In this week's NMC Archive blog composer Colin Riley tells us about his compositional process. His first album on NMC, Shenanigans, was released in 2017.
Wry, Fond, Understated and Slightly Bonkers
The primary drive to create, at least for me, is to put some bit of myself out into the world. This might be into the air of a concert space, into the fingers or breath of a performer, or into the ear and brain of a listener.
The music that I create therefore partly takes into account these spaces, fingers, breaths, ears and brains during its formation. But my compositional process is also fired by something else. It is cajoled along out of a desire to make something for me; music that is constructed and sounds the way I wish it to be. This is probably what I would describe as the inward (perhaps almost selfish) drive, where your own fascinations are explored.
As a composer it is very important to keep hold of these guiding fascinations (because they are after all, what is pumping the creativity), but we must also listen to the outward (listener-facing) drive at the same time. So, I find myself balancing fundamental technical questions about forming ‘the music I want to hear’ with pragmatic ones; is this passage appropriate for the instrument? Will this particular approach excite or deflate the performer? What will the listener specifically get from this musical moment on a single listen? Does the overall piece create the impact I intend? In the heat of creative battle, when you are pulling together lots of bits of paper, lists of ideas, drawings, audio recordings on the phone, half-remembered ideas in your head, and clumsy fumbles on the piano, keeping the balance is sometimes difficult.
So a piece of music gets completed. If we’re lucky it gets rehearsed and there is a performance in front of an audience.
All creators are interested in some kind of reaction to their work and this takes many forms. At a performance, the level of applause is obviously a direct indicator. Equally it is always lovely to have feedback from your performers. If you’re fortunate enough to get a review, this takes reaction to an even higher and more dangerous level. Potentially people will read a review and base their assumptions about you not on music they have actually heard, but on what has been filtered by a single person. If it goes badly (and a reviewer has an axe to grind) then your personal feelings can be severely damaged. If it goes well, it creates a slightly unreal sense of hype; something which, after the struggles of composing, seems bizarre and potentially out of place. Either way, as composers we have to take the rough with the smooth and use the good reviews as some kind of official validation of worth, however selective we may be in this. The review that all composers prize most is one that is intelligent, addresses the musical content and understands where you’re coming from. I was lucky enough to receive such a review in the Guardian. Thank you Kate Molleson!
It’s hard to describe your own music, but I thank Kate for making a very good stab at this on my behalf. The music of my latest release Shenanigans was described as ‘taut’, ‘wonky’ and ‘endearing’ and this is, of course, very complimentary. What I was most warmed by was a clear recognition of the contradictions between seriousness and play (something I value similarly in my favourite comedy) and between the collisions of musical aesthetics in my music. These two things have probably driven my composing more than any other over the last twenty years.
As well as my thanks to Kate Molleson for understanding me, and to NMC for trusting me, my thanks also goes to all the spaces the music was conceived and recorded in, the fingers and breaths of the wonderful performers on Shenanigans, and to the ears and brains of all those out there who might come across my music.
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