I need to get my history in order here. At first I remembered having this album before I saw Terry Riley play pieces from it at the Logan Hall in 1986, but that's obviously mixed up because the concert was in February (17th) and I didn't have a CD player until July… Evidently I must have got it later in '86 or '87: it still has the remains of one of those electronic tagging things stuck to the back, which means I must have got it from Virgin Megastore or one of the other large London shops where the CDs were actually in the display cases rather than being kept behind the counter.
I still have the tape I made of half that Logan Hall performance. It's borderline listenable. I had the cheapest portable cassette recorder on the market (some long-defunct Japanese brand), and I only have half the concert because I made one of my countless mistakes when surreptitiously recording from a plastic bag on my lap: probably leaving the pause button on. Anyway, Terry Riley actually sings on some of the pieces (not those from this album). I'd forgotten that.
He played just solo piano that night, as on this album. As piano music, though, it's very different in character from Glenn Gould. Whereas the microphones were almost in the piano for Gould, here they sound like they're some distance away, picking up the ambience. Riley also appears to have his foot on the sustaining pedal most of the time. He makes special mention of the piano itself and the acoustics of the concert hall in his sleeve notes.
The sleeve notes also explain the concept (yes) of the album, which centre on a harp that Francis Drake allegedly left behind in Northern California when he was trying to circumnavigate the globe in an overloaded Golden Hinde. Riley's semi-improvised pieces are a meditation on what happened to that harp as the wind blew in it, it weathered, warped and re-tuned itself, and was found by Native Americans who incorporated it into their culture.
Riley's piano is tuned using just intonation, a technique he got from his "long-term friend and mentor" LaMonte Young (another reason for buying this album was that Riley albums were almost as hard to find as Young ones at the time). Proper musical people sometimes find these alternative tunings hard to listen to, but being so harmonically clueless myself I don't have such problems.
You always drift in and out of music like this. Some parts are very familiar from previous listens going back twenty years, while other parts still feel like uncharted territory. Ultimately having said I love piano music, this album seems more similar to what some of us are calling the raga folk tradition of guitar playing, of which James Blackshaw is my favourite. The piano is emulating a stringed instrument, the harp, after all.
MusicBrainz entry for this album