Composer, producer, and educator Bill Ryan: "I base my music on a very small amount of raw material and spend a lot of time thinking about presentation..."
FOLLOWERS OF CONTEMPORARY music will recall composer and producer Bill Ryan as the leader of the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, the student group that performed Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians on a critically-acclaimed 2007 CD. Ryan’s own music, which references minimalism and jazz, among other genres, has been described by Gramophone as “…constantly threatening to burst at the seams, were those seams not so artfully structured...rarely has music this earthy been so elegant."
Ryan’s new composition, Towards Daybreak, performed by his group Billband and featuring such Bang on a Can luminaries as Ashley Bathgate, Vicky Chow, David Cossin, and Todd Reynolds, as well as musicians from GVSU, was released last month on a CD of the same name (Innova Records). Ryan and company perform the work at a CD release party at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge on Sunday, February 10 (details below).
To learn a bit more we spoke briefly by email with Ryan, who lives in West Michigan with his family.
CLASSICAL TV: Towards Daybreak is a beautiful, evocative album. Can you tell how the album came about, and is there a concept of theme underlying all the sections— perhaps something about night or the coming of dawn and a new day?
BILL RYAN: This is the second album by my ensemble, following up our 2004 release Blurred. Since that release I've had some pretty significant personal experiences in my life, and the music on the new album reflects that. From the loss of my parents, to continuing to raise my children, to moving to the midwest, there's a wide range of emotions on the album. The title has to do with emerging from darkness, from bleakness, into a brighter, more hopeful environment. That's where I think I am personally now, about to come into this more focused, positive, productive state.
CTV: What do you call the kind of music you make, and where does it fit on that admittedly outdated chart of genres, from classical to pop? Do you use the terms “minimalist” and/or “post-minimalist,” and if so, what do you want them to express? So much music that has been called minimal clearly packs a massive, expansive wallop, both emotionally and intellectually, and genre names themselves are losing their grip on what today’s artists are doing...
BR: I have trouble describing my own music, which is ironic because I demand that my student composers can concisely describe theirs. I suppose post-minimal is accurate, but still, that doesn't really clue you in to what the music sounds like. On one hand it's very rhythmically driven. The works have a drive and energy to them that's always pushing forward. On the other hand, I have works that are evocative and lyrical, more texturally based, and then there are works that bridge these two types. Overall I base my music on a very small amount of raw material and spend a lot of time thinking about presentation, so I can squeeze every ounce of possibility out of it. In the end all I try to write is engaging music. I want the audience to be interested from beginning to end, even with multiple listenings.
CTV: Can you talk about the challenges and pleasures of working from your home base in West Michigan, rather than from a coast or some other place that’s self-styled as a “capital of culture”? Can a musical artist live and work and fuel his/her career from anywhere nowadays?
BR: I'm fortunate because earlier in my career when I was in NY, I was able to meet and cultivate long-term friendships with many great artists. I first met Todd Reynolds at a Border Bookstore. He was playing with a jazz trio and I was working in the classical section of the CD area. A total chance meeting, but we've worked together ever since. Along the way Todd introduced me to other musicians, and now the ones I most admired and had good chemistry with are in my band. Even though I'm no longer in NY, I simply bring them to me, or travel to them. I love where I am now though, and as long as I can get out to Chicago or Detroit or New York periodically, I don't feel like I'm missing anything. And of course the internet is an incredible tool, so much so that you can feel like you're in the know even if you live in a cave.
Billband (photo by Tim Darwish)