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Sounds: Plucking Through the Borders

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Given his lineage, Gyan Riley might be expected to have a globetrotting approach to music. The 34-year-old guitarist’s father is Terry Riley, the pianist/keyboardist who is widely acknowledged as the godfather of minimalism in music (most notably for his groundbreaking 1964 composition In C) and was the chosen guardian of North Indian classical vocal master Pandit Pran Nath’s legacy. So the younger Riley grew up in a northern California household bristling with international sounds, from ragtime and jazz to electronic music and ragas.

But since graduating from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as its first full-scholarship guitar student, Riley has filled his musical passport with idiomatic stamps from more cultures than even his family background suggests. On four albums under his own name—his 2002 debut, Food for the Bearded (New Albion Records); 2007’s, Melismantra (Agyanamus Music); 2010’s New York Sessions (Agyanamus); and last year’s Stream of Gratitude (Tzadik)—as well as last year’s Terry Riley and Gyan Riley: Live (Sri Moonshine Music), Riley has seamlessly integrated myriad world traditions into his compositions and improvisations.

“I studied classical violin as a kid, then moved onto classical guitar,” Riley says, “and I soon became interested in flamenco, North Indian music, West African music, music from the Balkans, and more.” On his new digital release, Pluck, he further extends that impressive reach in collaboration with the Chinese guzheng virtuoso and vocalist Wu Fei, a Beijing-born artist who has composed music for string quartet, choir, orchestra, film, dance, and Balinese gamelan. (Listen to the track “Saratoga” from Pluck.)

From his home in Brooklyn, Riley answered a few questions about his duets with Wu Fei and the fundamentals of the borderless music—sounding at once like classical, folk, and free improvisation—they make together on the 15 tracks of Pluck.

How did this collaboration come about?

We met a few years ago in New York City. I was living in San Francisco, and Fei in Beijing. We were introduced by John Zorn, who has produced recordings for both of us. From the first moment we played together, it was obvious that we shared a common language.

What is appealing to you about they way your guitars and her guzheng sound together?

Both our instruments have hollow wooden bodies and strings made of nylon and metal that are plucked, hence the name of the recording. The guzheng, a Chinese zither, has a powerful, rich, and resonant tonal quality. It can produce wonderful harp-like effects, including tremolos, harmonics, and pitch-bends—similar to the idiomatic capabilities of the guitar but with its own unique sound.

Where does the musical tradition that Wu Fei comes from fit into the panorama of cultural influences that you have absorbed?

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Both of us have immersed ourselves in ancient traditions that are based on modal scales, instead of the European classical diatonic system. The guzheng is tuned to a specific scale for each piece we play. In one sense this limits the possibilities of modulating to other keys, but it also allows us to get deep into the mood of whatever musical realm (or mode) we are exploring.

Pluck seems representative of a kind of music that transcends its specific sources and inspirations, in your cases Indian, African, European classical, and Chinese, at least.

Yes, those influences are as much a part of who we are as anything else in our upbringing. I think that both Fei and I have internalized what we’ve learned from those traditions to point where they completely shape our artistic voices but are hard to single out. That allows us to create music that reflects a certain organic and pure distillation.

Pluck is available on iTunes and Amazon. Cover art by Nicole Edmison.

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