Gyan Riley ’01 Crafts Music for “Hemingway” on PBS

Gyan Riley headshot

Gyan Riley photo credit Adam Benn

The three-part film directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick begins streaming on April 5

Gyan Riley (BM ’99; MM ’01) composed music for and plays guitar in the soundtrack for Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s Hemingway. The three-part documentary film, which premieres on PBS April 5, examines the turbulent life of legendary American writer Ernest Hemingway. The project thrilled the San Francisco Conservatory of Music alum, who has been a Hemingway fan for years.

“I remember reading For Whom the Bell Tolls when I was really getting into Spanish guitar repertoire, which was a nice way to contextualize the music that I was studying,” says Riley. “When I got called to work on the film, I immediately jumped at the chance.”

Grammy award-winning producer and violinist Johnny Gandelsman brought Riley on the project. Alongside David Cieri, who also composed music for the Hemingway soundtrack, Riley crafted pieces that reflect the film’s spirit—an evocative and intimate portrayal of the man behind the myth.

Riley credits his time at the Conservatory for setting the stage in his career.

“Going to the conservatory was amazing,” says Riley. “It was a really mind-opening experience for me because it was the first time that I had studied music and thought and the history and context of what I was playing. I also had so many teachers who gave me so much valuable information and wisdom.”

One of those teachers is David Tanenbaum, chair of guitar, who met Riley when he was 16 at a guitar workshop. Tanenbaum encouraged Riley to apply to SFCM.

"Gyan Riley was one of my favorite students ever at SFCM. He was as joyful in his music-making then as he is now, more than 20 years later,” says Tanenbaum. “Besides playing classical repertoire at a high level, he was from those days an irrepressible improviser. I have been so happy and proud to follow all the music he has brought to the world in the international career he has built. Now I’m looking forward to his take on Hemingway.”

Tanenbaum would often ask Riley to play with him on gigs around the Bay Area. After graduation, they both toured internationally with the World Guitar Ensemble and have remained close friends throughout the years.

“I wrote [David] a piece for his birthday last year, in September,” says Riley. “We almost have the same birthday. I started writing something in late summer last year and it reminded me of David, his unique style of playing, a lot of that kind of stayed in my memory so I decided to dedicate the piece to him.”

Since his SFCM days, Riley has achieved a celebrated career, even being hailed by the New Yorker as a “one-man American-music machine, amicably ranging across the fields of jazz, world music, and post-minimalism.”

In addition to the World Guitar Ensemble, Riley toured internationally throughout his twenties with the Falla Guitar Trio, the Modern Mandolin Quartet, and his own Gyan Riley Trio. Upon moving to New York City in 2010, he joined the electric guitar quartet Dither, a boundary-pushing band that boasts collaborations with Nels Cline and Lee Ronaldo. In 2015 Gyan began his collaboration with renowned guitarist and SFCM faculty member Julian Lage, performing music by John Zorn. In the last two years, that duo expanded to include the legendary guitarist Bill Frisell, recording four albums on the Tzadik label. Gyan has also performed extensively and released two albums with his father, the composer/pianist/vocalist Terry Riley.

Now, Hemingway is only one of multiple projects Riley has in the works, including a new upcoming solo album for John Zorn’s label Tzadik Records. He also recently released Shelter in Space, an album inspired by, composed, and recorded during the pandemic.

Hear Riley’s music in Hemingway on PBS starting April 5.

Get to know David Tanenbaum and SFCM’s guitar department.