Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Composer of the month: Colin Riley

Colin Riley’s work draws on a range of elements including new technologies, improvisation, song-writing and large-scale classical form. His work is difficult to categorize, embodying a genuine integration of stylistic approaches. His new work, As the Tender Twilight Covers, will be performed by pianist Matthew Schellhorn at the next Late Music concert, Saturday 7th September at the Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?
Colin Riley:
The piece takes two stanzas of a poem by Rabindranath Tagore as its inspiration.
Matthew had originally asked that the piece be a memorial piece to his parents and when I came across the poem it provided me with some poetic nuances which could help to shape the piece dramatically and place this in a context for me. The music unravels gradually transforming as it proceeds from a dark, dusk-like atmosphere towards jagged fractures and distortions. It subsides from this into a serene stillness distilling the harmonies from the whole piece into a chorale-like coda. 
“As the tender twilight covers in its fold of dust-veil marks of hurt and wastage from the dusty day’s prostrations, even so let my great sorrow for thy loss, Beloved, spread one perfect golden-tinted silence of its sadness o’er my life.
Let all its jagged fractures and distortions, all unmeaning scattered scraps and wrecks and random ruins, merge in vastness of some evening stilled with thy remembrance, filled with endless harmony of pain and peace united.”
I describe the process of composing ‘As the Tender Twilight Covers’ more fully in a recent blog: 
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
Most pieces begin with general concepts germinating in my head for several months. The ideas bob around and start to take a more focused form over time. I write lots of ideas down in word-form in notebooks and on pieces of paper, and sometimes sing or talk through ideas into my iphone. I like to fill manuscript with lots of penciled sketches once I’m working at the piano. Composing at many different pianos often helps the process. I improvise with these sketches, and I like to physicalize the music. If things get stuck I find that walking always helps to unlock them. From the sketches I move into transferring the notes into Sibelius. If I can, I try never to press the play function as this usually results in me loosing faith with my material. I sometimes realise sections of the music, especially if it is groove-based, on Logic software.   

Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
Knowing your performer does make a difference, but its not essential. Its wonderful if the performers you are writing for are available to consult with. This always provides some added inspiration as well as solid advice on technical and notational aspects.
I’ve created quite a body of work in the last ten years for my own ensembles (MooV and the Homemade Orchestra) and had the luxury of working with some really sensitive musicians. It never ceases to amaze me how magical it is when the dots and lines you make on a page come to life in the hands of such players.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?

SC: What motivates you to compose?
I can’t remember ‘not’ composing.
I think I began from just altering the piano pieces I was learning when I was young. I would make a mistake, stumbling into something new and just follow my nose into another world. I’ve always done it. I’ve always thought of myself as a composer. Manuscript paper has been a big part of my life.  There are so many areas to keep you motivated and curious. Applying technology in my work for example has always pushed me into new approaches. The same is true of improvisation, and collaboration. 

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
David Sylvian

SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
He lived in an interesting period of history, and I think he’s open up after a few beers.

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
Schoenberg – Five Pieces for Orchestra
Elgar – Cello Concerto
Ligeti – Piano Etudes
Messaien – Quartet for the End of Time
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
David Sylvian -  Blemish
Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto   - Insen
Britten –  Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto is something I can keep coming back to. I am a ‘cellist by trade and this piece oozes ‘cello-ness. The melancholy and the restrained emotions also express something very English. It’s such a complete piece in so many ways.

SC: …and a book?:
Ordnance Survey OL6 Map: The English Lakes, South Western Area

SC: …a film?
Synecdoche, New York

SC: … and a luxury item?
A piano