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. 

Colin RileyWry, 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.

Colin Riley Shenanigans

NMC Archive blogs are all articles written for our Friends Newsletter over the years. If you'd like to receive our quarterly Friends Newsletter, you can become a Friend here (memberships start from £50). If you'd like to support our work with composers as well as our expanding Learning Programme, you can make a donation to our 30th Appeal here. Thank you!




On this week's Archive Blog, Elaine Gould, NMC Supporter, Senior New Music Editor at Faber Music Ltd, and author of Behind Bars, The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, tells us about all the steps she takes to transform a manuscript into performable scores and parts.


A few years back I received a message from an eminent player: 'The composer tells me he's finished his piece today. Could you post me the solo part 1st class so I can have it to practise tomorrow?'


The player should have known better. When the composer finishes their piece, that's when the  editor's work begins. We oversee the life of the piece from manuscript to first performance, through any revisions – the composer may have some second thoughts after hearing it – to its final form.


I never tire of the thrilling moment I set eyes on a new piece – am I looking at the next masterpiece? The editor is privileged to be often the first pair of fresh eyes to look over what the composer has written.


Most pieces now arrive as Sibelius files although some are still hand-written manuscripts. We read the score as if conducting or playing it ourselves for the first time, checking that what's on the page makes sense – most of the time scores are very accurate – and it is what we think the composer intends. A score is a set of instructions and these need to be crystal clear. An editor is looking for what might be missing: will the performers need further instructions? Often it's a case of adding more information.


I'm hot on practicalities: is the writing fit for purpose? A piece for an amateur choir, for instance, must be of an appropriate level of difficulty so that there's a realistic chance of a decent rendering: I will sing through each line in my head to check there are not streams of intervals too tricky to pitch.


Barry Guy Score


In an instrumental piece we check parts don't disappear over a page turn, or lines move instrument mid-phrase. It's worth noticing at this stage if a 2nd harp part suddenly appears on page 98 when not on the commission brief (ensembles will be reluctant to pay for extra players not budgeted for); that pitches are not written inadvertently out of range, or super-human technical difficulties such as impossible stretches left in. Asking percussionists to dash around the platform playing a number of large instruments is very impressive to watch – but no composer wants to have their piece remembered for that reason!


We plan what materials the piece needs for performance: A piece with voices or an instrumental soloist may need a piano reduction of the instrumental parts for rehearsal purposes.


How will each individual copy look? What size does the music need to be in the conditions it's to be played in? Where is there time to turn a page? On one occasion a composer was surprisingly resistant to my plea 'the violinist is playing non-stop for 14 minutes: please could we add more than one crotchet rest so he can turn the page?'


Our job is to ensure the player has any other information he needs to play his part, since he may not have reference to a score. He'll need to know where to enter after rest periods, so entry cues from other players are very important. Choosing the appropriate cue is quite a skill.


Once the editor has marked up a hard copy of the score, a music typesetter sets about tidying or reformatting it and then extracting instrumental parts. Publishers tend to have a small team of treasured experts who do this painstaking work. Proofs go back and forth from typesetter to editor until the score and parts are formatted for purpose and looking good.


In between times, each instrumental part is checked meticulously against the score by the editor or a proofreader, and any further anticipated problems or discrepancies sort outed. Our duty is to save musicians from wasting their time. Problems not addressed in advance irritate the musicians and take up valuable rehearsal time to sort out. When I talk to organisers about 'workshops of new works' invariable everyone remembers the half an hour sorting out some finer point rather than the qualities of the new piece – which is a great shame.


How music looks on the page is terribly important. Sometimes a composer is carried away with the beauty of the score, adding layers of complexity that look frightfully impressive. Are these really necessary? How will they come off the page in performance? Is it realistic for the musician to absorb masses of detail while following the conductor (or other players) and  trying to project the musical line across to the audience? Is there too much distraction in the notation that's likely to stifle his musicianship? Whilst the editor ensures the musician has sufficient notation in the copy, these questions are of equal concern. It's a fine balance.


Complexity on the page doesn't necessarily mean a piece sounds complex. A simple idea may require copious instructions, a complex musical structure may look almost bland on the page. A composer needn't feel any pressure to make the page look erudite. Masterpieces come in many forms and we look forward to discovering them!


NMC Archive blogs are all articles written for our Friends Newsletter over the years. If you'd like to receive our quarterly Friends Newsletter, you can become a Friend here (memberships start from £50). If you'd like to support our work with composers as well as our expanding Learning Programme, you can make a donation to our 30th Appeal here. Thank you!


This week on our blog, meet NMC Trustee Stephen Johns, who's been on our board for seven years.


Stephen JohnsI’ve been lucky to have grown up with music – I was a chorister at my local Cathedral in Llandaff, then played the organ and ran a church choir while still at school. I first became fascinated by the technique of making recordings when I was at University, where our Chapel Choir recorded a number of albums. I began my career working at Abbey Road Studios, and have been involved in making records ever since. My first discovery of NMC was when I was asked to produce the recordings of Robert Saxton (A Yardstick to the Stars) and Philip Cashian (Dark Inventions). Having worked full-time for a major record company, who had necessarily to work to commercial imperatives, it was really interesting to become a Trustee of a record company that existed as a charity. The mission to record, and make permanently available, important music that would not otherwise be represented seemed to me to be a vital part of our cultural life. I was always moved by Simon Rattle’s sentiments that if we don’t keep writing new music we have no right to play music only from the past.


Being a Trustee is both challenging and highly rewarding. I am constantly having to encounter music that I might otherwise not be exposed to. The variety of what we hear – and sadly we can’t release everything we might like to – is surprising. I find the music not always easy to approach or understand – I think it’s important for us all to admit this! But I find the more I listen, the easier I find it to evaluate the skill and musicality of a composer’s work, even if the idiom is not immediately attractive. 


In addition to my continuing freelance work as a record producer, I am Artistic Director at the Royal College of Music. Here we have a vibrant composing faculty, across all idioms, and students keen to play new music. It’s really refreshing to see them engage so enthusiastically with all forms of music, and the NMC catalogue is a part of the rich resources available, encouraging them to enquire and experiment.


Being a Trustee forces me to realise all our responsibilities for supporting the creation of new music. I hope we are providing a platform and a voice for composers whose work otherwise might not be heard, or heard only once. Great music demands frequent listening, and recordings enable time for reflection and repeated consideration – not always possible in a concert hall. It is great to share being a Trustee with others from a range of backgrounds and enthusiasms – I think together we try and bring our own specialities to support the wonderful enterprise that is NMC.


Outside the RCM and NMC, I enjoy outside activities, including golf (poorly!), cycling and walking. The picture is of recent hiking in the Canadian Rockies, amidst the smoke from the forest fires…


If you'd like to support our work, you can do so by donating to our Anniversary appeal here or becoming a Friend here. Every little helps and no contribution is too small! Thank you.


As we reach the end of our anniversary year, we look to the future. Our pledge is to continue to support new music, build a catalogue that celebrates and fully reflects talent across modern Britain, and develop our education programmes. Find out more below ...




Where we are now:

Our complete catalogue   

             In the last 5 years
Men/women        men/women2


Anniversary Target

We pledge to take steps to ensure our future recording programme is more representative across gender and race. Recent analysis highlighted that 90% of proposals we were receiving were from men, so we have taken steps to redress the balance by promoting our opportunities more broadly, and have set a target that at least 50% of new releases from 2020 will feature composers who identify as women. Alongside this we have made a commitment to double the number of BAME composers in the catalogue (currently 19) by 2022.





In 2017, we launched a series of education resources to assist the development of emerging talent and to inspire an interest in, and appreciation of, new music in younger audiences. These resources include: r:strng, our free app featuring Kate Whitley's music and allowing students from KS3 & KS4 to create their own remixes; GCSE Dance, a free teaching resource developed in partnership with Rambert Dance Company and including guidance notes for teachers as well as a free download album; the NMC Music Map, our free interactive tool to explore, see, and hear the connections between composers; and GCSE Composition, which takes works from the NMC catalogue as a starting point for practical lessons and student exercises in Rhinegold Education's innovative Online Music Classroom. 


In 2019, we were delighted to partner with London Music Masters, to deliver Many Voices, a set of ten new violin pieces for children for those currently learning at around ABRSM Grades 2 – 5, which was distributed to LMM’s learning programme of over 1,000 children, as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations and NMC’s 30th anniversary. 

In a time where we are seeing cuts to both music education and our relations with other cultures, the creation of Many Voices seems more admirable and important than ever.” – Joanna Lee


In March 2019, NMC worked with Chineke! Foundation and Tower Hamlets Arts and Music Education Service to devise and deliver 3 days of creative music-making workshops for 40 pupils aged 11-14 from Swanlea School in Whitechapel. 

The project was linked to a forthcoming album of works by Black and Minority Ethnic composers performed by Chineke! Orchestra on NMC, and we were thrilled to have composer Errollyn Wallen lead the project along with five musicians from the orchestra. The participants were introduced to the working life of an orchestra by Chineke! Learning Manager Ishani O’Connor, as well as learning about what it is like to be a professional musician and what being a composer means.

My favourite part was when everyone was gathering together to put all their pieces together. It made a really shocking and wonderful performance, [it was] very creative for all of us.” – Swanlea School Participant


Errollyn at Swanlea SchoolPianist at Swanlea School


For our Anniversary year, we pledge to continue to develop our education programme, with projects in partnership with Chineke! Foundation as well as schools across London already in preparation for 2020.



In October we celebrate Will Month. It's not always an easy subject to talk about but it is an important one and something we should feel more comfortable discussing. Wills ensure you can continue supporting the causes that matter to you for many years to come and Alex, our Development and Partnerships Manager, talks about the importance such gifts have on small organisations like ours.


Roger Stevens Quote

There are many ways of supporting NMC’s work as a charity. We rely on a mixture of funding sources each year, which include grants from charitable trusts and foundations; a small amount of regular public funding from Arts Council England; earned income from the sale and licensing of recordings; and of course the generous support of individual donors and supporters. 

One form of fundraising we haven’t mentioned is Legacy Giving. This is a topic which is often overlooked, and sometimes deemed too difficult to talk about openly with donors. Yet it can bring many benefits to smaller charities like NMC, and it is a very special way for our closest supporters to continue giving to a cause they love for many more years to come. 

Leaving a gift in your Will really does make a difference, and no amount is too small. A legacy can go a long way to preserve and promote new music for future generations. 

As a lean and nimble organisation, which has thrived on maximising its impact with modest resources for 30 years, NMC’s key strength is adaptability. This means we can react quickly when new opportunities arise, and make the most of any extra income which comes our way to further our charitable purpose by supporting new recording projects or education work.   

There are many inspirational moments which can lead to deciding to support a charity: it could be hearing a recording of a piece you saw live in concert and loved; wishing to inspire the next generation of music creators and musicians through our Learning and Participation work; or wanting to aid and develop the professional lives of early-career composers through our Debut Discs series.

Choosing to support NMC with a legacy costs nothing in your lifetime, and after providing for family and loved ones first we would be delighted if you felt moved to consider writing us into your Will. 

One of the trickiest things with Legacies from a fundraising perspective is not knowing when or how much money is likely to be received in any given period. Even so, it remains a vital source of income, and one which NMC is looking to embrace as a means of diversifying our income steams further in the future. 

Making a decision to leave a legacy to NMC is an individual’s choice alone, and there is no obligation to tell us that you’ve left a gift. However we would love to hear from you should you feel comfortable telling us, so we could discuss in confidence how we might recognise your support in your lifetime. 

To find out more about leaving a gift in your Will to NMC, please take a look at our website or contact Alex Wright at or 020 3022 5888.


In NMC’s 30th year, we seek a new Chair to succeed Andrew Ward in helping us build on past successes and secure our future. The ideal candidate will have energy and vision alongside experience in the world of new music and its funding. 


NMC Recordings is an award-winning new music charity. Founded in 1989 by composer Colin Matthews OBE, we are devoted to enriching cultural life by connecting listeners with exceptional contemporary classical music from across the British Isles.   


We believe that new music is a dynamic and engaging art-form, and we seek to inspire and challenge audiences through the release and promotion of recordings, innovative artistic partnerships, commissioning new repertoire, and delivering education work.  


We fulfil our charitable aims by:  


  • collaborating with leading composers, artists, orchestras, and ensembles 
  • producing high quality recordings of outstanding works 
  • promoting recordings and other resources to expand worldwide audiences for new music 
  • preserving this creativity for future generations  


To apply for this voluntary position, please complete the attached equalities monitoring form and email it with a covering letter outlining why you are interested in NMC and feel you would be right to lead us.  Applications and requests for any further information or for an informal discussion should be sent to:


Anne Rushton

Executive Director

NMC Recordings



All entries in chronological order
7 December 2016
6 December 2016
14 October 2016
25 August 2016
18 August 2016
27 July 2016
20 May 2016
25 April 2016
14 March 2016
8 March 2016