Meet the ‘Bill’ behind Billband

GVL / Robert Mathews
Dr. Bill Ryan instructing a seminar in the Performing Arts Center.

Robert Mathews

GVL / Robert Mathews Dr. Bill Ryan instructing a seminar in the Performing Arts Center.

Mary Mattingly

Director, composer, professor, producer – Bill Ryan is a busy man. And the Grand Valley State University associate professor is soon to be even busier.

On Jan. 29 his band, Billband, will release its latest venture, “Towards Daybreak.” The album reflects significant life changes Ryan has undergone since the 2004 release of “Blurred,” Billband’s last project. From tragedy to joy, the new album captures all these emotions.

“My music is between the cracks,” Ryan said. “It’s not classical, it’s not jazz, it’s not pop. I pick players that exist across genres.”

A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., Ryan moved to New York with his family as a teenager where he attended the Crane School of Music for his undergraduate degree, majoring on trumpet in music education. His sophomore year at Crane, Ryan was inspired to compose with influence from his music theory teacher, Paul Steinberg.

“Here was a composer who was alive and in front of me teaching,” Ryan said. “His music was interesting; it led me to sign up for composition lessons. His music got me thinking about contemporary music.”

After earning his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Illinois, Ryan moved to Long Island, New York with his wife. For nine years, he occupied the position of composer-in-residence at Suffolk County Community College. When he wasn’t busy sponsoring the concert series ‘Open Ears’ or teaching, he was networking in the New York area.

“These were the days of cassette tapes,” Ryan recalled. “I did everything. I conducted for free, I sent my tapes to choreographers looking for original pieces to work with.”
Through that diligent networking, Ryan met the musicians who now make up Billband.

After the group released their first album. “Blurred,” it achieved positive reviews, but before the group could further explore Ryan’s compositions, an offer for him to teach at GVSU in 2006 put Billband on hiatus.

“I moved, life got in the way,” Ryan said.

Since coming to GVSU, Ryan founded the nationally acclaimed New Music Ensemble. He was so focused on the NME, his composition studio and bringing contemporary music to GVSU, he couldn’t devote time to composing. It wasn’t until he took sabbatical during winter semester 2012 that he had time to compose again. The finished project was “Towards Daybreak.”

“Ten years ago, my music was about the sound,” Ryan said. “It still is to an extent, but it’s become a more personal experience.”

“Towards Daybreak” reflects major emotional life changes for Ryan. Since “Blurred,” he lost his father to cancer and his mother in a car accident. While some songs are a testament to these tragedies, others reflect the gaining and strengthening of friendships, the birth of a new child and a move to the Midwest.

“It’s introspective,” Ryan said. “Some tunes have a driving energy to them while others rely on subtlety.”

The album is expressive, swelling with layered textures and motives. Some songs are tributes, such as “Simple Lines,” a solo cello piece written in honor of Ryan’s father. Others are more aggressive, such as “Friction,” driven by syncopated rhythms.

To record his music, he reformed Billband. The new lineup features members from the original outfit while adding GVSU faculty members Jonathan Nichol, on saxophone, and Pablo Mahave-Veglia, on cello.

“Chemistry is critical for any type of project,” Ryan said. “This is a great blend of people and personalities. I would not ask anyone I didn’t know thoroughly.”

They recorded last May at Sear Sound Recording in Times Square. The process took three days, with one day of extensive rehearsal and two days of recording.

“The musicians came ready to play,” Nichol said. “Because they play at such a high level, recording mainly consisted of just fine-tuning intonation and technique.”

Since recording, Billband performed in Houston last fall, playing music from “Towards Daybreak” and on Feb. 2, Ryan will direct the band in a free performance on GVSU’s campus. After the performance at GVSU, the band will be premiering the album at Le Poisson Rouge, a club in New York, on Feb. 10.

“I’m very excited,” Ryan said. “LPR is a basement club. It is the kind of relaxed setting my music should be presented in, versus a concert setting.”

His music is notated, but allows freedom for improvisation that evolves as it’s played.

“It is music that is artistically gratifying to both performers and audience members,” Nichol said.

Ryan was passionate when it came to composing and performing on this album. “Why play music that’s been played a million times by a million different trumpet players when I can write my own?”

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