Meet the Musicians: Andrew Riley
from the desk of Zach Manzi, Nu Deco Clarinetist
On a lightly breezy February day in Miami, I met Andrew Riley on the campus of University of Miami, where he is finishing up his Doctor of Musical Arts at the Frost School of Music. Raised in Central Kentucky, Andrew went to Henry Clay High School, coincidentally the same high school as another Nu Deco musician, Karen Powell. Andrew attended Indiana University for his undergraduate education, which he finished in 2015 and moved to Miami for graduate studies, where he is a Henry Mancini Insitute Fellow. He began playing with Nu Deco immediately upon his arrival in Miami. It would be hard to find a more friendly and upbeat person that Andrew, and the dedication to his work is similarly pure. Percussionists don’t have it easy in Nu Deco–Sam knows how to write barn burner parts for mallet instruments like the xylophone and marimba–and Andrew knows how to keep up. Andrew told me a bit about his life and the unsuspecting orchestral instrument that has become one of his favorites to play in Nu Deco.
Z: So Andrew, you were in Nu Deco from the beginning?
A: Almost–they did one concert in the spring of that year before I moved here. In the fall they started to expand a bit and do a bonafide season, and that’s when I started.
Z: Looking way back, when did you start percussion? Or was it another instrument first?
A: Yeah, I played piano. I started when I was three.
A: Yeah I was like three and a half. My older sister started when she was about five or six and I was jealous. She was at a correct age to start piano, and my parents were like, whatever we’ll let this kid play! So I grew up mostly playing the Beatles and Elton John. I did classical stuff, but I had teachers who were very willing to let me just play pop music because that was what I wanted to do for the most part. Then I started percussion when I was in sixth grade. I had piano background so of course they told me I needed to play all the mallet instruments–xylophone, bells, and marimba and stuff.
Z: Is that what you wanted to play?
A: Not really, I wanted to play drums, which is what most kids want to play when they’re starting percussion, all the cool stuff. But I got there eventually. So yeah, I’ve been playing for fifteen or sixteen years.
Z: So at this point, what are your favorite instruments to play and why?
A: Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of timpani in Nu Deco, which I’m really into because it’s really different than in a classical symphony orchestra, which is really cool. It’s not just V-I cadential motion [timpani are a set of four pitched drums that often play the “oom-pah” lines, outlining the harmony in orchestral music]. In Nu Deco, Sam writes some crazy stuff, which is more akin to a bass line or a more active quasi-melodic line. I get to do a lot of really interesting musical things. I get to add that extra punch to impactful moments. Timpani usually hold one pitch per drum and you re-tune between movements or pieces. In Nu Deco, there’s a lot of re-tuning while you’re playing, which is not super common in classical music. Sam does a lot of moving lines where there are more than four notes. While you’re playing something on one drum, you’ll go tune another drum and when you come back it’s a different pitch.
Z: And you’re able to do that?!
A: Yeah! It’s become a part of modern timpani practice to do that. I love it and don’t mind doing it. It’s way more interesting for me. Beethoven timpani parts are great, but after a while they get kind of boring––it’s just the same thing.
Z: What other instruments do you enjoy?
A: I also really like playing mallet percussion in Nu Deco. With the re-imagining suites that Sam does, I get to play melodies that I grew up listening to like Daft Punk and Queen, and that’s always a good time. I would say I also really like doing what some people would call simpler instruments–like this woodblock part that we played on Angélique Kidjo’s Once in a Lifetime at Bandshell in January. It was really simple sixteenth notes the whole time, but it grooved so hard. It’s so satisfying. And I get to be in a pocket [an expression meaning a tight groove] with Brian Potts and Armando [both members of the Nu Deco rhythm section], and they’re just unbelievable. You just get to lose yourself in the music and not worry about “am I hitting the right notes on the xylophone?
Z: I know being a percussionist can be annoying with all the stuff you have to move around, but you certainly get a lot of variety in your role.
A: Yeah, we’re never bored. Except during Bruckner symphonies. But in Nu Deco we’re never bored.
Z: Have you had a favorite Nu Deco moment?
A: There have been many good moments, but I think it boils down to this: the ensemble has gotten exponentially better every year, partially just because we’re more familiar with playing with each other, but also because we’re homing in on a sound and a musical identity. When that happens, it just elevates everything, people know what they’re going for. We are forging something that is special musically. I’m looking at the recent shows we’re done, and it’s probably when Cory Henry came in. I got to play timpani right next to him the whole week. He’s probably the most raw talented musician I’ve ever worked with, and feeding off that energy and passion is one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had with the group. I was right next to him and could live and breathe everything that he’s giving off.
Z: So Andrew, in the next year, what are you excited to be working on?
A: The short term is pretty clear for me. I’m finishing up my DMA and taking orchestra auditions. I have to write my doctoral essay, and definitely planning on being in Nu Deco. Honestly, that’s been one of the best parts of being down here–working on these shows that are always fresh and interesting, and so in line with what I think classical music needs to be. If you could tell me that Nu Deco would be a full-time job in a couple years, I would be all over it in a heartbeat. So I love being down here and playing in the ensemble for as long as I can. A little more long term, I would be really upset if my career was anything but a mix of performing and teaching. I think that most musicians realize that it’s likely to happen in the future, but I love both of them for such different reasons. Basically I’m going to strive in whatever situation allows me to do that. Not a whole lot of people get to give back in such a pure form. Unless you go into academia in certain fields, you’ll spend your whole life working on things but never really get to see the next generation come forward and have that passion for what you do. You get to see the tangible results of that if you work with students long enough. Even over one year, you get to see them improving and know that you’re a big part of that, and that’s pretty meaningful.