Gyan Riley is a classical guitar virtuoso from the San Francisco area in California. Having grown up in a very musical household with his father being the well known composer Terry Riley, Gyan decided the guitar was the instrument for him. It started when he won a cheap classical guitar in a raffle at a local music shop. Along with the guitar came 4 lessons, which he continued with for the next couple of years. After finishing grade school and becoming very proficient at the instrument, Gyan enrolled at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music. There he studied with David Tanenbaum and Dusan Bogdanovic, both of which he would later collaborate and tour with. Right around the time of graduation, Gyan released his debut CD "Food for the Bearded", and his professional musical career was underway. Through the years, he has worked with many talented musicians in a variety of ensembles, as well as a solo artist. Gyan has performed all over the world in the most prestigious concert halls and theaters. Every now and then, he and his dad team up to perform and tour together. One specific show was the 45th anniversary performance of Terry Riley's masterpiece "In C" at Carnegie Hall, with a large group of the world's finest musicians. I recently talked with Gyan about the events of his acclaimed career.
R.V.B. - Hello Gyan... good morning, Rob von Bernewitz from Long Island New York, how are you today?
G.R. - Hey... I'm doing fine, how are you Rob?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. What's going on over there on the other side of the country?
G.R. - Well, mostly rain and power outages. (haha)
R.V.B. - Well that's good right... don't you guys need the rain?
G.R. - We needed a major soak and we're getting it. We're getting a big snow pack also this weekend. We've been wanting it for a long time. It's good news over here.
R.V.B. - That sounds like good news. Let me just start by saying that I find your guitar playing fantastic and very virtuosic... you've really come a long way. You started by winning a guitar in a raffle?
G.R. - Yes... there was a music store that opened up in the town near where I grew up, and they had a promotional thing where they were giving away a few different prizes.
R.V.B. - So being that you went for the guitar, you must have wanted to play one.
G.R. - You know I did. At the time I was studying Suzuki violin. I was about 11. My folks were trying to encourage me to stick with that, but 11 year olds have a tendency to want to change their mind every week... so I was already asking for a guitar... but to no avail. So it was a stroke of luck. (haha)
R.V.B. - What kind of guitar was it? Was it playable?
G.R. - It was. It was a total beater. It was a little classical guitar that was probably worth about 50 bucks... but it was actually playable. I held on to that thing for a long time, until it got stolen one day. It was kind of ridiculous because the only value in it was sentimental.
R.V.B. - Did you start by going through books on your own? Did your parents help you? How did that work?
G.R. - Part of that prize from the raffle was 4 lessons from a local classical guitar teacher. He got me moving with note reading and basic techniques, and by the 4th lesson I was pretty hooked on what we were doing... so I hired him out for the next three years.
R.V.B. - Who was that teacher?
G.R. - His name was Brent Weaver
R.V.B. - How did you progress through those three years? Were you ready to take the next step at that point?
G.R. - Pretty quickly. I met David Tanenbaum towards the end of that period. He was... and still is teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory. He agreed to give me lessons. We drove up 3 hours to get a lesson from him every couple of months. He would give loads of material to focus on. That sustained me for the next couple of years, until I was ready to audition for the conservatory.
R.V.B. - When you did audition for the conservatory... what did you play?
G.R. - I remember I played the E Major Prelude No.3 by Bach. It's a really hard piece of music... especially for a 16 year old. I think I also played Verano Porteno by Piazzolla.
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy your time at the conservatory?
G.R. - I absolutely loved it. I couldn't have been more excited about anything. It was super challenging for me because I hadn't studied any music theory up until that point. Reading music was difficult for me on the guitar. Outside of guitar playing, all of those things were a big challenge. The actual playing requirements were big, and I was busy day and night with all of the studies, but I was really motivated.
R.V.B. - Did you get to do the normal college kid partying and check out the music around the town?
G.R. - Very rarely. (haha)
R.V.B. - When you finished your studies there... did you continue with any private teachers?
G.R. - I did my undergraduate studies with David Tanenbaum there, and then did my graduate studies with Dusan Bogdanovic. The only other interaction with other teachers was through occasional master classes. They had frequent master classes scheduled there.
R.V.B. - How did Bogdanovic help you?
G.R. - He's definitely an outside of the box type of artist... especially in the classical guitar community. He is someone who has focused his energies on composition and improvisation. That for me was a big deal because up until I met him, I hadn't thought too much about either one of those things. He got me to loosen up in terms of my approach, and to be much more spontaneous in approach to my classical repertoire. The big thing was getting me interested in composing for guitar... and improvisation... which was a good vehicle for approaching composition as well.
R.V.B. - When you finished your studies there, is that when you came out with "Food for the Bearded"?
G.R. - That came out right around when I was finishing up grad school. The record label "New Albion" called me and said they wanted a solo record of original repertoire, and I didn't actually have any... I had only written a few pieces. (haha) They came to one of my concerts and they wanted to do it... so of course I said yes. Then I realized I didn't have an hour of music, so I had to go quickly to task and write another half hour of music. That was a big challenge.
R.V.B. - I know that you're in the classical genre, but what kind of worldly influences help you with your music?
G.R. - I've always been pulled towards various musical traditions lying in the Orient and India. I like the modalities of Indian music and the rhythmic structures of West African music. Music from Mali and Mauritania... and definitely of Spain, because it's a fertile ground for all things concerning guitar... for centuries. That seeped into the music I was writing as well. The biggest would be from North India... West Africa and Spain.
R.V.B. - How did you meet the guys that you record with? For example, on the 2007 record "Melismantra"... were any of them from school?
G.R. - Those guys were older than I was. Those are people that I met through various situations. (Zakir Hussain - Tracy Silverman - Scott Amendola) I met one of them on the radio one day and I was working on a different project with another one. The only people that I met in school, that I developed any sort of performance or recording relationships with, were my two teachers. Dusan Bogdanovic invited me to join his group "The De Fella Guitar Trio", when one of their members died. David Tanenbaum and I performed in various duo collaborations, but we also had this group "The World Guitar Ensemble"... where we were touring in Europe with for several years.
G.R. - With my two teachers... yeah.
R.V.B. - How was the experience for you playing abroad and performing in hallowed halls?
G.R. - It was an absolute thrill. I had never experienced anything like that before.
R.V.B. - Were there any places that really stuck out in your mind... that may of had great acoustics of great audiences?
G.R. - There are many places. Some of the first ones were the most memorable because it was completely new to me.
R.V.B. - Give me one example of a special hall that you performed at.
G.R. - The Philharmonie in Cologne... where the symphony orchestra plays. That was a highlight. It's a fantastic and beautiful concert hall. I remember that show because the stage is sunken down below the level of the river. If you walk to the furthest seats from the stage... you can look out and see the river. It felt really cool to be sunken down like you were in a cave. The acoustics were phenomenal, and it's a big hall that was full of people. It was a thrill for sure.
R.V.B. - In 2012, you came out with your first all solo classical record. Where do you find inspiration for writing your songs? Do you do it in your studio? Does it come to you at night? How do you go about creating an album of new songs?
G.R. - That's a good question. I generally write very slowly, so a lot of my work took years and years to write. Recording is the relatively quick part of that process. Usually some kind of rhythmic or melodic gesture will come into my head when I'm not playing the guitar. It's more likely that I'll hear something worth writing down. It's also sometimes happens while improvising on the guitar. There has to be some sort of initial fragment that I thought was worth writing down. The hard part is actually developing the ideas and formulating them into something that resembles a piece of music worth playing. Sometimes it just happens very quickly... in an hour, I'll have a new piece of music. It will more likely take me weeks and months.
R.V.B. - How has your guitar gear progressed through the years? What did you get after your cheap acoustic, and what are you playing today?
G.R. - The first decent one I had was $400 Takamini. Then I had a Michael Thames, which was the first real good handmade guitar that I had. Then I played a handmade guitar by Japanese maker Yuichi Imai. Now I'm playing an amazing instrument by Paul Jacobson.
R.V.B. - Do you still have all of these guitars?
G.R. - I had to sell them to buy each new one. (haha) I also have a guitar that I won in a competition back in 99... built by Orville and Robert Milburn. Their a father and son duo of luthiers in Oregon. They gave me a guitar as part of a prize for that competition.
G.R. - I think I was about 19 or 20 years old, and he was rehearsing with a small group that he had... I was just sitting there listening and he said "Hey... why don't you go grab your guitar and sit in?". So I did! I had heard so much of his music and so many of the pieces before, that they kind of came quickly into my fingers. The melodies were really familiar already. I ended up playing in that show with them and we've been working together ever since. We just had a nice tour of Europe in October and hopefully we'll do a lot more coming up.
R.V.B. - Through the years of you playing with your dad... when you play with each other, instead of as a solo artist... do you guys alter your way of playing when you play together, because of the melodies and rhythm that can come out of each one of you?
G.R. - I think we're both constantly bouncing ideas off of each other and consequently changing the way we play. Most of the music we play is material that he has written, but sometimes we play some pieces of mine... and we can do some completely unplanned improvisation. Through playing together, and really listening, and trying to latch on to some collective sounds, I think we have influenced each other in certain ways. I mean obviously he's had an enormous influence on me since I was born... (haha) but through working together, I think we've come to a very nice place where we can find these collective musical spaces that we can work with.
R.V.B. - In the shows that you perform... are all the songs pretty much laid out, and you stay pretty much true to the songs, or does stuff happen and you deviate? Is that part of your act?
G.R. - Yeah, it's definitely not predetermined. There are certain predetermined forms and structures, but the music is heavily improvised all the time... which is really nice because I've spent a great deal of my life playing true composed music, where every note is predetermined. He hasn't as a performer... he's always been an improviser. it's really nice to have that freshness and unpredictability.
R.V.B. - Can you briefly describe how it was celebrating the anniversary of "In C" playing Carnegie Hall, with your dad and a large orchestra?
G.R. - That was really memorable. It was sort of a wish list of stellar musicians from all over the world, that came together to do that. The energy on that stage was electric. It was really a special event. We all felt it. I've played in a lot on performances of that piece and that one stands out as one of the most incredible for me.
R.V.B. - Your latest release is "Probosci" in 2014 as a duo. I noticed that there is a good chemistry between the violin and the guitar. Do you still play with Timba Harris?
G.R. - We're definitely still active. Our last tour was in October in Europe. We did 28 concerts together. He lives in France now, so we work a lot there. we're compiling new material for our next album. He's a good friend and a strong collaborator. We're going to definitely keep working together.
R.V.B. - I see that you try a lot of different things. On the 2011 album "Pluck"... how was playing music with a far eastern flair on that album?
G.R. - That was really fun. Hopefully we'll continue that someday. She's a very natural musician who plays the guzheng and sings. (Wu Fei). She introduced to me to a tradition that I didn't really know anything about. I hadn't listened to very much Chinese music up to that point. She studies various forms of Chinese traditional music. I think that we had enough of a common thread of improvisation in Eastern modalities, and a general type of thinking that we were able to latch on to.
R.V.B. - The sound was very different. Do you still work with the group "EVIYAN"? Do you approach that music any differently having a clarinet player?
G.R. - It's not so much about the instruments, as it is the personalities . That group is fun, because both of them have extremely strong musical personalities. (Evan Ziporyn - Iva Bittova) Sometimes that doesn't work at all... sometimes it's too strong, and heads butt. In this case... even from the first time we played together, it was easy... it was completely fluent.
G.R. - Yeah, a good chemistry... and I'm always learning so much from both of those people as musicians. They're both just incredible players. Having this conversation... I have a lot of different projects and there's only so much time in the day. I hope that I can continue to work with all of these people in some capacity because they're really inspirational to me.
R.V.B. - Because of your guitar virtuosity, do you have to practice a lot each day?
G.R. - Nope! (hahaha) Thank God! I probably should practice more, but there's so many other things to do. I believe in practicing when inspired to do so. I don't really even like to look at it as practicing. I like to think it as playing more, because practicing sounds so much like work. I think of it as playing for fun and learning more music. If I have a project or some performances set up, I have to learn the music... whatever the notes are... and the rest of it is just playing and having fun.
R.V.B. - What other kind of music do you listen to these days?
G.R. - I've been listening a lot to this group "The Ethiopiques"... which is a collection of Ethiopian music over many decades, that comprises dozens of albums. It's sort of like improvisational Ethiopian rock music, that stems from traditional Ethiopian music. I'm kind of hooked on that right now. Because I play so much and I tour so much, I don't actually spend that much time listening to new music. It's great in my travels, to meet people who are professional aficionados... who have huge music collections and are always turning me on to new stuff.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your career... congratulations on your guitar playing. Thank you very much for taking this time with me.
G.Y. - Ok... thank you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
For more information on Gyan Riley visit his websitewww.gyanriley.com
Photo credits: Nicole Edmison, Robin Hanley, Seth Carnes
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