Name: Colin Riley
Nationality: British
Occupation: composer
Current Release: Isolated Pieces on Squeaky Kate Label.  

If you’d liked this interview with Colin Riley, and want to find out more about the project and Youth Music, visit www.colinriley.co.uk

Can you please tell us a bit about your own identity? Were you ever discriminated against because of it – and if so, how? In which do you feel that your own experiences with your identity motivated you to take an artistic path?

I am a white middle-aged male composer who has chosen to be involved in the broadest possible range of music. Celebrating difference and individuality is what is important to me; differentiating between things, noticing more deeply, being challenged with something unfamiliar. I also think its very important to gift ourselves time to absorb these elements. It’s not something we can do quickly or in a casual way.

The motivation to be creative is an interesting topic. As both a composer and a teacher of composition, it’s something I have been involved with from many angles for over forty years. I’m constantly interested in this question.

For large parts of my working life I have focussed on what I perceive to be the craft of making music in an effort to create something of value; well-made, emotive, interesting, and new. Having been brought up and educated largely through so-called classical music this aspect has been, to some degree, quite straight-forward. My ‘classical’ intellect attempts to distinguish well-crafted music from not-so-well-crafted music. In this mode music is pure. It’s about the notes. It can be truly magical and uplifting. It’s not about one’s identity.

This, of course, is a little simplistic and only half of the story. My involvement in a massive range of musical genres and approaches has evoked ideas in the other half of my creative self. Here I explore beyond just craft. I have tried to work out why I am composing music, how it represents something of who I am, if this matters, how this music might be presented, who it might be for (or not for), and also how it might help or inform the listener. There’s a lot in there; a lot of questions fighting for answers! The question of commerciality has never been a motivator for me luckily, and this thankfully is not there to complicate matters.

Ultimately, what motivated me to take an artistic path was the unquestioning need to express myself in music. It has always been there from a very early age. My need was such that who I was or what I may have to say actually didn’t matter. There was simply a need.

Growing up we are all influenced by role models. Mine were initially the composers of the past; white, male and reasonably wealthy. At the time this seemed perfectly normal to me, but I realised later that this set of role-models was in fact quite specific and rather narrow. I soon realised that there were living composers and after that the doors were open to so much more.

Things are not straight-forward. Many parts of me fitted in. But as a comprehensive school-educated boy from working-class heritage, and from a northern town, I felt an outsider in other ways. This aspect of ‘not fitting in’ providing an ever-present feeling of being an imposter that has stayed with me. Importantly though, it also provided me with a strong work ethic and something to prove. For this I am grateful.   

There have often been claims that artists from different social groups approach music differently. How do you see that yourself and what are some of your conclusions/observations in this regard?

It’s very clear to me that the way people relate to music stems initially from their social background and their upbringing. From an early age we tap into our own heritage. But then we experiment. We often rebel. Our social group also develops as we go through life and so there is further dilution and inspiration. It’s an on-going process. I also see that the way we connect to music is very complex, working on many levels.

A big influence is what opportunity (or not) we may have had growing up. It is a shame that our current political culture, and more specifically our state schools are not able to support music sufficiently.  Most schools have been forced to water down any sense that music matters, and young people are not provided with an environment that can foster a meaningful relationship with music. If a child is unable to learn an instrument then their ability to engage with classical music is serious impeded for example, and the idea that musical notation has any value is nowhere to be seen. Buying a musical instrument and paying for lessons is a costly business that many families just cannot afford.

The mainstream media have gone along with the easy fix of using trite labels, dumbing down listening habits and fixating on the shallowest from of music consumption possible. I hope that there is a turning point up ahead. Music is not just something we consume. It’s something we express ourselves with. It’s something that brings us together. It’s something that heals us. It’s magical.  

We have a growing epidemic of mental illness especially in young people and a growing epidemic of dementia amongst the older population. Squeezed in the middle are the ‘sandwich generation’ looking after both their children and their aging parents. It seems to me that music needs to make a come back. We need it now more than ever. I hear so often the regret of older people who didn’t learnt to play an instrument and see time and time again the restorative power of live, face-to-face music. No screens. No polish. Here-and-now music. A recent music and dance project I was involved with for dementia patients (at Addenbrookes Hospital Cambridge) was a poignant confirmation of this.

The switch from playing out on bikes exploring the outside world to playing on indoor screens is mirrored in the music industry and music education. Musical activity is often reduced to more screen tapping and an ever-increasing distance between the person and the real. Music-making reduced to a kind of Garage Band way of thinking. Virtually-simulated worlds are fun, cool and engaging, but they have eroded our connection to so many things (including music) in gradual ways so that we don’t even realise. Along with outdoor play, the learning of an instrument has been squeezed out. Old pianos are not cool in houses and have been replaced by keyboards. This can also be measured in a similarly sliding scale with the words we use and what we pass on to our children. As Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris highlighted in their wonderful recent best-selling book ‘The Lost Words’, successive generations of young people are simply shifting away from a world of the outdoors (soil, birds, dirt, danger, surprise) to the indoor world (screens, social media, illusion, polish, safety, algorithms, sameness). As words fall out of use, so do their meaning. And this changes us.

As a composer and teacher these things matter to me. They are about all our identities and about our very sense of individuality, diversity, and connectedness.

In which way do you feel your identity concretely influences your creativity?

In the fact that I am who I am. Physically I can’t change who I am, but I can mentally. Inwardly I discover stuff and process things around me to try and make sense of who I am and how I fit in. In terms of the music I make, it is influenced by two things; what I have already heard and what I can imagine. These two things weave together.

Art can be an expression or celebration of identity, but it can also be an effort to establish new ones or break free from them. How would you describe your own approach in this regard?

It is easy to linger too much on what you feel people might think of your music, or you as a person. Your work is being put into a category, or being given a label. Labels seem to stick, and are hard to shake off. There seems to be a common assumption that if you created ‘this’ sort of music, then you don’t create ‘that’ sort of music. In my career so far I seem to have successfully taken up these opposing positions all-to-often and confused the taste-makers and label gate-keepers.

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

It’s back to labels. All so-called genres of music are built out of copying, overt cultural signs and symbolism, and in re-appropriating (often unconsciously) other people’s ideas. That is the way they retain their identity.

I’m really interested in the cultural, social and gender specificity of Music. It feels hugely important to acknowledge differences and to focus on the subtlety and detail of the work.

If applicable, tell us about a work of yours which deals with (your) identity in an overt way: What were some of the ideas behind it, how did you develop them and what were some of the responses? 

During lockdown, I curated a project called Isolated Pieces. This was a kind of experiment, partly to engage fellow musicians in a very difficult time, but also to test out a new way of working. It is perhaps the very opposite of overt identity. It’s about a shared identity and a collective way of working where the ego has been let go of. The process of creativity involves trust and empathy. These are the two qualities that I feel we need right now, so it was also a kind of statement about ourselves and our interdependency. Metaphorically it has a richness too.

I provided a collection of short piano improvisations to a broad range of musicians who I thought would enjoy being part of the process, who I trusted, and who I knew would provide something sensitive back. I simply asked that they create a response to the music and send back the audio-file. Some people sent lots of material back and others just a single file. These became my musical Lego blocks and in turn I made my own personal response, instinctive building the music wherever it led me. Sometimes this meant that I sent out further audio-files of a half-fashioned idea to solicit yet more responses.

The group of musicians grew to include singers and later on poets, as the net of possibilities became ever-larger. It has culminated in an album of 18 tracks involving 27 contributors. Everyone involved did this for the simple act of connecting together. No one knew who else was involved and so there was absolutely no sense of hierarchy or ego. I became a ‘curator-composer’ and all my decisions were made specifically in the spirit of enhancing this collective body of ideas. The results are, as you might imagine diverse, multi-layered, sometimes complex and sometimes very simple.

There’s another aspect too. No one expected a fee. No one even expected their material to get used. I felt a surge of optimism with this project. It was uplifting. It was honest. It was clear-cut. The elements given to me combined in a way that seemed to reflect the best in our society, where trust and respect can provide so many of the things we need. It felt to me like a powerful reflection of equality and a celebration of the human spirit in difficult and isolating times.

Because of this new way of working Isolated Pieces naturally became an album that I felt could also help others. Proceeds raised from the sales of downloads will go to the wonderful charity Youth Music. Like this charity, all the musicians involved believe in the power of music and its ability to change lives. Clearly we need to participate in music now, more then ever.

How, do you feel, can music contribute to a society capable of dealing with different identities in a more positive way?

Music, more than all other art-forms seems to have accumulated an ever increasing set of labels (and sub-labels) to try and categorise itself. Of course this works for some people for some of the time and allows for a sense of identity, but it also perpetuates a tribal mentality.

It doesn’t work for me. I’d like to think that music (and all art) has the potential to surprise us and to change us. It can reinforce who we are at the same time as illustrate profound differences. We live in a society of differences and these provide richness, warmth, and a sense of empathy. Humans are better when they engage with this variety.

It’s back to what music is. It is not just a passive listening experience. It can be a lifelong learning of an instrument or a vital mode of self-expression. It is also a powerful participatory and communal activity that brings us together. More than ever before, we need music within our communities and in our schools. Our identities -both as individuals and as connected social groups- are nurtured by it.

For interested readers, what are books, websites, articles or other sources of information you recommend for them to educate themselves on the topic?

I would recommend that you remain inquisitive. You explore music you don’t know on a regular basis, and that (if you can) you participate in music communally. Also participate in the natural world around you.

I don’t have any websites to recommend. Maybe give yourself some time away from internet searching for a bit! Let the information come to you.