Riley was born in Plainview Texas USA in 1951, and moved to Shawnee Oklahoma USA, where, aged 13, he became the bass player of the award-winning rock band "The Workouts". Riley and his family moved to Hawai'i in 1966. He first heard the shakuhachi in 1967 while attending high school in Hawai'i, on a recording brought home by his elder brother. About the same time, his Chinese father gave him a dongxiao, a Chinese bamboo flute whose ancestry is shared with the shakuhachi, and taught him an old Chinese folksong on it. Riley visited Japan in 1970 and began his shakuhachi studies there a year later. His studies with traditional teachers in Japan included such peculiar methods as practicing barefoot in the snow, blowing into his flute under waterfalls and in blizzards until icicles formed at its end, and running the Boston Marathon and then playing taiko drums at the finish line.
In 1973, Riley became the first non-Japanese to play taiko professionally, touring internationally with Ondekoza (now called Kodo), as a full-time performer of taiko (Japanese festival drums), yokobue (a high pitched bamboo transverse flute) and shakuhachi. They performed with such groups as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and at venues such as Kennedy Center (Washington DC), Roundhouse Theatre (London), Espace Pierre Cardin (Paris), and Boston Symphony Hall. He left the group in 1977 and returned to Honolulu, where he began teaching privately and performing. He founded the Chikuho School of Shakuhachi of Hawai‘i. He completed his BA and MA degrees in music at the University of Hawai'i, and later received his PhD degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Sydney. He was a lecturer of the shakuhachi at the University of Hawai'i until leaving for Australia in 1986 to take up a PhD fellowship at the University of Sydney. He now makes his home with his wife and manager Patricia in beautiful Manly NSW Australia, facing both the Pacific Ocean and Sydney Harbour.
He has published scholarly articles and book reviews in leading national and international musicology journals. In Australia, he has introduced the shakuhachi to a diverse audience as both a soloist and with other performers of such instruments as harp, cello, saxophone, tabla, guitar, didjeridu, and symphony orchestra. Riley started teaching breathing workshops in the late 1980s, developing a repertoire of exercises gleaned from his long and focused relationship with shakuhachi and designed to create an awareness of one's breath while improving the strength and control of the muscles used in breathing. In 2003, he was the first shakuhachi player ever to be honored as a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University. Riley has made over fifty commercially released recordings since 1980, which are sold worldwide on a number of labels.
On January 1 2000, Riley was seen, with five other musicians, on an internationally televised program, ushering in the new millennium on New Year's morning at dawn from the top of the 'sails' of the majestic Sydney Opera House -- an auspicious start for the next 1000 years of shakuhachi.
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