By Paul Scraton:
I first listened to In Place, a new song-cycle by the composer Colin Riley, as I moved through Berlin on the way to meet a friend. The songs accompanied me along the river that leads from our apartment building to the row of late stores and kebab shops, jewellers, travel agents, bakers and pawnbrokers that tout for business along Badstraße. The songs provided the soundtrack of my U-Bahn journey beneath the city streets, the landmarks of the German capital passing by above me, and as I stopped at a bookshop and a supermarket before climbing the four flights of stairs to my friend’s apartment.
This album will now be linked in my memory with this springtime journey through the city streets. This happens to me a lot with music. The albums of my childhood, when heard today, take me right back into the car as we cross the Llanberis pass in the drizzle or the wide expanse of Anglesey in the sunshine. Some songs conjure memories of barbecues in a Leeds backyard or of a ferry deck on the way to Sweden. There is the music that soundtracked a piece of good news, which offered consolation during bad times, and provided company during a long wait through the night for the birth of my daughter.
Because music is tied so much to my memories, it is also rooted in place. Not, perhaps, the subject of the songs or the albums, but something very personal, based on my own experiences. So I was interested to approach Colin Riley’s In Place with the knowledge that these were songs already rooted in place, including as they did text from contemporary writers of place, including Paul Farley, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, as well as some already-existing pieces of landscape writing, to create an audio portrait of the landscape and languages of the British Isles.
On that first listen, moving from the riverbank to the street to the underground station, the album felt like it was also taking me on a journey. It was in parts physical; the songs conjuring up moments on the moor or forest path, moving past tin mines and abandoned railway stations to suburban street corners and edgeland wastelands. But it was also like a journey of the imagination, the music moving in surprising directions as the texts seem to drift in and out, as if I was moving the frequency dial on an old-fashioned radio through stations named for places I had only ever seen on a map.
Back home I listened again, attempting to scribble some notes. I am not a music writer and I find it hard to describe music in any real sense. What is going on with the music in Colin Riley’s song-cycle? Jazz? Probably. Classical? Sure, why not. But the truth is, even as I attempted to listen more closely, trying to be able to write a considered verdict on this beautifully created work of collaborative art, I realised that I was not capable of describing the songs in any way other than what it was that they made me feel.
There were sounds that suggested the natural world. Rivers and waterfalls. The sounds of the forest. From there the songs took me up onto the fells and down into the valleys, before dropping me on a street corner in the post-industrial city, where the hammer, blast and clang of the factories have long been silenced, but still echo in the sound of footsteps and in the rhythm of a bassline or the beat of a drum.
What I liked most of all about In Place, from the first listen to subsequent times I went back to it, was that this was no gentle stroll through a pastoral, idyllic representation of the landscape of the British Isles. Although there is wonder in this music, there are also haunting moments that challenge the listener. Once more, I was conscious that during this journey Colin Riley and his contributors were taking me on, there were certainly things that were beautiful and breathtaking, but there were also unsettling moments, uncanny or simply strange. And this is how it should be. For why else would be we explore the coastline or the unknown city neighbourhood, search for the hidden valley or take the path that leads deep into the forest?
In his notes for the album, Colin Riley began by writing that ‘a place can make you feel many things’. This is true. And it is to his credit that In Place managed the same trick for me, as I began the process of adding my own places that were now tied to this music to those already contained within the songs themselves.
Beyond the album In Place released and available now through Squeaky Kate Music, Colin Riley’s project also includes live performances and a series of podcasts for Resonance FM. You can find out more on the project website. Twitter links: In Place / Colin Riley