TERRY RILEY — Shri Camel (review)

TERRY RILEY — Shri Camel album cover Album · 1980 · Third Stream Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
The one feature that usually sets Terry Riley's music apart from all the electronic minimalists and new age hucksters that followed in his path is just intonation, a method of tuning instruments in which the frequency of notes are related by ratios of small whole numbers. The end result is a harmonic sound different from modern (post 18th century) western harmony that instead leans toward a sound more similar to ancient music from around the world, particularly Asia. Its this just intonation that gives Riley's music a natural grit that raises it above overly pretty new age homogeneity and makes it part of the natural world of wind whistling through the branches and small life setting a field a buzz with minute interconnecting noises. 'Shri Camel' is similar to other well-known Riley masterpieces, such as 'Rainbow in Curved Air', in that the major sound component is Riley's interweaving electronic keyboard lines treated with slightly psychedelic production. The difference with 'Camel' is a more stately classical Asiatic sound that is accented with a more pronounced just intonation than usual, and a slower unfolding of events that mimics classic Chinese and Korean court music. The end result is one of the finest compositions in Riley's career and one of the most beautiful albums I own.

This album is pure magic from start to finish. I read an interview with Riley in the mid-80s in which he described living on the edge of the California dessert and arising each morning before dawn to face the east in prayer and meditation. This album perfectly captures that unbelievable feeling that arises from the dessert during those poignant pre-dawn moments. Listening to this music can release long lost somber feelings of religious sobriety in the most cynical doubting Thomas.

On a compositional level I think 'Shri Camel' stands just above much of Riley's other work in the rich detail of the interconnecting melodic lines used here. The music constantly shifts in a mirage like manner as lines come and go in subtly unpredictable ways. Since Riley plays everything manually without any sequencing, the lines can be altered ever so slightly which adds even more interest if one is trying to follow solos lines in the thick contrapuntal textures.

I've done my best to describe this album, but it is difficult, like an ancient forgotten religious ritual or mother nature itself, this music carries an ethos and magic that is hard to capture and define. It is possible though, that the beautiful art work on this album's cover captures the essence of this composition much better than my words.
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