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31 January 2020 Comments Off on “Music as a Physical Response First” : Colin Riley on Composing for Piano Views: 661 CE News

“Music as a Physical Response First” : Colin Riley on Composing for Piano

Pianist Kate Halsall interviews composer Colin Riley about his large body of diverse music for piano.

Kate Halsall: You write for piano in many different guises and always seem to return to it. Why?

Colin Riley: The piano feels like home to me. It is a complete sketchpad in a practical sense, and always an intimate vehicle for exploring emotions too. I’ve recently completed a set of miniatures called Two Part Inventions for the Italian pianist Agnes Toniutti, and another called While Stars Light Your Way Across The Night for Clare Simmonds. These both explore tiny forms and specific techniques in each one. I found this hugely interesting, not least because it has led me to see the value of creating for the piano as a stepping-stone to a larger composition through the process of ‘fleshing out’. I’d also love to write a piano concerto; one guise I haven’t yet explored.

KH: Do you have a particular approach to composing for the instrument?

CR: With the piano I tend to create my music as a physical response first, rather than imposing abstract ideas on the music. To put it simply, the chords I use spring directly from improvising at the instrument and shifting hand-shapes around first and foremost. More abstract manipulations usually then follow on the page, but ‘away from the keyboard’ as it were. I have written two pieces recently for Matthew Schellhorn As The Tender Twilight Covers, the last track on my chamber music album for NMC, and then a set of pieces based of fragments of Scott Joplin piano rags called ‘Joplin Jigsaws’. The latter was hugely enjoyable to compose as it involved a sleight of hand compositionally. I really enjoyed twisting and bending a small cell of music and finding ways to refashion it. 

KH: How did writing with sampled or manipulated piano sound first start for you?

CR: Making use of technology that can help shape the colour and character of music is always of interest. It can make certain things easier, but it also takes up a lot of time. I’ve been ‘plugging my cello in’ for decades (especially in my self-performed work for dance), and it’s a natural progression to do the same for the piano, especially when you have limitations on your technique! I formed a band called MooV in 2004, which involved me playing the piano and improvising. Electronic treatments just seemed a natural extension to allow me to create distinctive sound pallets. I extended the processing capabilities with the use of a Moog ‘Pianobar’ enabling me to process the instrument both in terms of direct midi-mapping as well as the microphone capture. This was all done using the ubiquitous Ableton Live software. The results can be heard on my two MooV albums ‘Fold’ and ‘Here’. 

My use of processed piano developed much further when you commissioned me to create a ‘miniature concerto’ (as you termed it) with no orchestra. The work that transpired was Hanging In The Balance where I explored the resonating sounds of a drum kit to form a kind of ‘ghost-accompaniment’ placed around the piano. I’m really pleased with this piece as it brings many of my favourite things together; piano preparations, inside-piano playing, idiosyncratic grooves, an unexpected sonic quality, and a blurring of where the various elements actual originate from.   

KH: Tell me a little more about your music for multiple pianos.

CR: You were also kind enough to commission a piece from me for pianocircus, a group that blends real acoustic pianos with midi-keyboards. Following some explorations with the ensemble, a feature of the music became the playing of the ‘inside’ of the piano,; sometimes the strings and sometimes the metal struts. The album ‘Skin and Wire’ (with the addition of drums from the wonderful Bill Bruford) was the summation of this, with all pieces in the collection throwing in some improvisation into the mix. The blending of acoustic pianos, a drum kit and the shape-shifting of keyboard sonorities was something that I haven’t heard a lot of elsewhere, and the album has, I think, a very distinctive flavour. 

KH: You’ve collaborated with artists recently across other art forms. I’m thinking writers and film makers specifically. What did you enjoy about this new approach and did it throw up any new challenges?

CR: Text is central to a lot of what I create. Song-writing (in every sense of the term), has been with me since my late teens. My recent collaborations with poets for In Place has certainly been a highlight for me. As you know well, from paying this complete song cycle many times, the piano is pretty central in all these songs, but I couldn’t resist also adding in keyboard and harmonium, just to keep you busy! Collaboration is always a challenge, but one I enjoy, especially when musicians are open and generous. 

KH: I’ve commissioned you a few times over 10 or so years; for Piano Circus, for my Miniaturised Concertos for piano duo and have also played quite a bit of your chamber work, including your ‘In Place’ song cycle and your NMC disc ‘Shenanigans’. What are you thinking about next for piano? 

CR: I’ve just competed a short explosive piece called Hook Line and Sinker for Jelena Makarova that is full of energy and exuberance. This is not my usual approach, and I’m really pleased its turned out this way. I have plans for a set of pieces that explores ways the piano can bend and weave in response to fixed sine-wave drones, dissolving the piano into the electronic world. 

KH: What are you working on right now? 

CR: I’m just starting an orchestral suite for the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra as a contribution to their ‘Sustainable Music Series’. I’m very excited by this, and particularly about my overland train journey as part of the creative process. I’m also creating a sonic installation celebrating the potency of an ocean wave by mapping 3D data to specific parameters of sound. I’m very happy to be able to harness the extraordinary talents of singer Melanie Pappenheim once more in this project. 

But hopefully, some more music for piano very soon too.

.. and a few question from Colin to Kate ….

Colin Riley: What qualities are you looking for in new works for piano?

Kate Halsall: ‘It depends’ is the bad answer but probably accurate. Sometimes you might be listening out for a specific quality for a programme or recording. Sometimes a random new work you’re sent kicks off a new plan. I’m arranging some things at the moment to mix a piano and harmonium sound. I’m really into what I’ve been recording for two pianos this last year with my duo partner Fumiko Miyachi. ‘Up, Down, Too, Bottom, Strange, Charm’ is out on Birmingham Record Label & NMC on 24th April! 

Kate Halsall
Kate Halsall

CR: You work across many types of keyboard music utilising extended piano techniques, keyboards, laptops, and more recently harmonium and accordion. What is it about these combinations that excites you?

KH: I think you’ve answered your own Q there! I like layers and combinations of piano/keyboard sounds a lot. And variety, of course. 

CR: How far do you encourage the learning or new work in your piano students, and why is this important for their development?

KH: I’m always trying to encourage broad listening and at least ‘trying out’ new works in lessons and talking about why they don’t necessarily choose much by recent composers. Stagnant syllabuses don’t help much, let’s face it. I teach on the Young Musicians Programme at Sage Gateshead, where a lot of students are heading to music college/university as composers or players. I think it’s so important musically and technically, to keep in contact and up to date with what’s happening now.   

Colin Riley’s music draws on a range of elements including new technologies, improvisation, song-writing and large-scale classical form. Recent compositions include a double concerto for cellists Gabriella Swallow and Guy Johnston, a multi-media song-cycle for Melanie Pappenheim, a violin concerto for Phillippa Mo and a new work for Ensemble Bash. 

He is currently working on several pieces that explore our connection to the world and the climate crisis including orchestral work for the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, Sweden, and a sonic installation mapping wave data to musical parameters. 

Colin is a Senior Lecturer at Brunel University, has been a mentor for the Making Music’s Adopt A Composer Scheme since 2001, and writes a regular blog about composing called Riley Notes and his music is published by Composers Edition.  

Beautiful, clever and direct

Classical Music Magazine

Riley is that rarest of birds, a genuine original.

London Jazz Blog

He doffs his cap to the contemporary classical genre but also manages to stand alone in that genre as a unique indie voice.


Kate Halsall is a pianist developing and commissioning new music for a variety of projects. As a performer and promoter of new music, she has commissioned, premiered, recorded and broadcast many new works, and is a frequent collaborator on interdisciplinary projects, often with technologies. 

Kate has performed at international festivals and series,  including Marte festival Malaga, ICT + Art NEM Summit Nantes, Timezones festival Italy, The Barbican Centre (John Cage Uncaged), ICMC Onassis Cultural Centre Athens, ICU Rome, Peak Performances New Jersey; Sound Source London, Sonorities Festival of Contemporary Music Belfast, Nonclassical, Blackheather Club and London International Festival of Exploratory Music. Current ensembles include electro-acoustic Galvanize Ensemble, Bell Halsall duo, SoundKarD,  Cobalt piano duo and In Place with Colin Riley (2017-18).

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