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Classically trained guitarist Gyan Riley blurs the lines between genres on his tightly focused new solo album "Sprig"

by Derk Richardson
May 15, 2018

Depending on where you drop the needle on Gyan Riley’s new album, Sprig—and you can drop the needle because Sprig is available on vinyl LP, as well as CD, from National Sawdust Tracks—you might think this unimpeachably precise and fleet acoustic fingerstyle player is a classical guitarist. A flamenco guitarist. A romantic folk balladeer. An Indian-raga-steeped musician who didn’t fall far from the minimalist tree planted by his father, the composer, pianist, and Kirana singer Terry Riley. Gyan Riley is all and none of the above. And Sprig—the follow-up to 2011’s Stream of Gratitude (Tzadik label) as his second album of all solo instrumentals—provides conclusive evidence.


Last month, Riley brought his nylon-string guitar—built in 1998 by luthier Paul Jacobson in Cleveland, Missouri—and a borrowed ukulele into the KPFA radio studio in Berkeley, California. During an hour-long concert/interview on "The Hear and Now," he played six songs from Sprig and talked about how he approached his fourth album. (Riley has also recorded as half of the duo Probosci, with violinist Timba Harris; in duet with his father on Terry Riley and Gyan Riley LIVE; in duet with guzheng player Wu Fei on Pluck; and in a trio with Harris and percussionist Ches Smith.)

After playing “Sprig” and “Flux” in the KPFA performance room, Riley provided some background to the pieces and the new album. “As the title implies,” he said of “Flux,” “there are often changes happening with that tune. I’ve decided to improvise an introduction to it, an alap of an Indian raga, Charukeshi.”

Riley created a program for Sprig out of material that has percolated a while, plus more recent compositions. “Some of the pieces have been lying around in some form or another, and I wasn’t quite happy with where they were," he said. “As a lot of composers do, I keep folders—scores of sketches in various stages, and sometimes you don’t do anything with them for a while, and then you resuscitate them and they make more sense, or you have an idea of how to develop them.”

What unites the ten performances is Riley’s ability to hover weightlessly around the core of each composition, sticking close to the basic architecture while adding ornamentation and embellishments. “This record is a little different than previous ones,” he explained, “in the sense that I wanted to have captured the simple, essential elements of each musical idea and take the most simple sprig, if you will, of an idea and let that branch off into whichever way it wanted to go. And always the biggest challenge when you’re composing is committing to a route, committing to a journey as something starts to develop—it can be daunting how many different ways it could—trusting your instincts and trying different ways and letting it take a certain route. With this album, the important thing was finding whatever the key component of an idea was and sticking to that instead of getting distracted and trying to do a million different things with each piece, which I have done over the years. So I think it has a somewhat different feeling to it, a different profile.”

Although trained in classical and contemporary music, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Riley’s métier embraces all kinds of traditions and invites wide-ranging collaborations. His debut recording, 2002’s Food for the Bearded (New Albion), found him playing with violist Tracy Silverman, percussionist David Doll, and Terry Riley on piano and vocals. Silverman returned on electric violin on Riley’s second album in 2007, Melismantra, which included drummer Scott Amendola and tabla master Zakir Hussain. And on Stream of Gratitude, Riley performed works by J.S. Bach, John Dowland, Egberto Gismonti, John McLaughlin, and others.

Such eclecticism came naturally to Riley and makes original writing impossible to categorize. “It’s just a result of listening to a lot of different things and subconsciously processing them into some shape or form,” he said. “Subconsciously being the key word. I’m not very good at trying to write a piece that sounds a certain way.”

As Riley picked up the ukulele to play “The Auspicious Arrival of Svenjamin” from Sprig during the radio concert, he explained his attraction to the instrument. “I took one to Mexico with me a couple of years ago. I wanted to not think about music that much and definitely not think about guitar. But I kind of wanted something to wiggle my fingers on. I only played it for a couple of hours, but some little ideas stuck. I love the way it’s tuned—it presents all sorts of opportunities for creating these sorts of hocketed melodies and funny little fragmented melodic hooks.”

Although he moved to New York from the Bay Area some time ago, Riley returns to California with some frequency. His most recent visit came after he spent three weeks touring the Southeastern United States—with a four-day trip for an arts and culture conference in Abu Dhabi tucked in between Arkansas and Asheville, North Carolina. “I’m my own agent,” he said about the awkward routing. “I should have a conversation with myself about that.”

Riley will be back in Northern California in June, performing with Harris in Probosci, with a new album in hand. Probosci will perform two concerts on the summer solstice, June 21: first at the University of California’s Botanical Garden Summer Series, with Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos Neto, and then as part of the annual Garden of Memory walk-through concert of contemporary and experimental music in Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes columbarium. Check Riley’s website for updates to his itinerary.

Photo by Seth Carnes


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Nov 24, 2020
A great mandolin duet of Sarah Jarosz’s original tune, recorded live at the Marshall Mandolin Summit.

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