Is it a suite? Is it a song cycle? Is it a spoken word project? Is it classical? Is it jazz? Is it electronica? AJ Dehany goes in search of the many unclassifiable things composer Colin Riley creates.
Composer Colin Riley’s album In Place is an eclectic texture of spoken word, music and field recordings woven together to create an immersive meditation on the nature of our relationship with place. It has been a called a song cycle, but it’s nothing like Schubert. To call it a suite downplays the stylistic and instrumental variety that makes it seem more than just a chamber sequence. It’s not quite a spoken word album, and its sonic interest goes beyond music.
“One of the problems I’ve had over the last 20 years,” Colin Riley told me in conversation, “is that I do something and somebody thinks they know what it is I’m doing and either gives it short shrift or dismisses it, but my problem is sometimes it’s doing so many things at the same time that it’s almost too difficult to explain in a soundbite.”
The album In Place is performed by a small ensemble but ranges widely from neoclassical writing to Viennese pizzicatos to ambient textures and electronic sound collage, with every element discreetly supporting and illustrating a series of texts that Colin commissioned from a selection of poets and writers who favour a unique and personal approach to place and landscape, be it rural, urban or wholly psychical. These poets are Paul Farley, Robert Macfarlane, Jackie Morris, Daljit Nagra, Selina Nwulu, Nick Papadimitriou, Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton.
“I come from a classical world but I’m always mixing it up with jazz players or electronic musicians and in this case writers,” he says. The album is rich in vocal textures, from Colin’s unassuming Northern brogue to intricate layered harmonies from vocalist Melanie Pappenheim. She will reprise this role in live performance over a number of dates including one at London’s Kings Place. At the concert the composer will personally be there at the sound desk to oversee certain details of live production. “I like to get my hands dirty,” Colin says. In keeping with the album the voice will at times be treated. “There’s a bit in Litany for the Furness Fells where she sings the tune backwards and I put some octave sounds on her voice.”
The live realisation will be familiar from the album as much of the music is scored, but there is room for interpretation in the vocals and some improvisation and plenty of swapping instruments from the rest of the ensemble. Nic Pendlebury’s playing on viola combines plain ancestral qualities and more modern harmonic language. Stephen Hiscock on percussion and Ruth Goller on basses create soft textural backings that are at once rhythmical and beyond time. The varied vocal and instrumental textures also provide a strong visual interest in what’s happening on stage. “It’s got that sweet-shop approach,” Riley says, with sounds ranging from samples through to a harmonium. “My role is to stick it all together.”
Alongside the vocals, the recorded samples will be triggered from the stage by pianist Kate Halsall. They include spoken audio of the poems, and field recordings from the actual locations the texts speak about, from the Furness Fells to disused mines in Cornwall and Teesside, from dank pumping stations in Acton to rivers in the Cairngorms that seem to undergo an elemental deification.
The album is so poetically rich it conjures strong images in the mind already, so it’s interesting that film-makers inlcuding Sophie Dixon and Adam Scovell are at work creating a video response to the songs. Colin says: “This is a project, not just a piece of music. The idea that I’m responding to texts as a composer and now I’m passing the songs on for a response from film-makers.” Colin is hoping to accumulate film for all ten songs but he says has not yet decided if these films would play during performance when they tour the album again this autumn.
“I like the fact it’s got a foot in many camps. It’s slightly multimedia. It’s never totally one thing. That does mean it doesn’t fit easily for reviewers and promoters. That is my problem! But I refuse to do anything else because I think eventually someone’s gonna get that and it’s going to be original.”
One visual aspect that has proven popular with audiences is the projection of the words of the poems on screen. When we read poetry we can skip between lines in a way we can’t when listening. For Colin projecting the words was initially “a way of showing respect to the poets, but it’s turned into more”. Audiences have appreciated being able to “get every word” by seeing and hearing the language at the same time.
The setting of the writers’ work to music has caused ripples within their own practices. Daljit Nagra was fascinated by what Colin did to his poem Jaan Jalebi and he is considering reworking it for print. Paul Farley’s poem Moss led Colin to deeply consider the relationship between the white space of the written text and the musical sense of the spoken word. “That’s important for me,” says Colin, describing the ten tracks that comprise the album, “they’re not just songs, they’re poems and songs and music. I wouldn’t say it’s a new art form because that would be a ridiculous claim to make, but the fact is that you don’t often see poetry projected like a page in a book.”
Remaining UK tour dates:
13 June, 8pm – Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast Book Festival
15 June, 8pm – Hall 1, Kings Place, London Time Unwrapped
8 July, 5pm – Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham Music Festival