September 2002

Letting Go or Taking Control?

by Colin Riley


Are we gripped by the need for greater and greater control and in fear of letting go? Do we conduct many aspects of our lives within this framework, driven to create order and tidiness in what is in reality a messy and interconnected world?

So what of us composers? Are we bound into a strategy for creating music based upon imposing our detailed will onto expert 'playing machines' to execute with precision, every nuance of our intricate scores? Has anyone else out there been guilty of looking proudly at a recently completed full orchestral score packed full of detail and complexity, and patting oneself on the back just for the sheer look of the thing. Perhaps you have found yourself saying, 'now this looks impressive!'

In the teaching of composition, students are of course encouraged to be comprehensive in their markings, but at what point does this approach become a blinding habit and prevent them from pursuing other ways of organising material precisely and accurately? Most importantly, is there a point at which too much detail prevents the interpret-ation and reinvention of material?

Any composer who has ever collaborated will know that this obsession with control has its limitations and will come against a brick wall at some point. The composer will also by then, have been awakened to a wealth of other strategies to follow which lead to unexpected and often fruitful results. All of these methods involve 'letting go' in different ways to our obsession with control. Working with new choreography and with theatre for instance often means that there is no other way than to release this grip. In recent years I have become interested in exploring how improvised and composed elements can come together and, most importantly, in finding ways that collaboration might work in a variety of contexts. It has certainly led to new possibilities in my writing and to the realisation that in letting go in the right way, other exciting possibilities open up.

Composers it seems so often have to make do with an intense rehearsal at the eleventh hour where the music is professionally 'put together' but with no deeper connection for the musicians. Ideally composers would work more closely together with sympathetic players on a mature, long term footing. The constraints of funding of course, unfortunately mean that this proves to be hard to put into practice and it is exciting therefore to see the success of a range of 'new breed' ensembles such as Between The Notes, the Clod Ensemble, IO and the Gogmagogs who challenge the way music is created.

Like many composers interested in fostering a discourse with instrumentalists I have recently set up my own ensemble which I hope will contribute to this exploration. Through collaboration with jazz tenor saxophonist Tim Whitehead we have created the Homemade Orchestra, an ensemble made up of very adaptable and creative classical and jazz musicians. This originated from a performance of some short pieces for quartet at the Isleworth Festival back in 1997 and led eventually to the recording of the album Tides last year. This set of seven pieces fuse improvisation with elements of considered composition and address the idea of collaboration in a variety of ways.

The album will be released in September with a launch concert (see listings section). Other London performances will follow featuring collaborations with fellow composer-creators (including composers selected from the spnm shortlist) as well as with artists from other artforms including Mark Baldwin (dance), and Marcus Tate (film). The ethos of the Homemade Orchestra is to foster an environment where the mixing of musical styles is the norm and to harness ongoing collaborations with innovative and risk-taking creators.

Colin Riley - composer

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Event listings for this month


Previous articles:

July 2002
"He just does education work..."

June 2002
New for Old

April 2002
In Search of Kurtag

March 2002
Back to School

January 2002
spnm in 2002

December 2001
There's no word in Finnish for workshop

November 2001
New Opera?

October 2001
Composer Associations

September 2001
Private Commissioning

July 2001
Joined-up Commissioning

May 2001
The Martland Interview

April 2001
Looking Four-wards

March 2001
Chamber Made

February 2001
Publishing, Promotion and Profitability

January 2001
From the World to the Warehouse

December 2000
What price new music?

November 2000
from start to finish - composing for dance

October 2000
John Lambert remembered

July 2000
The end of the season

June 2000
Announcing the shortlist

May 2000
Word of mouse

April 2000
Child's Play

March 2000
tables turned

February 2000
The ENO Studio

January 2000
a challenge from Michael Oliva

December 1999
Into the next century...

November 1999
Joanna MacGregor writes

October 1999
obsessed with consuming?

September 1999
spnm welcomes Joanna MacGregor

July 1999
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for piano

June 1999
Hoxton New Music Days

May 1999
Bath International Music Festival is 50

April 1999
Who is Georges Aperghis?

March 1999
On frost, birth and death

February 1999
Keeping busy...

January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!