Composer Colin Riley

'Colin is one of the few classically trained composers who have a serious interest in sensory impairment and I wanted to speak with him in more detail about his own work in this area…’

Colin is one of the few classically trained composers who have a serious interest in sensory impairment and I wanted to speak with him in more detail about his own work in this area…’

First, a little more about my own hearing loss as promised in my first blog. I am hearing impaired; I wear hearing aids and lipread. I lost my hearing through contracting the encephalitis virus [inflammation of the brain] when I was a child.  My hearing loss primarily effects my ability to decipher high frequency sound. In addition, I have hyperacusis which is an increased sensitivity to certain frequencies and a ‘collapsed tolerance’ to typical environmental sound for which I frequently need to wear ear plugs to prevent ear pain and resulting headaches. I have been creating work directly influenced by my experience of deafness since 2007.

The focus of this blog is the composer Colin Riley. I’ve been aware of Colin’s music for many years and I am an admirer of his work. More recently our paths crossed through our shared interested in music and deafness, he is one of the few classically trained composers who have a serious interest in sensory impairment and I wanted to speak with him in more detail about his own work in this area.

Ailís: Colin, tell me what you have been focusing on in terms of your research into the area of sensory loss, deafness and music/sound?

Colin: I have been involved with an ongoing compositional research project called ‘Made 2 Resonate’ which has really two key strands. The first is to explore what can be created around a solo performer in terms of additional vibrations and how this changes the composition itself. The second is to explore how his approach is able to create a kind of multi-sensory experience, one that then has the possibility to change the performance format and challenge the view of what a ‘concert’ can be. I suppose the work inevitably falls between concert performance and installation. The research has led me, as I’d hoped, to find new techniques for composition and challenged the way, as a composer, I perceive the performance and listening environment. 

Ailís: What has this research led you to create so far in terms of new work?

Colin: ‘Made 2 Resonate’ has so far explored these ideas through the creation of three works. ‘Hanging In The Balance’ (for piano and ghost drum kit), ‘Songs of Coiled Light’ (for bass clarinet, household objects and coloured lights), and ‘Fallen Angel’ (for electric viola, wineglasses, bass drum and gong). These works make use of live electronics in particular ways to enable the sonics. The capture of live audio from the solo instrument is essentially adapted and mapped onto other objects and surfaces which in turn change from inanimate to animate.

Ailís: When we met you mentioned a particular work for children you created with the poet Michael Rosen and jazz musicians. Can you tell me more about this and how it led you to consider sensory impairment?

Colin: Having worked collaboratively a couple of years ago with the poet Michael Rosen and some superb jazz musicians on a theatrical show for children called ‘Centrally Heated Knickers’ it became clear to me that there was the opportunity for intelligent, challenging and accessible work which could work on many levels.

I became very interested in illustrating the cause and effect of sound. We did this in colourful and humorous ways in ‘Centrally Heated Knickers’ and I could see that this playful approach could challenge some things in my work in general. When I began work on ‘Made 2 Resonate’ I was clear that what might lead me was to think about my potential audiences in new ways. I started to consider those with hearing impairments and what their experience of a new piece of music might be. A new piece of music is difficult to process on a single playing anyway. Someone with a hearing impairment would obviously need to process in particular ways, and it would clearly be much harder. These ways would be different to someone with full hearing. This got me thinking about what a piece of music would be like if I could open up the possibilities.

Ailís: This is interesting, can you expand on your thinking here?

Colin: A discussion of the second work on ‘Made 2 Resonate’ is perhaps a good way to illustrate some of this. My thoughts led me to try and created something where the sound of the solo instrument had a direct effect on something which could be seen.

This second piece, ‘Songs of Coiled Light’, made a playful use of a range of objects which were common place, but which took on, I hope, a fresh personality when they were set in motion as a direct result of the patterns of the bass clarinet. Ping pong balls danced in large glass jars. Ball bearings gyrated in tins. Large suspended paper lanterns changed colour to silently sing their own 4-note melodies. Texts were also projected periodically to help both designate the sections of the piece, and also provide a guiding narrative. I felt that a poetic strand which was experience through the processing of words was extremely important to add into the mix.

Inherent in the choice of the bass clarinet is also the possibility for very low tones. Live electronics also allowed me to create sub-tones which in quite a different way also provided a cause and effect.  This time it was one that was felt.

With the expertise of my live-electronics collaborator Carl Faia I was able to make the floor a significant factor on the experience of the music through vibrations. The audience for ‘Songs of Coiled Light’ sat or lay within a designated space and as such were very close (both in terms of seeing and feeling) to the action. These low vibrations were felt through the floor and additionally spatially-manipulated so as to create motions which would help the audience feel the movement.

The household objects were clearly made of different materials: paper, plastic, metal, word etc, so there was also a mild kind of education about the science of sound going on simultaneously. They were carefully place around the space, sometimes at head height, sometimes hung high from the ceiling and sometimes on the floor. In this way we aimed to utilse areas which are often not thought about. It also meant that, with the audience sitting within the space, that everyone was close to some of the objects.

Another key element in the piece was colour. I was keen to explore how our memory of patterns can be built up within the first hearing of a piece. By mapping a 4-note melody to 4 coloured spheres of light I created a section of music which was silent. I was aiming to engaged the whole audience again, but more specifically perhaps the fully-hearing audience. Having provided enough repetition of the 4-note melody the clarinet gradually built in ever-increasing rests in the music, ghosting these missing notes with their physicality. From here, through a gradual erosion, the clarinetist move to performing completely silently, but still providing all the gestures. The final transformation was when the clarinetist would stop altogether leaving just the coloured lights ‘singing’ their melody silently. Music would now be existing for all the listeners, still as a collective experience, but completely silently and not in the airways. This was always a poignant moment in the piece.

Ailís: I know this work has already had several performances which is terrific. Were you able to gather responses from your audiences to it?

Colin: Clarinetist Gareth Davis performed ‘Songs of Coiled Light’ about 7 times in all including several performances at the Suttie Arts Space within Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. Sound Festival Scotland supported the work through a residency at the hospital where we were able to try the piece out in different ways to both specific audiences and general audiences. From this I collected audience feedback through a series of questions. One clear outcome of this was that it was obvious that people listen in very different ways, and this is more apparent in people with hearing impairments. There were quite divergent opinions for example one things like the processing of very high or low sounds, and on whether spatialised audio through speakers was exciting or just confusing.

Ailís: What has surprised you most about working with deaf musicians and deaf participants?

Colin: I was extremely interested to hear the differenced between analog and digital hearing aids, and the role of cochlear implants. I came to see that there is a wide diversity of opinion on these, and that they were used in very different ways for a wide range of hearing impairment types. It also quickly became clear that musicians had specific needs and that it was inevitably an even more complex situation.

Ailís: Are you specifically interested in music and deafness or are there other areas of disability that you are interested in?

Colin: The more you research into new areas, the more you realise the size of that area. As a composer I fundamentally think one of my roles is to be accessible. By that I do not mean that simplify anything down. In fact it’s the opposite. The ideas around the ‘how’ and ‘where’ we listen, and around the many kinds of disability raise difficult, yet interesting questions. Addressing some of these issues within a new piece of music is clearly the opposite of simplifying, and composers who engage in this area require a depth of sensitivity and intelligence in every sense of the meaning of these words.

Ailís: You led on a project at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show which involved Evelyn Glennie (a world-renowned deaf percussionist), tell me more about that work.

Colin: This was a collaborative project with both the designer Peter Eustance, Dame Evelyn Glennie, Carl Faia and students from Brunel University. The idea of the garden was to create a space which not only provided something tactile and sensual in terms of sight, touch and smell, but also to be playful in the aural domain. The premise was relatively simple, but the possibilities became infinite. The moving parts of a set of water features provided a gentle rocking motion with the inherent sounds at two opposing ends. Using hydrophones to capture the sounds, software to process these sounds, and a speaker system incorporated sympathetically into the garden, we were able to create an environment which, like the change of light, temperature and weather, would change its own mood sonically. Natural sounds were played with in sensitively ways, sending sounds around the garden like breaths of wind, and transformed gradually into new colours. The sonics became a logical extension of the way that a garden naturally can be experienced as one walks around it, or indeed sits silently within it for a period.

The important thing for me was that the garden as well as being serene and calming, was playful. It brought up many questions about how sound might exist particularly within small spaces: walled gardens and courtyards. It added a new dimension to how designs of wellbeing spaces in dense cities, hospitals, care homes and schools might be informed. This project is ongoing and inevitably involves a team of collaborators. I am envisaging some interesting future outcomes.

Ailís: You’ve worked directly with Ruth Montgomery who I interviewed for the first of these blogs, can you tell me what that experience was like for you? Did it challenge you in new ways? Did it result in your needing or wanting to work differently?

Colin: It was wonderful to work with Ruth particularly because of the way we organized it. Both Ruth and Eloise Garland (musicians from the ensemble FORTE, a group exclusively of hearing-impaired musicians) worked with me in delivering a short project with my second and third year students at Brunel University. Just watching the way that Ruth inhabited the space, and how she communicated was hugely informative. The project involved the students learning to sign and to make a creative presentation as part of a concert. It was hugely successful and the students clearly gained much from this work. I have already given short illustrative lectures in silence as an experiment in getting students to listen differently. It has been both an interesting thing then to discuss with the students in terms of developing notions of communications, and huge fun. Working with Ruth reminded me that I should do more of this and indeed, take it further.

Ailís: You mentioned Music and the Deaf when we met. Danny Lane, composer and director of MATD was the focus of my second blog in this series. What’s your relationship with them-have you or are you planning to research/work with them in the future?

Colin: Through my research into hearing loss I discovered MATD.  I was also introduced to Eloise Garland through a colleague (who, as I have mentioned, plays in FORTE. FORTE are as I understand it affiliated to MATD. I was invited to observe and take part in one of their workshops last year at Kings Place. There I met Danny Lane and had some interesting conversations.

Ailís: Do you think about deaf audiences when creating new music in this area or do you distinguish the music you create in the area of disability from what you’d compose for a ‘traditional hearing’ audience?

Colin: This is a really interesting question. You might have asked a similar question about composing music for children or for amateurs. I certainly do compose differently for many kinds of situations and audiences. This makes things interesting and sets up certain challenges. I also think however, that there is a way that you might compose in other ways. Music can touch people’s engagement simultaneously. All artform can work ‘on many levels’ but for music  think that there is more. Music is after all a rich medium, and when combined carefully with other mediums has the ability to connect many senses and provoke multiple was of perceiving it.

There are the aspects I discussed earlier about simultaneously presenting emotional and technical elements. There is the fact that music can be heard in the airways, felt through vibrations, seen in terms of colours, illustrated through visual symbols, read on a score notation, embodied in the movements of a performer, be participated in, understood through cause and effect, be seen as a scientific transference of energy etc. This needs careful composition and a particular kind of sensitivity on the part of the composer. It also requires a flexibility of approach from the spaces it is being presented in and from those who promote it.

My experiences in creating music both through my ‘Made 2 Resonate’ project and the ‘Chelsea Sonic Garden’ project have changed me in tangible ways. They are also, most importantly, not ways that are isolated or special. I have always seen my role as a composer is about learning from new angles and from embracing a wealth of situations. Working across perceived musical genres, across artforms, and with performers and audience which demand a flexible and intelligent sensitivity have been in many ways my bread and butter.

Ailís: Are you aware of Sound and Music’s Pathways Programme? If so, what do you think of programmes such as this which push diversity to the front of the organisations agenda?

Colin: I am aware of Sound and Music’s Pathways Programme. Diversity is a huge topic and one of great importance for arts communities to engage with. There is a temptation to rush into trying to address issues around diversity before many of the definitions are clear. Whether artists wish to be identified under this heading is also one that needs sensitivity.

Links to a selection of Colin Riley’s work:

‘Songs of Coiled Light’ documentary

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‘Songs of Coiled Light’ extracts from performance

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‘Hanging In The Balance’ documentary

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‘Centrally Heated Knickers’ documentary

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The Chelsea Flower Show sonic garden project

Colin’s website:

Vinyl Kid from The Hearing Test by Ailís Ní Ríain (music/words) and Andrea Pazos

(animation) commissioned by DaDaFest and AND Festival in 2012.

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Ailís Ní Ríain is an Irish composer who has been based in northern England for many years. She lives in West Yorkshire. www.Ailí