Kaleidoscope Ears: Gyan Riley and his unique approach to the nylon-string guitar

Excerpt from the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar | By E. E. Bradman

Gyan Riley’s big ears and deep skills have taken him from solo exhibitions to classic ensembles like the Falla Guitar Trio to the gnarlier terrain of the electric guitar quartet Dither, as well as sensitive yet highly interactive duos with guzheng virtuoso Wu Fei and violinist Timba Harris. . Riley’s extensive credits also include magnificent work with Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab, violinist Iva Bittová, composer-clarinetist Evan Ziporyn, and a handful of collaborations with John Zorn; two gems are from the 2020s Virtuewith guitarists Julian Lage and Bill Frisell, and 2018’s Chesedone volume of 11 discs The Beri’ah Book, also with Lage. Over the years, the Northern California native has also fronted his own trio and appeared on several releases with his father, esteemed songwriter Terry Riley, including To live (2011) and get out there (2018). The last of young Riley’s six albums is Shelter in spacereleased in 2020, and last year’s solo release, silver lining. It all started two decades ago with food for bearded men.

Photo by Laura Giannone

You’ve had a lifetime of adventures since your release food for bearded men in 2002.

I listened to this record again recently, and it was like reliving an old dream – extremely familiar, but in a strange and distant way.

You had just graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music when it came out, right?

I was actually in my last year at the conservatory, and thinking more like a “contemporary classical guitar composer” – I’d spend three hours on a bar of music.

Was it satisfactory? [Laughter]

I liked it, but I was often disappointed that the moment did not last longer. At some point, I realized that I wanted to revel in those moments.

When did you decide to try something different?

I was writing a track for my album Strand [2018] when I realized there were two or three bars that I really liked, so I decided to scrap everything else, take those two or three bars, make them the backbone of the whole piece, and not caring if it was enough or well-designed enough or whatever. It was good.

What did you take away from your time at the conservatory?

The first four years were devoted to classical music, technique and theory. For my graduate studies, I focused on composition and improvisation with Dušan Bogdanović. He was a good role model for me and for the transition I made as a composer and improviser.

Do you mainly compose on the guitar?

Yes. Ideas usually start in my head, then I sing them into a device or jot them down.

What are your main instruments today?

A classical guitar made by Paul Jacobson in 1998, with a cedar top and Indian rosewood back and sides, and another, which I play more recently, built by Robert and Orville Milburn in the same year. This one has a spruce top and rosewood back and sides. Both guitars have a scale length of 650mm and are strung with Savarez Alliance high tension strings. I also use BlueChip TP40 picks.

What is your story with these guitars?

Around 2010, I was composing a great new piece for guitar, and I found my current instrument really cumbersome for certain things. It was holding me back. I was living in Oakland, and one day I just freaked out and got in the car and drove to Los Angeles because I knew there was a really good classical guitar dealer there. I spent six hours in the store playing dozens of instruments, then I found this one [the Jacobson], which totally blew everything else out of the water. It was good, and it had this amazing, almost piano-like quality. All strings and notes held evenly, which is unusual for a classical guitar. So it was really obvious, like, “Oh yeah. This one. I’m taking it.” I acquired the Milburn guitar much earlier, as part of the Portland International Guitar Competition prize in 1999.

It’s surprising to hear that you use a pick on a classical guitar.

Yes, the BlueChip is the only one I’ve found that sounds really smooth on nylon strings. For 20 years I only played fingerstyle, including electric guitar. In order to simulate a flatpicking sound when needed, I developed an alternative picking technique using my index finger, which is also presented in my “Study 4”. However, the tone wasn’t always loud enough, so I started learning to flatpick so I could get a little more punch when needed. I’m glad I did and I’m glad I found a type of pick that sounds great.

I noticed that you have recording credits for at least one of your albums. Do you have a particular setup that works best for you?

After interviewing engineers I respect and years of experimentation, I found that I liked the sound of an AKG C414 and a Neumann KM 184, recorded in stereo. I’ve tried a pair of one and a pair of the other, and tried different configurations, and to my ears, this sounds best.

Have you made film music?

I worked for Hemingway, as well as another unreleased Ken Burns documentary. The only other film project I worked on was that of François Girard Hochelaga: Land of Soulswhich I co-wrote with my father.

I watched videos of shows you did with your dad years ago, and you seem so much more confident on stage with him these days.

A lot of people assume that I had to study with my dad, but because I was a guitarist he sent me to take lessons, which was great. I was almost 20 when he first asked me to play in the band he had at the time.

How did your conservatory training adapt to its setlist-less aesthetic?

It was fun, but I had very little improv experience, so it was terrifying when he played something I had never heard before. When you have very few parameters (no set, no key, no blueprint), theoretically you can do anything, but the subtext is: “Don’t play the wrong thing”. [Laughter]

How did you manage?

By doing more improvisation and incorporating it into my practice, I became more confident and became my own artist. When we were playing as a duo, he trusted me to bring everything I felt. Eventually we got to a place where we could create improvised tracks collectively instead of just playing his music, which was constantly evolving and which I had kind of learned.

How has being surrounded by Indian music affected you as an acoustic guitarist?

Growing up listening to a lot of Indian music but not studying it formally, I have to say it taught me not to rush the development of an idea, to let things develop organically over time. In the Indian musical tradition that my father studied, there are sometimes 20 minutes of letting things go. It really sank for me.

How did you Ber’iah Book did the connection occur?

I was already a big fan of the Masada repertoire, so when John Zorn asked me and Julian [Lage] to do Chesedit was a huge thrill because I had heard this music being interpreted in so many different ways.

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How much work has gone into these arrangements?

Many. We certainly rehearsed more than we did for the trio’s album with Bill [Frisell].

What goes through your mind when you embark on an adventure like this?

We just sat down and started reading the charts. Julian and I didn’t know much about each other, so we were starting from scratch. It was probably better that way.

It was a pleasure to listen Virtue and be able to hear each of you so clearly.

I was focused on trying to figure it all out as best I could, but when we listened after a take of the first track, it sounded amazing. It was unlike anything we had heard before.

You also released not one, but two albums during the pandemic.

I was sitting on this idea booklet, so I went through all the snippets and did Shelter in space. Besides the single solo track, almost every track has a different lineup. It was a fun album to make.

Who are the mentors to whom you have dedicated silver lining?

The title track is dedicated to Bogdanović; a suite of three pieces is dedicated to David Tanenbaum, my other teacher at the conservatory; and I dedicated “The Old Castle” to John Zorn. “Kaleidoscope” is for my father, and “Cyclone” is dedicated to [Italian classical guitarist] Aniello Desiderio. I wrote “Sometimes You Go Back for More” for Kenton Youngstrom, who is in the Falla Guitar Trio with me and Dušan.

You are everywhere on the map. Do you feel like you get something out of every experience?

I wouldn’t do it otherwise! I take on projects because I know I will get something out of them; I know I will learn a lot and I know I will appreciate the collaboration.

What would you say to a classically trained guitarist who has trouble improvising?

Do it every day. I hope this inspires you to do more. And the more you do it, the better off you become.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar magazine.

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