Colin Riley shares reflections on the challenges of current times and the motivation to look forward and keep pressing on.
With a slightly mischievous title perhaps, this blog explores some thoughts about what it means to be a composer in the context of how the Covid pandemic will have forced so many of us to re-think our work and our lives.
All over the world composers will have had live performances of their work wiped off the calendar, perhaps never to be re-scheduled. Months of creativity and emotional investment will have gone into these new projects and high hopes will have been dashed. Long months of invested energy towards a premiere have ended abruptly in a void, and a lingering sense of suspended animation for so many of us.
And so it is clearly a good moment to ask some fundamental questions and to see if the pandemic can inspire us to develop new ways of working.
There has recently been a wonderful sharing of online new work, some of it a direct response to the changes brought about by the pandemic. This wave of material shows the resilience of music creators of all kinds and highlights not just the colourful diversity of work but also a renewed sense of connection for its makers. What can be achieved in the face of adversity is always astonishing and heartwarming.
Technology is clearly very much part of this and although it is not the complete answer, all musicians are now becoming much more tech savvy, and many new forms of hybrid communication over the next year will be developed, I’m sure. This is already happening, as we have seen, with instrumental teaching, and in the transition to ‘blended delivery’ of higher education music degrees. We’ve seen it in orchestras, choirs and bands who have created online, click-track driven new material, and in live-streamed bedroom concerts.
Of course its only part of the story and I know that there is also frustration and disappointment hanging over many musician’s lives. Online presentation of music is really only allows for a fraction of how music can reveal its power and beauty. So many aspects of interaction, response in the moment and the sense of sharing through performance cannot so easily transfer into the digital realm.
But there has already been a shift, one that has allowed the seeds for new formats to grow and for new voices to be heard. New music is astonishing in its diversity and refreshing in the breadth of its approaches. There’s a form of democratization that is taking place, with home-grown recordings, online file-sharing, music collectives, self-publishing, videos, and live streamed concerts. Its easier than ever before to put your music ‘out there’ and for performers to find something that they are excited to play, rather than be led by a few so-called taste-makers. Now is perhaps the time for us to build on this energy, harnessing even more re-fashioned modes of delivery and cut through the perceptions of elitism at the same time.
For twenty years I have mentored on the ‘Adopt a Composer’ scheme run by Making Music and Sound and Music, and funded by PRS for Music. This has been a joy from start to finish, allowing me to provide some practical help and inspiration to emerging composers who are paired with a leisure-time group and composing a piece for them. It has enabled me to stay in touch with the energy and diversity coming out of young composers and it has acted in many ways as a kind of monitor of new approaches and stylistic trends. The current cohort of composers have, or course, been effected by the pandemic and there are postponements and workarounds being devised. It will be interesting to see how much the composers are inspired by and respond to the restrictions. Discussions are already beginning around radical ways to develop ideas and present them digitally, through multiple versions of material, and via unconventional means.
Thinking especially about these young composers, but also about all of us, it is likely that there are some extremely hard truths we will also need to ponder on.
Adapting is going to be key to moving forward. Composers by definition are creative and need now, more than ever, to think outside the box. We also need to recognize how lucky we are in so many ways, and celebrate things that we probably often take for granted; that many of us have access to the use of a musical instrument, that we have technologies that enable us to record and promote our work, that we have (largely) a tolerant society, that we live in a country free from the direct impact of war, and that so many diverse kinds of music and other art-forms are potentially available to us, at least partially.
We need to think how our work and activities impact especially on young people and explore how we can contribute to rebuilding the depleted mainstream education of music. The opportunity to engage meaningfully with music (and in particular with so-called ‘classical music’) seems increasingly to be the preserve of those from well-off backgrounds since the dismantling of music education by governments from 1979 onwards. All genres of music have a validity, and I’m not one who espouses that ‘classical music’ is the top of any tree. But given that it has its own particular qualities and it demands certain forms of developed listening, it would seem something we should aim to make accessible and exciting. That excitement, in my opinion, comes from a meaningful exposure to it through learning an instrument, through hearing live performances, and by having strong and inspiring advocates during the defining teenage years. As composers we should be thinking of new ways we can actively help in terms of our engagement with our local state schools (primary and secondary) and via lobbying for the role of music in the education of the next generation. We all know, of course, that music has the power to transform lives, to stimulate the mind and body, offer solace, form a sense of community, and engender wellbeing. Think of how in lockdown, online music became a touchstone for so many people.
For myself, 2020 was to be a year when I heard the results of several years of planning and composing orchestral music. Bad timing all round. Three pieces kicked into the long grass. I should have stuck to those pieces for solo instruments!
My most recent piece Earth Voices is a five-movement work for full orchestra and something I’ve been working on for the last year and a half. The day I finished the final movement was the day I got the email I’d been expecting; ‘the premiere is cancelled’. It’s the closest to a ‘symphony’ that my seven-year-old self would have dreamt of. In so many ways it’s the pinnacle to where my career as a composer has been leading. Despite much of it being composed in lockdown, it is (I think) hugely positive and celebrates our connections to the natural world. It has a similar celebratory quality to my violin concerto Stream-Shine. Both pieces were due to be premiered next month.
I tend to draw strength and renewed determination from rejection. The alternative is to stop composing, and that just doesn’t seem to be an option for me. In direct response to these cancellations my notebook began filling up with ideas for possible new pieces, collaborations, workarounds, and re-workings. Its been the pattern of my career I guess, but its an important thing for all creative artists to re-channel energy and to learn ways to pick themselves up.
It feels like we all need this determination more than ever right now. Things are going to be different. Things are going to be tough, unfair, and confusing at times. But things will also be exciting, trail-blazing and unexpected. Imaginative, flexibility and compassion will be needed.
Our society needs composers.
So I say … “carry on composing”.
Blogs about Earth Voices on Riley Notes:
Colin Riley’s lockdown collaboration with Benjamin Zephaniah People Need People:
Colin Riley’s re-mix project Re-Place:
Also look out for Colin’s new project Isolation Pieces coming soon.