For lovers of classical guitar and all things euphonious, it’s good that Gyan Riley can’t contain his appreciation for composers of the past or for his contemporaries in the guitar world. His thankfulness to them gushes out of his new album Stream of Gratitude in most satisfying ways. The eclectic set that makes up this album consists of dedications to recognizable luminaries—Bach, Dowland—as well as to accomplished players and composers from within his own realm.
Riley uses “dedication” to mean pieces that are “offered up” rather than those that “contemplate the various techniques of composers” in order to imitate them. This approach allows Riley considerable latitude for composing new works that he astutely identifies as “organic.” His own sense of liberation comes, in fact, from an immersion in the worlds of other composers. For example, his inspiration for “Fugue” issues from observing a revolutionary strain in Bach, who, Riley observes, was able to take “all the rules about fugal writing and baroque counterpoint,” and “to break and to modify them…in terribly successful ways.” Likewise, Riley’s own “Fugue” captures the surprisingly improvisatory spirit of Bach’s fugues without worrying about punctilious adherence to rules.
In fact, the organic feel of all the pieces named for genre (“Gigue,” “Sarabande,” “Prelude”) results from the pleasurable tension between the “constraints” of form and the desire to, in Riley’s words, “stretch” those boundaries.
The “offerings” that make up Stream of Gratitude are not just adulatory; they are also educational. One focal point of the album is a set of four études (“The Odd Arpeggio,” “The Inner Voice,” “Trillémollo” and “iPick”) “revolving around right-hand classical guitar techiques” Riley “had been developing in an improvisatory sense.” The etudes “codify” and break “these techniques down in really simple ways” that “gradually…lead up to the compositions” that come after.
The desires to stretch, learn, teach, revere and improvise continue to drive the projects that Riley seeks out. His most current work is a collaboration with Wu Fei in China, who is well-known for her work with the guzheng, an ancient and haunting Chinese stringed instrument.
Of course, the ultimate beneficiaries of these “offerings” are the listeners for whom Riley’s gratitude is contagious. He continuously gives us something to be thankful for.