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New Classical Tracks: ZOFO Plays Terry Riley

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Listen to Julie Amacher's New Classical Tracks interview with Zofo. New Classical Tracks is a Syndicated feature airing Nationally on PRI: Classical 24 & Statewide on Minnesota Public Radio & on Classical South Florida.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT - Swiss pianist Eva Maria Zimmerman met Keisuke Nakagoshi six years ago in San Francisco. Keisuke grew up in Japan and never intended to make music his career -until he met Eva. Now they're a four-hand piano duo called ZOFO, which is shorthand for 20-finger orchestra. Their fourth project together celebrates the 80th birthday of an iconic American composer who's one of the founders of the Minimalist movement. Terry Riley pioneered a new concept in Western musical form based on structured repetitive patterns. His multi-layered improvisations can be heard in the works of many prominent composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. Riley also influenced the music of rock groups like Tangerine Dream, and The Who.

Eva recalls it was a friend who first introduced her and Keisuke to the music of Terry Riley. "After one of our performances in San Francisco, my friend said, check this piece out. And it was 'Cinco de Mayo' by Terry Riley," Eva says. "We started diving into that piece and just fell in love with it. And performed it and sent TR a performance recording and his reaction was very positive and he said, 'Please learn my other duet pieces as well,' and he sent us all the other scores. And we thought since he turns 80, it would be a nice birthday present for him, to record all his other piano duet pieces."

Keisuke has always liked the music of Terry Riley, but he says "Cinco de Mayo" was a new discovery. "And it caught me by surprise," he says. "The 'Cinco de Mayo' didn't sound like what I knew about Terry's music, which was a pleasant surprise. And it comes with three different sections and the middle section, this kind of meditative, slow and … kind of atmospheric section, that's definitely one of my most favorite pieces of music."

"I'm playing the bottom part," Eva explains, "reaching into the piano and dampening one of the strings and then playing that key so it creates some gong effect. And it makes that very special. And the other two parts are very Latino-influenced; there are a lot of Latino rhythms and I just see a whole lot of people dancing salsa or something."

Terry Riley composed only five pieces for piano duet. Keisuke says that provided them with a new challenge to create a few of their own arrangements of other works by Riley, including one called "Half Wolf Dances." "That was Terry's pick," Keisuke says. "He thought this piece would work well with one piano, four hands. And first I did an arrangement for the 'Half Wolf Dances' and also the 'G Song.' These two pieces were written for Kronos Quartet, and arranging string quartet pieces for one piano, four hands, is always a challenge in terms of the register."

"Because a lot of stuff is happening in the same range, we need to layer our hands on top of each other sometimes - sometimes in three layers," Eva adds. "It happens mostly in 'G Song.' And sometimes, especially in 'G Song,' Keisuke had to just change the music a little bit because it sounded too dense if he transcribed it literally. So he had to take some stuff out and substitute it with other stuff. And of course, he sent it to Terry Riley and Riley was very open about everything Keisuke did and said, 'Yeah, it's fine.'"

Getting a chance to work directly with the composer also caught ZOFO by surprise. "We played everything for him," Eva says. "It sounds like a painful thing: You'd play the whole CD program for the composer and he could just go on and on about each measure. But he was not at all like that. He just said maybe two or three things about each piece, just helping us find the soul of each piece. But he also said, 'I trust in your instincts. Just do whatever you feel is right.'"

What also felt right was asking Terry Riley to compose a piece specifically for this project, which he was happy to do, even at the last minute. "Praying Mantis Rag" had its world premiere just last month at the Terry Riley Festival in San Francisco, and it's track 7 on the new album, ZOFO Plays Terry Riley.