Riley! The birthday boy himself is blowing off the cow-sterilizing decibels of his acid-metal acolytes. I guess I don’t have to flay myself after all.

Two views of Acid Mothers Temple's performance. (Photos: Justin Hall and Colin Blodorn)

The crowd around Riley seems to split about fifty-fifty: Half Santa Monica culture vultures, half adorable teen hipsters who look like they stepped out of Bresson’s The Devil Probably. Somewhere in the center is a passel of early-middle-aged new-music types, like Phil Beaumont and Bruce McKenzie of the brilliant ambient-psychedelica ensemble Maquiladora, who toured with Acid Mothers Temple and revere them still. The soulful McKenzie, who once described himself as “Steve McQueen meets Jennifer Jason Leigh,” likens Riley’s four-hand piano piece to the nightmarish player-piano works of Conlan Noncarrow.

As for the Bressonian teens, I have one of the most surprisingly insight-strewn conversations I’ve ever enjoyed in a theater lobby with a trio of youthful Rileyites who see a continuum between his pioneering trance states and twenty-first-century digital composition. “Youth culture’s preoccupation with noise is naïve,” opines Annie O’Malley, a twenty-one-year-old senior at Occidental. “You look back at Beethoven and he was writing something to reproduce the feeling of the end of a rainstorm. Today there are things like Animal Collective that aim higher than just producing torturous sound—they aim for transcendence.” What’s Animal Collective? A quick Googulation tells me a) that it’s an outfit whose sound recalls “the psychedelic freak-outs of ‘90s west coast isolationists like Caroliner and Sun City Girls, the emotional hooks and bursts of punk, the textures and structures of minimal techno (à la the Kompakt label),” etc., and b) that I hate music critics. T.K. Broderick, a musician and recent USC film student, suggests that the question facing Riley’s compositional heirs today is the role of the listener: “How can the audience participate in real time? Be non-passive?”

The sagest exegesis, however, comes from one of three short, squat, mushroom-Afro’d white teens who emerge from Royce Hall in Acid Mothers Temple T-shirts with ehhh-whatever sneers on their faces. “It’s not that I don’t like feedback,” one of them shrugs, clearly at the beginning of an aesthete’s lifelong journey of cred-proving. “It’s that I don’t like this feedback.”