• Terry Riley
  • The Sands (1991)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • 1+afl.1+ca.1+bcl.2/
  • String Quartet
  • 30 min 30 s

Programme Note

In one continuous movement of four parts:
   1. The Sands
   2. Mirage
   3. Rubberlady's Theme Music
   4. Ebony Horns

Composer Note:
First of all let me say that I don't believe that going to war ever solves our disputes. Especially, in these times when it is mostly rich aging white men who send tender young lives into the slaughter. We no longer live in the age of heroic leaders who fearlessly led the charge down the slopes of battle. Instead we have the chickenhawks in their protected war rooms pressing the buttons causing mutilation, mental illness, and death on all sides. With the bombing of Iraq, I had a premonition that we would be at war in the Middle East for years. Unfortunately, that is what has played out and it has gotten worse. The launching of the war over 20 years ago brought on a saddening mental state that I was only able to alleviate with music. Since I spontaneously improvised this music, I feel it is very close to the emotional state and sense of dread I was experiencing at the time. I could not have foreseen how brutally this would be played out in the succeeding administrations, especially of Cheney and Bush the Lesser, acknowledged war criminals who still walk free.
I offer this not as a political diatribe but to share the background and my concerns leading to the creation of first movement of The Sands.
I was quite proud of the fact that it was a commission from the Salzburg Festival, their first ever for a new music work and was written for Kronos Quartet and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie from Frankfort. It had its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 1991 with Kronos and Dennis Russell Davies conducting. I essentially improvised the first movement into a music software program on the eve of the first Gulf War launched by Bush the Greater and then spent months transcribing and arranging and recomposing sections into a structure with two alternating contrasting thematic areas. There follows three other unrelated movements that are seamlessly connected to compromise a string quartet concerto of 30 minutes. The quartet is the driving force of the first movement, and its energetic opening theme is propelled into existence by the soloists and then taken up by the orchestra.
The first movement is written for strings and timpani and alternates between somewhat anguished, insistent Middle Eastern motives and scales with areas of peaceful C Lydian passages. A kind of metaphor for what the people of a small Middle Eastern country might be feeling when under a savage air attack from the world's mightiest military. First the explosions, and then the eerie silence.
The work then moves away from the battlefield as it moves on to "Mirage" where the woodwinds enter for the first time. Their sinuous lines set into a dialogue with the quartet, has more the effect of a desert breeze that dispels the energy of the opening. Without a break, "Rubberlady's Theme Music" opens with a poignant cello solo played over a slow moving foxtrot with pizzicato strings. It has a bizarrely circus like atmosphere inspired by my years in France playing piano on the Strategic Air Command bases for circus acts. (OK... here is the military connection again.) Each phrase arches more intricately than the one before with drum rolls and scattering woodwinds signaling the top of the phrase and the completion of some incredible acrobatic feat, before it circles back to begin the momentum all over again.
"Rubberlady's Theme Music" then elides into the final movement, "Ebony Horns." This movement is an elaboration of a chart which I had composed for my small performance and improvisation ensemble, Khayal. and is propelled by a 6/8 hemiola rhythm from Ghana (kray kray tiri kray ka tay) suggested to me by the wonderful drummer, George Marsh. if "The Sands" is a brooding reflection on war and its violence, "Ebony Horns" is an affirmation of irrepressible human spirit, compassion and love, ignited by a celebration of singing and dancing on this mysterious planet.
— Terry Riley