Click Here to listen to Terry Riley's 'Happy Ending' while you read my analysis.
Terry Riley is noted as one of the most revolutionary composers of the post-war era of the 20th century. His introduction of repetition into western music as well as his “masterminded” (3) early experiments using tape loops and delay systems was unprecedented; and with it he cemented his mark on electronic music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Born June 24th, 1935 in Colfax, California…he had a certain “rural” (7) upbringing, although going on to study his undergraduate at both San Francisco University and San Francisco Conservatory. He also went on to getting his M.A in composition at University of California at Berkeley, reluctantly studying compositional serialism (7). It was here though, at U.C Berkeley where he met fellow composer and electronic music pioneer La Monte Young and with him rebelled against serial 12 tone music being taught at the University; to go on and create a new “repetitious” style of music in his free time for a local dance ensemble; of which he was much more interested in.
Known mostly for his composition ‘In C’ from 1964, Terry Riley is recognized as a pioneer and one of the founders (1) of the “minimalist” electronic music movement. ‘In C’ was based on structured interlocking repetitious patterns that could also be categorized as polymetric rhythms. This polymetric style; brought on by slow, hard to detect changes are what gives “minimalistic” music its style, and what makes the genre a father (or mother) to the style known as “ambient” music. The piece ‘In C’ also changed the composer performer relationship, having multiple instruments playing the same line in polymetric succession; the piece was a notable early form of performance art. Cantaloupemusic.com recalls the composition and its impact: “[‘In C’] change[d] the course of 20th century music, and its influence has been heard in works of prominent composers such as Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and John Adams.” Riley is also an influence to popular music acts such as The Who and Tangerine Dream.
The composition being analyzed is called “Happy Ending” by Terry Riley and is a two part compositional album written for French film, with the songs recorded length being about 37 minutes. ‘Happy Ending’ is indeed minimalistic and is also influential to early “Prog Rock” in its own right, yet there not much written about the album online. Composed in 1972 and released in 1973 for the French film “The Eyes Closed”, Terry Riley’s ‘Happy Ending’ is a unique but brilliant piece exhibiting both an electric and an acoustic side to Riley’s compositional styles. The album is broken up into two sections or sides. Side A (00:00-18:36) is called ‘Journey from the Death of a Friend’ and Side B (18:37-37:00) is the title song with the name ‘Happy Ending’. The film “The Eyes Closed” is an elusive film to find, but it was written and directed by and French person named Joel Santoni (4).
Side A has electronic elements, but also has a strange cyclic use of organ sounds that also take shape of early synthesizers as well. The sound changes slowly and the timbre of the sounds change throughout the recording. There is a meditative quality to side A, and it sounds tribal in the way that minimalistic music can sound like Gamelan music from the tribes Southeast Asia in the same way that both types of music have a distinct repetitive polymetric quality to them. There is also different instrumentation at different points of side A, using acoustic piano at certain points, as well as synthetic sounds. The dynamic composition creates a space-like quality that was far ahead of its time, painting a very strange feel for the French film. The film is about a man who is contemplating suicide, and has very bad eyes. The man wanders Paris and becomes blind, falling into madness (5). I think this vibe is executed well with his eerily strange side A. This first side could very well be an influence to The Who’s song ‘Baba O’ Riley’ and its interesting minimalistic sounding synth intro.
Side B is a minimalistic piece too, but it is shaped mainly by saxophones and organs and less electronic or synthetic sounds. This creates a unique minimalist sound taking elements of jazz, classical and electronic music and fusing them together. Riley was influenced by Coltrane and played sax himself; making way for a very interesting sound in this composition. After about five minutes of sax layering (the same way he would layer tape sounds) there is an entrance of organ. The organ is still electronic in its own right and I think organ here gives the piece a meditative church like element for a short period of time. I would also like to think that the hard rock group Deep Purple may have been influenced by Terry Riley and his use of organs. I also think that the use of saxophones on side B sounds similar to the prog rock band King Krimson’s song ‘Sailor’s Tale’. In this way, Riley wrote music that not only influenced electronic music but was also father (or mother) to prog rock and even some hard rock.
The piece paints an interesting picture of a man losing his sight, already contemplating suicide and wandering the streets of Paris, growing more and more mad by the day. It is interesting that the album is called ‘Happy Ending’ when the film itself doesn’t seem like it would have much of a happy ending. Instead the piece, in sync with the film seems to be one representing endless despair, darkness and madness. There are improvisational parts of side B that to resemble blues and jazz or bebop solos, even if it is in just one key. The music could be difficult to categorize without using the notion of minimalism, due to the many elements it brings together. Finally there is a four chord harmony at the end of side B, and musically this definitively sounds like a happy ending. Again this album seems to encompass many styles of western music as well as eastern meditative qualities as well. The piano harmony is satisfying after the whole album of slowly evolving minimalism. The harmony chords are short lived however, and after about a minute and a half the piano also joins in on the minimalistic sound again. The piece then signals an end to the interesting album.
In summary, Terry Riley’s “Happy Ending” is a solid example of minimalistic film music from the post-war era of 20th century music. His introduction of repetition into western music as well as his early experiments using tape loops and delay systems was unprecedented; and with it he cemented his mark on electronic music of the 20th and 21st centuries. “Happy Ending” uses many different timbres and instruments including early electronic synths, electronic organs, and saxophones, piano and other sounds resembling “elektronik musik” (or computer made sounds) of the 1950’s. Using these many colors Riley paints of picture of western music fused with eastern tactics. The music uses elements of Southeast Asia as well as classical harmony. The structured interlocking repetitious patterns of minimalism have a distinct meditative quality that was unique and revolutionary for its time. Riley’s influences from John Coltrane are heard on side B and the short 4 chord harmonies give the song a true musical “happy ending”. The album creates a weird, ominous vibe for the French film about drifting into madness with its extended repetitions exhibiting slowly yet distinct changes in the music and timbre qualities throughout. Its use of both electronic and acoustic means is characteristic of Riley’s work and his inclusion of many influences on his creations. East, west, electro or acoustic, Riley and the “Minimalistic” movement uses all of these elements in a slow moving fashion, so as the listener cannot pick up on the slight compositional changes as time moves on. The composition is a true display of minimalism from the 1970’s, and sets the tone for ambient music and all electronic music that would follow.
1. “Terry Riley - Long Biography.” Music Sales Classical, www.musicsalesclassical.com/composer/long-bio/Terry-Riley.
2. “Terry Riley.” Cantaloupe Music, 17 Nov. 2017, cantaloupemusic.com/artists/terry-riley.
3. Ankeny, Jason. “Terry Riley | Biography & History.” AllMusic, www.allmusic.com/artist/terry-riley-mn0000750519/biography.
4. “Les Yeux Fermés” IMDb, IMDb.com, 5 Apr. 1974, www.imdb.com/title/tt0195423/.
5. “Les Yeux Fermés (Film, 1972).” Wikiwand, www.wikiwand.com/fr/Les_Yeux_ferm%C3%A9s_(film,_1972).
6. Saturn Archives. “Terry Riley - Happy Ending (1972) FULL ALBUM.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 June 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCcvQ-QeJUs.
7. “Les Yeux Fermés” Film Cover Artwork. IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0195423/mediaviewer/rm2200972544.
8. “Terry Riley's In C.” The Oxford History of Western Music, by Richard Taruskin and Christopher Howard Gibbs, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 1070–1071.