Terry Riley is what I call a music portal. When I listen to A Rainbow in Curved Air the third album by the experimental music and classical minimalism pioneer I am pulled into a world of unlimited musical possibilities and potentials. A keyboard virtuoso, Riley plays all the instruments on the title track: electric organ, electric harpsichord (Rock-Si-Chord), dumbec (or goblet drum), and tambourine. The largely improvisational nature of the work, based on modal scales, owes much to jazz and Hindustani classical music. Although continuous in form, A Rainbow in Curved Air can be seen as having three distinct sections or “movements,” like a classical sonata or concerto. The first “fast” section gives way to a more contemplative “slow movement” at 6:39. Then, the final more rhythmic section begins at 11:41, dominated by the dumbec, which creates a parallel to how a tabla enters in the final section of a Hindustani raga. The work then ends abruptly.
The companion piece, which constituted the “B” side of the original album, is titled “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band.” It also employs overdubbing, with Riley again playing all instruments, this time a soprano saxophone (inspired by the playing of John Coltrane)and electric organ. In addition, Riley used a time lag accumulator, consisting of two tape machines, looped audio tape, and a patch cord (this is the “Phantom Band” of the title).
The album inspired many artist’s that went on to inspire me. Mike Oldfield‘s “Tubular Bells” and Pete Townshend‘s organ parts on The Who‘s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley,” the latter named in tribute to Riley and to Meher Baba. A Rainbow in Curved Air has also had a significant impact on the developments of minimalism, ambient music, jazz fusion, new-age music, progressive rock, and subsequent electronic music. It foreshadows the later overdubbed instrumental works composed by Steve Reich. The 1970s progressive rock band Curved Air named itself after this album. Riley is credited as inspiring Cale’s keyboard part on Lou Reed’s classic composition All Tomorrow’s Parties, which was sung by German actress Nico and included on the iconic The Velvet Underground and Nico album recorded in 1966.