INTERVIEW: Isolated Pieces

Vents is excited to welcome to our pages today super-talented producer and composer Colin Riley; welcome to Vents, Colin! Before we start talking about some of the exciting things you have coming up, how has your 2021 been treating you?

That’s a very kind question. I’m thankful that many immediate things in my life are ok. I remain positive that the climate summit in Glasgow will result in some important changes.

Congratulations on the upcoming October 29 release of your new single Sunlight Patterns which is off of the impending (and epic-sounding) February 25, 2022 album Isolated Pieces!

Starting from the top, what was the genesis of the album Isolated Pieces, how did it come into being?

Some ideas need to get out quickly and others need to lie in wait. They find the right moment. They ferment. The origins of Isolated Pieces go back further than the pandemic. In 2015 I set up a project called Assemblage, leading a small group of musicians in creating music through a mixture of improvisation, composition and technology. We spent a few days at Snape Maltings near Aldeburgh (thank-you Britten Pears Trust) trying out alternative ways of working. One notable activity involved the pianist Liam Noble and myself trading short ideas on the piano. Liam recorded an improvisation; a short musical ‘Haiku’ of sorts. I swopped over and improvised a response on the same piano to his recording. This became Haiku 2. This was in turn used to stimulate further short fragments as a chain reaction, with the two of use trading musical responses. After an hour we had 17 Haiku. These recordings had been lying in wait since 2016 when Assemblage was sadly put on hold and other creative projects took over in the meantime. But I knew the music Liam and I started together had potential.

 In March 2020 I listened back to all of the 17 short fragments. They were a rich tapestry of interconnected ideas: raw, instinctive, and quirky. When I decided to embark on Isolated Pieces these very quickly suggested themselves as the source material to send out to the musicians. It was great way to re-cycle, but also to be able to stand back from the creative process of the project, at least for a period of time. I was able to related objectively to them, because of the distance of five years. It felt almost as if these fragments had been created by someone else, and this was empowering.

Isolated Pieces (and in turn Sunlight Patterns) seems to be the very definition of the term “collaborative effort” in that it brings together no less than 27 of your fellow artists, all of them contributing critical pieces of music to this overarching album. What gave you the madly brilliant idea to shape the new album in this manner?

Essentially it’s an expression of the feelings of isolation, but also a unique celebration of connectedness through trust. It has been put together in a new collaborative way. I sent out audio-files of short piano fragments to lots of musicians I’ve worked with before, asking that they respond in isolation by performing something alongside the piano and sending back an audio-file. There were no rules, no restrictions and no concrete expectations. The idea was that I would in turn make my response to what I received back from each of them, acting as the composer-curator, and fashion music by simply following my own ears. It’s musical Lego I suppose.

I figured that a response made to any given fragment would relate to other responses made to that same fragment, and so the music would have a web-like quality. It would also very likely be a genre-busting collection. Everyone I asked immediately said yes, and I have been touched by the trust placed in me. I also keep who else was involved secret from the musicians. This playful element was very important for me.

The creative process was guided by my intuitive response. This has been a combination of both free-form improvisation and forensic editing and processing. Some of the pieces have taken a fairly simply layered approach whereby the act of synchronizing the responses constructs a faithful rendition of a set of responses, maintaining the mood and musical flow. Other pieces have involved cutting up audio-files into tiny bits, then re-working, looping, and re-arranging them to form something very different from the original. Everything has been edited in Logic software and whilst all-manner of intricate processing has been available I have tried to hold on to the spirit of the original responses as far as possible.

Can you give us the official roll-call of all 27 musical geniuses that you brought together for this project?

It was always very important to me that the ‘virtual orchestra’ came from a broad variety of musical genres and also covered a wide range of ages. Never do all 27 sound at once and my concept has always to form smaller groupings of between 3 and 8 players. There are some really interesting combinations of instruments!

The 27 contributors are Savannah Roberts (voice),  Elisabeth Nygård (voice), Melanie Pappenheim (voice), Jeremy Avis (voice), Ben See (voice), Kimarné Henry (voice), Benjamin Zephaniah (voice), Daljit Nagra (voice), Georgia Cooke (flute), Andy Hall (trumpet), Mandhira de Saram (violin), Nic Pendlebury (viola), Natalie Rozario (cello), Steve Hackett (electric guitar), Rich Perks (fretless electric guitar), Ruth Goller (bass), Roger King (synth), Colin Riley (piano-organ-cello), Liam Noble (piano), Genevieve Wilkins (percussion), Stephen Hiscock (percussion), Dave Smith (drums), Spenser Buckley (electronic loops and textures), Jeevan Rai (electronic loops and textures), Reuben Kyriakides (electronic textures), James Waterworth (electronic textures), Ben Jarlett (electronic texture)

How difficult was it to coordinate everyone’s schedule for this? Was it a case of getting together everyone all at once, or was it assembled jigsaw-like in pieces over time?

The process has been jigsaw-like. It had no time constraint or stylist boundaries. Most of it was created during lockdown, and I think a lot of musicians were trying to adjust to the limbo they were in. As one contributor put it “I really had fun making this. Thank you a million times for restoring my faith in music and groove with this one.”

Did you have a firm idea at the start as to the exact personnel that you wanted to have onboard for Isolated Pieces?

As I started getting musical responses back I saw opportunities for inviting more people into the project. There was never any hierarchy. It was much more like branches of a tree. In selecting more musicians to invite I was a kind of guiding hand. I think this was important in providing a richness of possibilities. I started with instrumentalists, ensuring that there was a notion of an overall ensemble. I needed high, medium and low instruments, and some percussion, and I made sure that electronic musicians were also involved early on.  Singers came later along with spoken word.

Were there any artists that you had in mind for this special project that you just could not nail down?

As this was a project about ‘trust’ I only invited musicians who I’d worked with before or who I knew already. I would have liked to have included some of the great pianists I’ve worked with, but the piano was already very well covered in the material already. Unfortunately the wonderful tabla player Kuljit Bhamra wasn’t able to get his contribution done in time.

What made Sunlight Patterns the right choice as the second single from the upcoming album?

The music of the album falls roughly into three strands; ‘songs’, ‘experimental instrumentals’, and ‘electronica’. The songs are deliberately what I’d call ‘half songs’. They don’t conform to verse/chorus structures and they aim just to hint at meaning. Nevertheless these songs, with their ability to suggest issues around isolation quickly became the singles. By the time Sunlight Patterns was completed, it stood out, capturing the suspended liminal space of lockdown isolation. The music has a dreamlike and time-suspending quality. It’s a bit psychedelic. 

What do you hope music fans walk away with after listening to Sunlight Patterns?

I hope that it suspends time a little. I also hope that the colours provide something original. There are some absolutely beautiful textures that would sound perfect on their own. Weaving together Mandhira’s grainy violin, Steve’s haunting distorted guitar, Gen’s bowed vibraphone, Dave’s spacey drums, and Roger’s wobbly ribbon-controlled synth was a joy. Savannah’s vocal brings what I think is the perfect sense of fragility to the overall mix.

Is there a through-line that turns Isolated Pieces into one all-encompassing tapestry? Is there an ultimate theme?

The musical DNA of the music is the through-line. All material (in one way or another) has been derived through an instinctive response from the first few improvisations that Liam and I made together.

There is also the through-line of it being created during lockdown and an authentic first hand expression of isolation. Themes of frustration, anxiety, dislocation, re-awakening, and re-connection are all entangled throughout, binding it as a kind of collective expression.

 You’re doing something quite special with Isolated Pieces in that all of the profits generated by the album will go to the charity Youth Music. Can you tell our readers a little about Youth Music and why it’s important to you?

As well as creating music, for nearly all my life I have also been a teacher. In this I have primarily aimed to inspire and empower. Music has provided me with something very special. I see clearly how it does this for others and how it should be available to all. Sadly it is not.

Music has the power to connect people, to foster team-work, to develop empathy, to heal, to provided solace, to develop cognitive skills, and to take us out of the ‘everyday’. We need it now more than ever, and yet it seems to me that it is increasingly undervalued. In most popular media it is reduce to passive consumption or mere entertainment. The current government has clearly signaled its opinion of creative arts subjects in higher education. It wants to cap the number of people studying music because it is less valuable in monetary terms. Forms of music which use notation as a key element are also now under attack for being elitist.   

Unless a young person has the opportunity to engage in music through learning an instrument, many facets of music are simply not possible to connect to. In my opinion, learning a musical instrument should be fundamental part of the national curriculum. Instead we have a gulf between what is provided in state schools and in private schools. A two-tier system.  Put simply, this denies the wellbeing and social benefits of playing an instrument to the majority of people, it perpetuates a lack of understanding of a diverse range of music, and it reduces music to the role of commodity.

Youth Music goes as far as it can to help redress this situation. The charity recognizes the power of music in being able to positively shape young lives. I want to align the spirit of Isolated Pieces to this wonderful charity and in doing so hopefully raise money for them.

 How do you even attempt to follow-up on such a mind-blowing undertaking as Isolated Pieces? Do you just stop after this one, drop the mic and walk off the stage with your head proudly held high?

For me, every big project feels like new territory. Its what keeps me going as a composer. I hold my head high for a lot of the time as I’m proud of what I do.

Were there any antecedents to Isolated Pieces, an existing album out there that inspired this masterpiece?

I don’t know of any.

 This type of an album almost seems to beg for a big arena live appearance with the musicians involved all reunited to play in front of an audience. Going forward, will there be any live venue promotions for Isolated Pieces?

I conceived and guided the project so that this would be possible, but probably more as a concept than a pragmatic consideration. At the moment it’s very unlikely. The cost of getting 27 musicians together and then take it ‘on the road’ is massive. I’d love it if someone picked up on a track and used it with another medium like film or dance though. That would be easy to do.

Hopefully it will reach people’s ears and they will give it a decent listen.   


About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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