A recording of Eawl-leet by Colin Riley performed by Sunny Cho has been released last month, as part of the 200 Pieces Project in celebration of the Royal Academy of Music Bicentenary.
Colin tells us about the process and inspiration of the composition, and talks with Sunny Cho about recording this new work:
Towards Darkness (by Colin Riley)
For quite some time I’ve wanted to compose a piece about dusk. It’s a fascinating time of day in all seasons. The gradual, often un-perceived lessening of light towards darkness is magical, and I love walking in this transitional time when, as your senses get accustomed to the darkness, you actually start to perceive more detail around you. Some things are closing down whilst others are waking up. You begin to tune in. This contradiction is something we find elsewhere. So often we gain more satisfaction from slower travel. We can feel richer with fewer material things. We can get more done by increasing our time doing nothing.
Last year I had two attempts at portraying these ideas of dusk in music.
The first is a movement from my new orchestra piece Earth Voices called Vers le Crépuscule and features a gradual slowing down and deepening of material, painted in vivid orchestral colours. It begins with layers of mechanistic systems, all of which by turns descend, slow down, break down, get quieter and eventually transform into rich, sustained and stretched music. The movement ends with deep held drones on bass trombone, tuba, double basses and low piano, but also the emerging filigree of the celeste.
The second, by contrast, is a piece for solo ‘cello called Eawl-leet. The title is an old Lancashire word for twilight or dusk literally meaning ‘owl light’. I wanted to create something that was muted, moody and also a little bit haunted. I was also led by the sense of portraying something bird-like with fluttering, swooping, and feathery allusions. With the use of open-string droning (easily achieved on the cello), and occasional touches of natural harmonics, I aimed to paint murky light, tinged with flecks of clearer vision. I suppose the cello is the owl to some extent, the music suggesting something of its stillness and its swooping flight in equal measure.
I was extremely proud to have been asked to compose this piece as part of the 200-year anniversary of the Royal Academy of Music in London. The invitation came from my old school friend (and head of Composition) Phil Cashian, which made the commission even more special. The old Lancashire word also seemed to fit, since we both grew up together in that county. I choose the cello, mainly because I already had the idea for a piece about dusk and the instrument’s mellow sonority is just right. It was also a way to add to a growing collection of pieces for the instrument; one that I play myself, and therefore have a strong affinity with.
Eawl-leet received its premiere by the stunningly-talented young cellist and Academy student Sunny Cho in the form of a video-performance. She plays the piece wonderfully, bringing a vivid sense of drama and poise to it. It was also a pleasure to do a short interview with her about her experience of preparing for the premiere of the new piece.
Colin Riley in conversation with Sunny Cho
Colin Riley – Have you performed much new music before? And what is it you find exciting about new repertoire for cello?
Sunny Cho – I do have experience working on a couple of commissioned pieces before, relating to international competitions. One of them had all sorts of novel techniques with detailed instructions by composer, and I had much fun playing. It is very exciting to learn new works beyond existing classical repertoire, where I can explore various sounds and techniques with much imagination. It’s hard to know what the piece would sound like until I have the score in my hands, and new repertoire will always be intriguing.
CR – What were your thoughts when you first received the score of Eawl-leet?
SC – At first, I was drawn to the interesting title Eawl-leet, and then with your explanation of the word meaning, the image of a twilight flashed across my mind. I could already imagine different colour palettes of twilight popping up in my head, a mixture of purple, black, orange, and blue merging together. From the start, I had a good feeling for the piece and somehow knew I could project a positive quality out of it.
CR – Was there anything about the piece (once you began practicing it) which you found surprising?
SC – As I practiced more and more, I was amazed by the beautiful dramatic aspects of the piece; how the work builds up through various scenic parts (episodes) to the height both emotionally and technically, subsides gently, and finally finds comforting peace at the end. Also, I realised that the rests are as important as playing the notes. The art of silence, whether a complete pause between phrases and sections or rests between short motives, provides a great magic to the piece by stimulating one’s imagination as well as creating dramatic effect.
CR – Which aspect of the piece do you enjoy playing most?
SC – Although it was difficult to execute in control, I loved the part where I made the notes overlap to achieving a blurred effect, intermittent with flickering light from distance in harmonics. The highlight of the piece I found, is when the shimmering part in sul tasto pp goes through the stage of a tightening process, creating restlessness, in order to reach the height in fff. Also, the part where it was indicated “with rim of cello body” and “just rim of cello body” was brilliant. Something striking, yet very effective.
CR – What might a new ‘companion piece’ to Eawl-leet be like, if you could help shape this?
SC – I would personally add two more contrasting movements to the piece and make it into a three-movement suite. Having Eawl-leet as the first movement, the second movement would be something like a melodic lullaby and the concluding movement a contrasting momentum (like a bustling and active daytime).
Composers Edition is proud to present many other Colin Riley’s works for cello available in our catalogue. These include music for cello and piano, the double cello concerto Warp and Weft, and two further pieces for solo cello: Something in Our Minds Will Always Stay and All My Failings Exposed.
Tags: 200 Pieces Bicentenary Project, All my failings exposed, Colin Riley, Commission, Digital premiere, Eawl-leet, premiere, Recording, Royal Academy of Music, Something in our minds will always stay, Sunny Cho, Warp and Weft