The Echo Chamber of the Self

American minimalist composer Terry Riley is one of my big heroes. The reason for this is probably the goosebumps that his early tape based livelooping music gave me when I was young, especially the chorus effect created by layers of soprano sax, and the flurry of organ notes. That did something to my system, a sense of timelessness that I never forgot.

Terry (aged 84) played one gig in Germany on April 18, 2019, in the beautiful Fifties-style Schauspielhaus in Bochum. He was accompanied by his son Gyan, an amazing guitarist. They played one set of about a dozen pieces, some based on compositions, some mostly free, all allowing for a generous amount of improvisation and virtuosity. Terry’s piano chops were truly amazing, his fingers had no problems with big jazzy chords or his fast trademark minimalist patterns.

But the evening’s highlight for me was when he sang – his strong but delicate and fragile voice (that reminded me of Robert Wyatt’s voice that does similar things to me), effortlessly moving along the geometries of Indian melismatics, always had a heartopening effect on me. The encore of the evening was a version of „G Song“, a piece from the early 1970s. Terry couldn’t play the saxophone melody while playing piano so he sang instead – I didn’t get all the words but it moved me a lot, maybe also because I thought that I probably won’t see him again. While I hear that he performs live in California now and then, he hasn’t been to Germany for a long time, and I doubt that he will return. But who knows.

The basement of the Bochum theater hosted something special in addition to the concert: an installation by Terry Riley, an octagon of rooms with mirrored walls that contained microphones and speakers and a computer driven delay system. Sounds created by the audience returned after some seconds, and kept returning. The installation, originally developed for the Magic Theater Show in Kansas in 1968, was called „Time Lag Accumulator III“ – while the original installation was based on tape delay, the new version is programmed in MAX/MSP.

Terry answering questions about „Time Lag Accumulator III“

I made a few minutes of video (in 360°, so be sure to move your screen around to get all perspectives) while walking around in the installation:

I managed to talk to Terry for a few minutes. He noticed my „Terry Riley“ Tshirt (with the cover of „Persian Surgery Dervishes“) and laughed, saying he had no idea these shirts existed.

I even gave him a copy of my „Accumulating Time Lags“ CD. I felt silly, like a teenage rock god fan, but I just had to 🙂

I’m attaching a beautiful article by Tilman Baumgärtel, written for the 2004 „Time Lag Accumulator“ installation in Lille, published in Die Tageszeitung (taz) and translated by David Tushingham:

The Echo Chamber of the Self
On the reconstruction of the composer Terry Riley’s only installation

You cannot escape yourself here. Wherever you look you see your own body. The faintest sound is reflected by countless overlapping echoes from various different directions. So that’s what I look like: that’s how I sound. The installation Time Lag Accumulator by Terry Riley is an echo chamber of the self. The minimalist composer created this work in 1968 for the Magic Theater Show exhibition in Kansas City and it has never been shown again since. It is the only work of its kind by Riley who is actually better known as one of the founders of minimalist music and a composer of works made up of strong repetitive patterns.

The Time Lag Accumulator was not only the blueprint for the video installations that artists like Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman began their careers with in the early Seventies. Like no other work of its time it also epitomizes Sixties modernism’s fixation with the moment and rejection of grand narratives.

After entering through the only door, you find yourself in one of eight rooms whose walls are covered in reflective foil. Microphones are suspended below the ceiling that record every sound and replay these with a slight delay (the „time lag“ of the title) in one of the other rooms. On several occasions you can hear your own voice from different directions. If you shout loud enough, these echoes overlay each other to form a wall of sound that first swells up and then dies away. The repetitions iron out any imperfections in your voice and ultimately all that is left of what you have said is a billowing murmur rather than any meaning.

It’s hard to believe that the original version ran with a series of tape loops on tape machines that Riley was also using at the time to create the wildest compositions of his career. Now these artificial echoes are generated by the computer programme MAX. Suddenly it sounds as if a school class of 100 pupils has burst into the room: giggling, screaming and door slamming boom re-soundingly through the octagon, but then only two children run past. Their shouts continue to be heard long after they have gone, and their ever quieter echoes are reminiscent of the sounds of a distant open-air swimming pool or fairground. Then you are left alone again with your own image and your own sound and you can sing a canon in several parts with yourself. Interestingly, this confrontation with the self rapidly leads to a decentralisation of perception while at the same time creating the sensation of being at sea.

The Time Lag Accumulator is reminiscent of the „philosophical playthings“ of the 18th and 19th centuries. Then devices such as the „Wheel of Life“ or the „Magic Lantern“ popularised the latest scientific discoveries in a form that was easily understood. The installation is a flawless feedback system as described in the cybernetic world models popular at the time. At the same time it makes physically tangible some of the ideas regarding human perception described by the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty who was extremely popular in the Sixties. But above all in its celebration of the here and now all it represents a monument to the „Now Generation“ of the Sixties. The Time Lag Accumulator allows Faust’s beautiful moment to linger: it manages to lend the instant a duration, even if it cannot grant it infinity. By forcing observers back upon themselves, it is also a rejection of any kind of statement or intentionality in art. The Time Lag Accumulator is the epitome of an art that, like minimalism or early conceptual art, refrains from meaning and instead confronts the observer with him- or herself. There you are: there is nothing else.