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Colin Riley is a contemporary composer who collaborated with drummer Bill Bruford (formerly in Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, and with his own band, Earthworks) and pianocircus on the album Skin & Wire. After their only show in late 2007, I interviewed Riley about their plans together and the then ongoing work on the album.

In a recent interview, Bruford (aged 58) said, "Has anyone over 60, outside maybe of Picasso, really offered fresh directions?" Having followed Bruford's career for many years, I feel his collaboration with Colin Riley is just that, a fresh direction, for both him and Colin. This interview was conducted by e-mail in late 2007/early 2008. Many thanks to Colin, particularly as I was so disorganised about doing the interview! Thanks also to Simon Barrow, who assisted with questions. (Henry Potts, April 2008)

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I thought we might start with the beginnings of the collaboration and its future. You said at the concert that you first met Bill Bruford about a year ago. Was this a chance meeting? Were you aware of each other's work beforehand?

Colin Riley: I have known Bill's work off and on and we met by chance about a year ago. We exchanged recent CDs and began some discussions over the email. Bill was very complimentary about the quieter and subtler aspects of my albums with the Homemade Orchestra (Tides and Inside Covers). I have recently been creating work that is fairly slow and what I believe is now called 'down-tempo', and looking for a chance to become more groove-based. Hearing Bill's recent work with Earthworks (which is not so far away from the Homemade Orchestra's material) and knowing of the hard-edge approaches he has taken with King Crimson was exciting for me. Bill has very idiosyncratic ways of making grooves whilst also avoiding drumming clichés. We seemed to meet at at point when we were looking in each other's direction. That's always a good start I think for a collaboration.

The music we heard last month was rather different to some of your past albums: I wondered how you saw this change in your own work? For example, had you been considering ideas around the use of a drummer before meeting Bruford?

CR: My own work has become more searching over the last three or four years where I have become very interested in using elements that are outside of the notes on the page; things such as improvisation, devising of material 'with' players, electronic manipulations for example. I have always seen no reason to incorporate what some people might regard as 'non classical' instruments into my music ie electric guitar, bass guitar, drums. I've long ago stopped seeing any such distinction, and all these instruments feature in my work as much as say the violin or the oboe does—more so in fact if I think about it.

How did the involvement with pianocircus come about? I understand you had worked with them previously: was the idea always to involve them too?

CR: I've been working with pianocircus for a number of years as they have commissioned two pieces from me for their 6-keyboard line-up. My approach with them—since its almost impossible for them ever to play as 6 pianos—has been to experiment with their sound world and this has allowed me to mess around with creating my own keyboard patches for each piece. This is still an ongoing search. The sound of a keyboard can be very dating for instance, and there's all that stuff about being retro, or whatever. When Bill and I began discussing our work I suggested that we might work together on something. He was very keen to simply be the drummer and let me lead. I suggested pianocircus as a compliment to the drums, not only because I had a relationship with the group, but because they already had a history of playing rhythmically charged music (minimalism etc.) and were up for breaking new ground.

Jumping forward, where next for the project? Can we look forward to further performances or some recordings? Bill Bruford seems to enjoy live performance much more than studio recording, but the former can obviously only reach a smaller audience. Is this a project you foresee as being primarily live?

We're hoping to play a couple more 'try-out' gigs to test the way things can work and iron a few gremlins out and then hopefully play a short tour of venues who'd be interested in something like this next year [2008]. As for an album, I very much hope we can get round to doing this as it will be a really interesting sound world. There are a few more pieces to write yet. We'll see.

In February 2008, Colin added: Bill and I are about to start work on an album together.

[Skin & Wire: pianocircus featuring Bill Bruford play the music of Colin Riley (Summerfold, BBSF023CD) was released in Aug 2009. The ensemble never again played live with Bill Bruford retiring from performance on 1 Jan 2009, with Skin & Wire becoming his final album.]

So, how have you been working together? I know some of the pieces you've played, like "Squiggle Zipper", were previously written for pianocircus. Did you largely start with composed pieces or were other ones developed with Bill's contributions and improvisation right at the beginning?

CR: Really the whole working process has been very flexible. Bill has been wonderful to work with. He's very direct at times and you know that he really wants to do something a certain way, and then he can also be tremendously laid back and let you get on with taking the music in a particular direction. One way we've worked is that I've taken some of Bill’s grooves and based pieces around a kind of 'territory'. He provided me very early on with a cassette (yes—a cassette!) of some favourite grooves each in interesting metres and on different aspects of the kit. Each has a friendly spoken introduction. For a few weeks I had this on a lot in my car, which (equally surprisingly) at that time still had a cassette player.

Pieces that were born out of this process were great for me as they sent me off in a new direction straight away. I knew for instance how a time-changing sequence could be elaborated on by Bill and so I was able to imagine him playing with and against the notes I was creating for the keyboards.

Other pieces came out of ideas I had for the relationship between having an improvising drummer and 'reading' pianists. There are plenty of formal relationships to explore which naturally form structural ideas. There's lots of antiphonal, left-right type elements in the music. The pianos sometimes play very percussively forming one large rhythm section. Sometime I use quite hard electronic sounds coming from the world of drum 'n bass and electronica and sometimes I use prepared piano, which is again is very percussive and adds a flavour of something more exotic. My aim has been very much to create a particular soundworld and harness something which has a strong cohesive identity. What I didn't want to do, having four keyboards at my disposal, was to use loads of different cheesy onboard sounds. The cohesion is very important to me. I also wanted to offset Bill's drumming with sounds that were quite different to the warm, jazzy sounds of say Earthworks and were perhaps more in sympathy with the edgy sounds of King Crimson.

With the piece "Squiggle Zipper", I adapted some material from a piece I'd just written for the six pianists of pianocircus. The music was crying out for more punctuation and the drums seemed the obvious choice. The piece was conceived originally to be an adaptable one. pianocircus play this in a version for four keyboards with laptop sounds and treated grand pianos and in a version for six pianos alone.

There is a piece called "The Still Small Voice" which began in yet another way. This piece aims to provide the pianists with a flexible set of bits that they can improvise upon—something they don't generally do as a group. It also allows Bill to engage in colours and ways that are very different to the other pieces. Throughout, the piece is really without pulse or metre. Very freeform.

Later on in the process I made a reasonable polished midi-sequenced version of the piano/keyboard parts and some skeletal drum parts. I asked Bill to play over some of the passages and recorded various takes which I was then able to use either as fairly complete passages or as short repeating loops. This was an important boost for me, hearing the 'live' drums and served to provide me with more ideas for the way the music and the arrangements could go.

How do you combine improvisation with composition? That's a familiar thing to do in jazz and some rock, but I wondered whether you approached it differently having a strong composing background?

CR: Improvised elements are now becoming more and more used by 'composers' both as part of a performance and as part of the creative process. For me, in recent years it has become more and more important to be able to let go of some of the control in the music and allow the performers I'm working with a degree of self-expression. I've been working this way for several years now with my ensemble, the Homemade Orchestra, and the results have always been a pleasant surprise to me. Very often as I am composing I will have in mind that there will be other layers of texture that I have left out and can be filled by an improvising instrument. This won't always require a 'solo' in the more obvious sense and can often be something supporting to the music rather than a wild display of virtuosity.

I improvise myself to a degree, but I tend to do this more in the privacy of my own home deriving material for composition in this 'physical' manner. The most recent Homemade Orchestra album, which is currently being created, has been made by recording a great many sessions with the players in different combinations and then I have selected and used various smaller bits from this as the basis for composed ideas or even simply rearrangements in the way that a sound editor works.

Bruford has worked with a number of kit configurations. I was interested how he's gone with some very simple, reduced kits for recent Earthworks shows. So, tell me about the use of symmetrical kits...?

CR: Quite simply when I first saw the kit that Bill is currently using I was struck by the antiphonal possibilities it suggested. I saw how the four keyboards could fit with this on a stage, and from there, many ideas came to me for the music. Placing two keyboards on Bills right and two on his left would mean that one a simple level musical material could be matched to each of his hands. In this way, the keyboards could become part of the grand rhythm section. There's a piece we have called "Kit and Caboodle" where this is pretty much the basis for it's whole duration. By way of reinforcing this the piece also used prepared pianos (based on John Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes" setups) which produce very percussive and exotic punchy sounds.

On your MySpace page, you describe yourself as a "composer of no fixed indoctrination" and you've talked about using "non-classical" instruments. How do you go about being "of no fixed indoctrination"? Others generally label you as "contemporary classical": is that term still relevant, and how would you situate yourself in relation to it?

CR: Now … how long have you got?

I feel very much that this is an exciting time for new music and that the meeting up of the worlds of the avant-garde, of rock, pop, electronic, world music etc. has meant that musical aesthetics have been challenged. The commercial world of buying and selling music (whether in traditional record stores or over the internet) still requires categories, but increasingly we are seeing a healthy proliferation of music which is being made where these are largely swept aside. As with many notions of style, we can see that once you travel in one direction far enough you are likely to come back on yourself. If you look at the world of 'free improvising' for instance it can appear very close to the soundworld of complex, heavily-composed avant-garde composition.

The term 'contemporary classical' really does not mean anything now I don't think. The word composer is becoming pretty hard to define as well. I think that many creators of music are quite wary of working outside their comfort zone in terms of how they feel that they will be perceived by say the media. I've long since given up on this whole rat-race. I'm sure some people regard my music as discordant and difficult, whilst others will scorn it as popularist, simplistic and possibly even crowd-pleasing. The only measure I use is that I compose music that I wish to hear.

New music has always seemed to have its tribes. Do you think things are getting better or worse in this respect?

CR: ... and who really cares? The audience for new music in the old sense is tiny. The whole things has an air of inbreeding anyway with composers clinging to their tribes.

There is though, a new sort of new music which covers a huge area across all genres and has been made possibly in part by the technologies of the last twenty years. This still has tribes, but the boundaries are so much less defined. It's never been easier or cheaper to make a CD, or even simply good quality audio tracks. This means of course there's also a lot of very mediocre music to hear and a lot to wade through as a listener.

In a way its time that the whole music industry grew up. We sill get media hype 'bigging up' a famous 'classical' musician for instance who is working with a famous 'pop' musician as if they're doing something daring or even interesting. There's really nothing vaguely exotic for instance about a composer using an electric guitar, or mixing live and recorded sounds together. Likewise, it really isn't ground-breaking when a 'pop' musician tries to write an opera. I think we have moved on beyond this now. Or at least it's time we did. The truth is that behind the hype of celebrity-level musicians, there is a huge wealth of truly interesting work being made that is contemporary, vital and high-quality. A quick trip into MySpace will affirm this.

What's your musical guilty pleasure? What musical experience has changed you most?

CR: I'm not sure I have guilty musical pleasures as such, although I am prone to sentimentality at times.

The experience that most changed my musical life was entering Chetham's School of Music in the sixth form. Hitting what is a boarding school for 'gifted' young musicians at this very impressionable age was a doorway into turbulent and provocative times for me. It was there (of all places!) that, having previously been very classical in my outlook, I discovered rock music. I was kind of doing things back to front. Of interest to your readers will be the fact that both Genesis and Yes were extremely popular amongst the 'inmates' of the music school. I spent my last year at Chetham's getting more and more involved, not only with the New Music Ensemble, but also playing in bands. On leaving school, this continued, and the resulting 'dabbling' in subsequent years has informed, I suppose much of my outlook on composition. As well as a very high regard for the composers in new classical music (Birtwistle, Carter, Andriessen, Donatoni, Xenakis, Ligeti) my mind had been opened to other ways of creating music through for instance, jazz (Weather Report, Miles Davis, Keith Jarett), songwriting (David Sylvian, John Martyn, Blue Nile, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Bjork), and more recently electronica (Aphex Twin, Autechre, Alva Noto) and a current love of Norwegian soundworlds (Sidsel Endresen, Supersilent, Arve Henriksen, Suzanna and the Magical Orchestra). All these influences have impacted upon me I suppose and they are all pleasures as well—perhaps guilty pleasures I don't know?

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