Colin Riley tells us about his latest project, Isolated Pieces, a collaborative 18 track album which will be released from Saturday 11 September.
We’ve all felt many times in the last 18 months that the world is strange. Things have seemed out of kilter. Looking at it from this new angle we have perhaps noticed things more: birds, sunsets, small everyday details, our own ageing, inequality and the kindness of others. We have all had to deal with isolation and restriction in our own particular ways. People have died. People have suffered mental breakdown. Emotions have been heightened. Some are itching to return to what they call ‘normal’. Others are talking about a ‘new normal’.
Art makers have captured some of this in their work during the various lockdowns.
So what has been my artistic response during the last 18 months?
Alongside commissions that still needed completing, I embarked on a broad set of projects large and small with the simple aim of ‘putting stuff out there’. There have been many videos and home-recorded outputs in the last year, but the largest project by far has been Isolated Pieces. This project is finally completed and the first single (from the 18 tracks) is now out.
Essentially it’s an expression of the feelings of isolation, but also a unique celebration of connectedness through trust. It has been put together in a new collaborative way. I sent out audio-files of short piano fragments to lots of musicians I’ve worked with before, asking that they respond in isolation by performing something alongside the piano and sending back an audio-file. There were no rules, no restrictions and no concrete expectations. The idea was that I would in turn make my response to what I received back from each of them, acting as the composer-curator, and fashion music by simply following my own ears. It’s musical lego I suppose.
I figured that a response made to any given fragment would relate to other responses made to that same fragment, and so the music would have a web-like quality. It would also very-likely be a genre-busting collection. Having worked in the preceding years on several big collaborations, this opportunity to extend myself as curator as well as composer felt like the crossroads of many important things. It was also a chance to harness ideas about connectedness and provide some playful exchanges with friendly musicians in difficult times. Everyone I asked immediately said yes, and I have been touched by the trust placed in me.
With the project coming to completion there are now contributions from 27 musicians in all, and still no one knows who else is involved! That part of the game is very much a secret until the release.
Some ideas need to get out quickly and others need to lie in wait. They find the right moment. They ferment. The origins of Isolated Pieces go back further than the pandemic. In 2015 I set up a project called Assemblage, leading a small group of musicians in creating music synergising improvisation, composition and technology. We spent a few days at Snape Maltings near Aldeburgh (thank-you Britten Pears Trust) trying out many alternative ways of working. One notable activity involved myself and pianist Liam Noble trading short ideas on the piano. Liam improvised a short musical ‘Haiku’ on his own and it was recorded. I swopped over and improvised a response on the same piano to his recording. This became Haiku 2. This was in turn used to stimulate his Haiku 3, and so on. After an hour we had 17 Haiku. These recordings have been lying in wait since 2016. Assemblage was sadly put on hold at that point and other creative projects took over in the meantime. But I knew the music Liam and I started together had potential. Last March I listened back to all of the 17 short fragments. They were a rich tapestry of interconnected ideas: raw, instinctive, and quirky. When I decided to embark on Isolated Pieces these very quickly suggested themselves as the source material to send out to the musicians. It was great way to re-cycle, but also to be able to stand back from the creative process of the project, at least for a period of time. I was able to related objectively to them, because of the distance of five years. It felt almost as if these fragments had been created by someone else. This was important in the early stages.
Technology has always been a component that weaves through my work and for Isolated Pieces I utilise it in a variety of ways. The original piano haiku were recorded with the addition of a Moog Piano bar, a bit of kit that captured the performance by converting the motion of the keys via sensors into midi data. For all 17 Haiku (except for when the technology failed!) I had both an audio-file and a midi file. In turn this midi data has been a useful ingredient in the on-going process allowing for ghost-textures to emerge in some pieces and for playful grooves in others. The creative process has been guided by my intuitive responses in a combination of pure improvisation with forensic ‘off-time’ editing and processing. Some of the pieces have taken a fairly simple layering approach whereby the act of synchronizing the responses constructs a faithful rendition of a set of responses, maintaining the mood and musical flow. Other pieces have involved cutting up audio-files into tiny bits, then re-working, looping, and re-arranging them to form something very different from the original. Everything has been edited in Logic software and whilst all-manner of intricate processing has been available I have tried to hold on to the spirit of the original responses as far as possible.
As the process continued I brought on board singers and poets who would by turns made their responses with text. This vocal element is a hugely-important seam in the album, providing highly-personal, yet multiple viewpoints on ideas of isolation and connectedness as well as some much-needed focus. It also inevitably meant further responses from me, with each piece morphing still further on its journey of formation.
On 17 September the first single ‘I Dance As I Rise’ was released on my own label Squeaky Kate Music. Five other singles will follow, one-per-month until the album release in February.
The proceeds of the download sales will all go to Youth Music. This charity provides opportunities for young people to change their lives through music.
The pandemic had highlighted the inequalities in our society, some of the failings of capitalism, and of short-term thinking. It also reveals how important music is to our sense of community, wellbeing, self-identity, and sanity. Composers, of course, play an important part in all this, galvanising communities, charting fresh approaches, and enticing in new listeners. I am hoping not to get back to normal as a composer, but to embrace the ‘new normal’: music that is open, sensitive, well-crafted, diverse, and exploratory.
Isolated Pieces is my latest contribution.