A Rainbow in Curved Air: An overdubbed virtuoso.

A Rainbow in Curved Air is the third album by experimental music and classical minimalism pioneer Terry Riley. Through the use of overdubbing, the composer, a keyboard virtuoso, plays all the instruments on the title track: electric organ, electric harpsichord (Rock-Si-Chord), dumbec (or goblet drum), and tambourine. The work begins with a simple minimalist drone but quickly erupts in exciting rapid-fire figurations far removed from typical slowly evolving minimalist structures (as in Riley’s own In C). The rest of the piece explores various layered keyboard and percussion textures. The largely improvisational nature of the work, based on modal scales, owes much to jazz and Hindustani classical music. Some jazz musicians had explored overdubbing techniques before, notably Bill Evans, one of Riley’s piano “heroes”, on his classic album Conversations with Myself from four years earlier, with its three piano tracks; but Riley uses a far wider range of instruments and colors.



The Album consists of two sides. The first side, A Rainbow in Curved Air is the title track, and then the more sombre track Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band is the track from side B.

A Rainbow in curved Air is really a piece in three parts. There is the speeding ‘rushed’ feel of the initial psychedelic build up has a circular and somewhat chaotic feel to it. Terry Riley will play all the instruments for us here, and one almost gets the impression of him ‘warming up’ or limbering up his fingers with some melodic anarchistic scales from a drug fucked la la land. He rambles and rushes through your mind, created tacks and pathways to some other paradisic world. Suddenly at 6.39 we move into a slower more contemplative feel and more instruments are introduced. the music has its same rambling attentiveness, but now there has been added a stilted pausing, as if the music moves on into the silence, the ears or instruments or both unable to catch up to it. I get the feel of a harpsichord here, taking me back through time, just before we start on a drippy drum beat that lulls me out and then back into the strings. Rain drops of sound run up and down my spine as the music starts to move into its comfort-rush again, almost leaving me out of breath with my attempts to catch up with the sound. 11.41 sees us move into the third movement, dominated by the dubec which parallel trips me into the entry of the tabla and the final movement owned by Hindustani Raga.  I’m ready for this once we get there, my initiation has been swift and breathless, but also gentle as I’m moved into the alternate culture I experience sound breakthrough rather than sound alienation. The tabla makes sense to me in this psychedelic world – I’m not culturally alienated – neither am I tourist educated. This is a piece of music that sweeps me almost as if i were on a magic carpet ride – a culture not represented by any of the sound formations on offer. Terry will sweep me off my feet here, forcing my blood to keep pace with him after seducing me into my obedient follow.



Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band is a deeper, slower affair. Terry Riley will play all the instruments for me here again, and again I am expected to follow into his world obediently. here he asks something different from me. He wants a darker self, a quieter self, a more contemplative self. This is music to introduce me to my cavernous depths, a desire and insistence that everything inside me is good no matter how dark – no matter what evil place it takes me to. Here terry will introduce me to his soprano sax and force me to remember John Coltrane as I sip on the luxury of his esoteric meanderings. he wanders almost aimlessly here, overdubing, yes, but almost as if he is blind with me, allowing the music to take us both in its stride. Typical of me, I prefer this side to the other, although I love the light death-to-preppy goodness of psych rock, this discordant darkness wets me between the thighs and wants more fresh flesh from my womb.  Just when I think I know it well it steals me away from what I thought might be a well-worn path and forces me to tread shoeless over the barren jagged rocks of my soul.  Riley uses a time lag accumulator here consisting of two tape machines, looped audio tape, and a patch chord (this is the “Phantom Band” of the title). The Phantom Band enter me through the part they made moist and swell my belly with their fecundity. That sax is taking the main stage at 7.30 resembling the sound terry gets at his all-night concerts. I’m tricked again with fade in and outs – a feeling that I’m abandoned – or thank christ the interior examination is over – and he’s back, doubled – doubled again and then redoubled to fill me up if I ever felt a piece of me wasn’t owned yet. he’ll disappear almost entirely half way through only to burst back upon me, assaulting my ears with an almost impossible to bear pleasure.



From the wiki:

The album also inspired Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” and Pete Townshend’s synthesizer 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. A reviewer for America has written that when he hears the album, “I am taken away to distant suns with psychedelic worlds. Colors explode and wash together in a maelstrom of unrestrained joy. I think of the persistent beats of distant pulsars guiding the way for a whole humanity reaching across the great expanse of space to discover places and ideas not yet even dreamed of in this world.” (see the Terry Riley website here for records and quotes).

On April 26, 2007, Riley gave a live performance of A Rainbow in Curved Air (Revisited). Necessarily, he had to be assisted by other performers: Willi Wynant on percussion and Mikhail Graham working synthesizers and samples.

Now that’s a place I would have liked to have been.  🙂