TERRY RILEY – Salome Dances for Peace

American composer Terry Riley [born 1935] first made an impression on the music scene with his famous and influential early Minimalist work, In C, recorded in 1964. He met Kronos Quartet member David Harrington at Mills College in the early 1970s and has since composed over a dozen works for the quartet.

Salome Dances for Peace was written in 1989, specifically for the Kronos Quartet. Conceptually it appears to be based on a new age mythical tale. I can’t find any references to the biblical account of Salome dancing, either spiritually or aurally in the work, or the movement titles.

The quartet consists of five named suites: Anthem of the Great Spirit, Conquest of the War Demons, The Gift, The Ecstasy and Good Medicine. These suites each consist of a number of named movements.

I am going to take a look at the first suite, Anthem of the Great Spirit, which runs for about 40 minutes.

The Summons –  The movement opens with a sparse, solemn, almost rubato statement, using a middle-eastern scale. The theme is a series of long notes which are played by all four instruments simultaneously, without harmony. This has a quite striking effect. Even the texture of the sound is middle-eastern, similar to a snake-charmer’s pungi. After a time, it moves into tempo and the quartet take up their traditional roles of solo violin with cello in support. You find yourself walking through a Moroccan market. You can almost smell the hashish …

Peace Dance – Surprisingly, given that this is based on the title of the work, it begins very peacefully, muted, offhand even. The first five minutes of this movement are a restrained piece of quiet, abstract motifs. There is no rhythm here. Then the cello makes its move with a long, ascending melody that is quite breathtaking. After this brief interlude, the volume drops and the music takes us to a marketplace again, albeit in a different place to The Summons. To conclude, we have a return to the opening muted, restrained mood. This is the longest movement in the section, 11 minutes!

Fanfare in the Minimal Kingdom – Underpinned by a rhythmic motif, this begins as a tour de force for the cello. As the passage continues, the movement briefly pauses, before breaking into an agitated mood. This contrasting pattern continues throughout until it morphs into a pizzicato section to conclude.

Ceremonial Night Race – The introduction is very quiet. The composer uses micro-tones, which are the notes between the notes. They work particularly well on non-fretted stringed instruments such as the violin, viola and cello, giving the music a slightly out of tune ethnic quality. Then follows a brief period of chaos before they return to the opening mood. As the melodies unfold, the micro-tones are just superb. The end comes as a short period of chaos. What a fabulous movement.

At the Ancient Aztec Corn Races Salome Meets Wild Talker – Another quiet micro-tone introduction which is maintained to the conclusion. This is a very beguiling movement, not morose, but not far off.

More Ceremonial Races – This 50-second (!) movement is very aggressive, particularly for the violinists. It should be noted that the CD tracks run together so that the timid ending of the previous movement thrusts you straight into this one, leading to incredible contrast.

Old Times at the Races – This movement begins with a repeated motif. The cello part is wonderful, it sometimes sounds like a double bass, it just goes so low. Midway through the piece the tempo is quickened and it descends into chaos. It slowly drifts back to the opening motif and closes with a fade, the first one that I’ve noticed. It gives one second of silence before launching into the next movement.

Half Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight – Lucky for that one second break because this movement has a frenzied opening. It is sustained for a time until it moves into a conversational section; again the cello is magnificent. Storm clouds gather as it nears the finish and slowly fades out to completion.

And that’s just the first suite! I find this to be a pretty amazing piece, sometimes challenging, mostly just very interesting. I wouldn’t want to hear it every day, but I would call it a great piece of music.

This album was originally issued on vinyl and runs for just under two hours. It’s extremely rare to find an LP with a thirty minute side. They were really pushing the technical boundaries of records when they pressed this one.

Just a small point. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud left the Kronos Quartet about ten years ago. She will be sadly missed. Her playing was just so integral to their sound.

I don’t think that anyone else has recorded this work but the Kronos Quartet version is still freely available on CD. You can even have the vinyl edition for a king’s ransom.

It can be found on Spotify and you can hear some of Salome Dances on YouTube.

Listenability: Very rewarding, and not as difficult as I may have made it sound.


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