Composer Terry Riley needs no introduction to just about anyone by this stage of his career. A long way down the road from In C, Riley is still compelled by the use of timbre and repetition to induce changes in consciousness. To that effect, his long-gestating composition Aleph is consistent with Riley’s foci (especially his renowned “All Night Flights”), but it also represents a particular articulation of these musical materials, first presented for John Zorn’s Contemporary Jewish Music Festival and now distilled on this two-hour midnight recording from 2008.
Throughout, Riley plays a big Korg synthesizer tuned to a Lou Harrison just intonation scale. This creates a harmonically rich palette for Riley to use, combining string sounds with patches that sound pitched midway between pipe organ, faux cello and synthetic gauze (every so often I wondered if the effect wasn’t intended to mimic a shofar). The language of the piece is in places rhythmically jittery, drawing in your attention before settling into more conventionally repetitive passages or (more rarely) open space. The polyrhythmic language that so often marks Riley’s writing for horns in particular is well realized here, but in all candor I found the swaddling electronics antiquated, at times to the point that they were jarring.
This is not to say that the composition isn’t compelling in its rhythmic and at times harmonic language. And it’s certainly impressive to sustain this kind of imaginative playing over the course of two hours improvising in realtime. Riley is fond here of alternating passages of rapidfire arpeggiating (sometimes of such rhythmic density and control that he almost gets into a phasing effect). These are among the most hypnotic, trance-inducing moments in a piece designed to facilitate contemplation. Throughout, there are sudden dips in density and swerves in rhythmic articulation, and these generally mark points of progression within the arc of the piece. In many ways, it’s the most dense bits that succeed (often because of the mildly head-scrambling timbre and harmony of the just intonation), including a great one that sounds like a deep scratched disc. But somehow I find Riley’s lyrical line choices and pipe tones too often distracting.
So clearly, despite my reservations, there are more than enough passages of clanging repetition, cavernous droning and layered tempi to satisfy. Riley makes his way through a series of interesting upper register variations, some lightly grooving tone-mangled funk, and a fanfare of chimes. There’s even a long section, deep into the second hour, when the piece truly reaches a kind of beatific space. But while I know the synthesizer is particularly amenable to the tuning Riley uses, its sound just prevented me – again and again – from committing to Aleph. I would love to hear this piece performed with different instrumentation (say, by ROVA Saxophone Quartet) to get a fresh take on the piece.