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Terry Riley, Composing on 'The Cusp of Magic'

For more than three decades, the members of the adventurous Kronos Quartet have pushed the musical envelope. They've had considerable help along the way from the wispy-bearded American composer Terry Riley, widely regarded as the man who launched the minimalist movement.

Riley has written 23 pieces for Kronos, including 13 string quartets, Sun Rings, a multimedia piece for choir, visuals and space sounds, Salome Dances for Peace, and Cadenza on the Night Plain.

Riley's latest composition for Kronos, The Cusp of Magic, was commissioned by the group for the composer's own 70th birthday, in 2005. A new recording has just been released.

Technically, the new piece is a quintet. Along with the Kronos strings, Riley wrote in a significant part for Wu Man, today's leading player of the Chinese lute known as the pipa. But throughout the work's six sections, the players take on extra roles, sometimes singing and sometimes doubling on percussion instruments.

Riley and Kronos frontman David Harrington first met in the late 1970s at Mills College in Oakland. Since then, they've continued to inspire each other.

"David is like a catalyst in my life," Riley says. "Right from the beginning, I felt a certain magic in his work. He brought me out of a long period where I wasn't notating music. He convinced me that I should start writing music, especially for string quartet. That act greatly enriched my life."

Riley has returned the favor, supplying music for Harrington and Kronos for nearly three decades.

"Riley's ideas about life and music and people," Harrington says, "are always fantastic. As a composer, he's stretching in places that people haven't stretched before."

The Cusp of Magic features a contrasting collection of ideas and instruments, including peyote rattles, lullabies, nurseries, weddings, and the ethereal, bent notes of the pipa.

"It was in my mind all the time," Riley explains, "to have layers in this piece that had different realities and that can be perceived in different ways. Music is always a gift. You never know what's going to come to you, but in this case, I was quite pleased with what did come out."

Riley said, above all, that he wanted to the piece to be "magical." Harrington says part of the "magic" came in the form of his granddaughter's toys.

"For me, one of the most magical things that I've ever experienced is carrying her around our house and playing all the different musical toys that she had and all the bells and kinds of instruments that I have, and having just a great time making music together."

Harrington described his experience to Riley, and soon the composer was at Harrington's home with a recording device. While the granddaughter napped, Riley and Harrington began shaking rattles, ringing bells, and fiddling on a pint-sized violin.

The Cusp of Magic begins and ends with the spirit of Native American peyote rituals — all-night ceremonies of prayer, songs and meditation, which themselves live at the threshold of fantasy and reality. For Harrington, Riley's final section, "Prayer Circle," represents the composer at his very best.

"In my opinion," Harrington says, "it's one of the great movements that Terry's ever written, and the propulsion that it gets to at the end, you feel like the piece is bounding with joy. The level of variety in feelings and emotions has rarely been equaled, including really thoughtful considerations about the world that we're all a part of right now, about what we're all facing in the future."

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