Colin Riley, composer

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

The fact that music was supported and valued in state schools in the 1970’s meant that I got to take an instrument home. I was tall for my age and so I was given a cello. Because I was able to form a relationship with the cello I never thought of classical music as ‘other’. It was never elitist in any way. I also remember music being in our house a lot of the time. Radio 3 was a constant, and my dad would play a bit of piano; Bach and Schubert coming up from the room below my bedroom. I would borrow records every Friday from the local library, devouring everything I could. This was a huge part of my musical education. I remember Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, and Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. Later on, the discovery of electronic music, jazz and rock all became important influences too.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Unlike being, say, a heart surgeon, a teacher or a refuse collector, being a composer does not demand that someone should pay for your work. I’ve thought of myself as a composer since I was about 7 or 8, but I have never felt that the world owes its ears to my music, and its something I feel I’ve had to fight for. For most composers I think there’s a balance to be found between earning money and composing. They can sometimes be the same thing, but quite often it’s not.

I’ve found it hard to get people’s attention, especially given that so much of my work falls in the musical margins. The arts love to pigeon-hole you. I also believe that it’s the music that counts and not who I am. This can often run at odds with the way the system works.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

If you are lucky enough to be commissioned to create a new piece of music, then I think this honour itself is an inspiration and a pleasure. To know that after many hours of creative labour your music will be performed and listened to, is a huge incentive in itself. I’ve also come to realise the wonderful freedom given to composers (outside of the commercial world) to do as they please. Commissioners should be commended for the chances they take. I’m in the middle of a set of short pieces involving film for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and it’s following quite a different creative path. I am deriving all the musical material from field recordings captured as a moment in time and space by the film. The musical intersection between the actual sound of the place and my composed elements will create something unique and slightly disquieting. As well as potentially being something different for the audience, with its audio-visual hybrid, it provides me with new challenges, and this is always good.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

More and more I enjoy working with musicians that I have formed a working relationship with. Far from being safe, it allows you to be yourself and to explore further. There are of course short-cuts and quick fixes, but the experience is always richer. For a number of years I created work for two of my own ensembles, the Homemade Orchestra (mixing jazz and classical musicians) and MooV (song-writing with improvisation and electronics). This resulted in two large scale projects with each group and touring which allowed me to be composer-performer for a while. For MooV it also meant that I was collaborating with vocalist Elizabeth Nygard closely shaping intimate songs. Challenging in new ways, but also hugely satisfying. More recently I toured with a hand-picked ensemble for my song-cycle In Place which included regular collaborators Nic Pendlebury (viola), Kate Halsall (piano) and Melanie Pappenheim (voice). I am currently working between larger works on an album of songs with Melanie based on specific times of the year. When time allows, we get into the studio and record. She is an absolute dream to work with and has a truly distinctive voice. I’ll be starting work soon on a new piece for a long-time colleague and percussionist Robert Millett creating what I think might be the first ever concerto for cimbalom and brass. He lives just a bike ride away from me where I can work together in his percussion studio surrounded by all kinds of things to hit and scrape. He’s always a delight to work with. I’m looking forward to this.

Of which works are you most proud?

In the last few years I have been composing for orchestra. The chance for this doesn’t come to often and I’ve put a lot of myself into these pieces. My large-scale piece Earth Voices (a celebration of our fragile world), a violin concerto Stream-Shine, and a double cello concerto Warp and Weft all represent my work well. It’s easy to cite the big, mainstream pieces, and I’m also really proud of work at the other end of the scale. I released two albums on my own label Squeaky Kate with my band MooV and I think these show a very personal side to me. Both albums Fold and Here feature me playing the piano and also writing the lyrics. I’m also close, for obvious reasons, to all the music I compose which includes the cello. I have a soft spot for a piece for solo cello and choir in commemoration of the death of poet Edward Thomas. This uses fragments of his poetry combined into a libretto by the writer Robert Macfarlane and is called Roads Shining Like River Up Hill After Rain.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Distilled. This applies to a broad range of musical influences, but also to what I think is a blend of the very serious with the flippant. In a Guardian review of my NMC chamber album Shenanigans Kate Molleson described my music as “Wry, understated and slightly bonkers”. I think this comes close. Some people find me eclectic but that’s not the case. Yes, I draw on a lot of things when I compose but most of the time this is not conscious and the result is something woven together. So, using rock instruments (bass guitar electric guitar, or drums) for example in some of my earlier work never felt genre-busting, just a natural thing to do. Blending electronics into scored music seems totally normal. I’m also a fan of a groove; one where the rhythms are played precisely and a certain energy clicks into place. Hugely important to me is the design of a piece; something that provides a way in for the listener as well as deeper complexities. I think that my titles are important. They often distil what the piece is about.

How do you work?

I brew ideas for quite a long time in my head. Then a lot of time is spent alone.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Carrying on.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

Listen. Be yourself. Be kind.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Music-making needs to be supported much better in schools. It needs to be properly valued so that people participate in it rather then just consume it. Young kids need to have access to learning instruments not just so that they can connect with music, but also for their own mental health. More new music should be performed and embraced by classical groups. All classical music festivals and organisations need to embrace the new much more positively.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you really think we should be?

I think there’s plenty of talk, and in many cases plenty of action. Surprisingly, in the age of music being so easily available there still seem to be a lot of ‘gate-keepers’. People need to listen to the music first and make their own minds up.

Colin Riley’s collaborative album Isolated Pieces was released in 2022. Conceived during lockdown, the album was put together over 18 months and features 27 different contributors. Find out more

Colin Riley’s music draws on a range of elements including new technologies, improvisation, song-writing and large-scale classical form. His work is difficult to categorise. His latest albums include Shenanigans (NMC) and In Place (Squeaky Kate). Other recent works include Warp and Weft a concerto for 2 cellos (Gabriella Swallow / Guy Johnston), Rock Paper Scissors (Ensemble Bash), Stream-Shine (Philippa Mo) and Earth Voices (Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, Sweden). He is currently working on a piano concertino for Jelena Markarova, a cello and film project for Louise McMonagle, plus a new album with Melanie Pappenheim. He has also been commissioned to create a major new work for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.  He is Reader in Composition at Brunel University, a mentor for Making Music’s Adopt a Music-Creator Scheme, runs his own label Squeaky Kate and writes a regular blog about composing called Riley Notes

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