Name: Conrad Winslow
Current Release: The Perfect Nothing Catalog on Innova
Recommendation: Angela Carter’s short story, “Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is so fast, so virtuosic, so packed with dodgy maneuvers that it is Puck and it is a musical fantasy.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Conrad Winslow, do visit his website www.conradwinslow.com for news and performances.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I always loved to write and draw and build. I was obsessed with architecture for a while; my dad built our log cabin in Alaska, and rebuilt many homes in Hawaii after the ’92 hurricane. Then my maternal grandfather, visiting us in Alaska and giving me tapes and CDs of Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Grieg, commanded me to save classical music. Pop-pop adored the Bernstein television programs—and at some level he may have set me on a path that led to New York and a life in art.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I had a piano teacher at 11, who suggested that I write a waltz. I totally rejected that idea; conscious emulation seemed completely beside the point. But of course I did—I identified with lots of composers—while convincing myself that I was drawing from the ether. But there really is a magic moment when you first shiver in solitude, in the best way. You look up and there’s nobody around and there is a road ahead.
Harold Bloom discusses Wallace Stevens (in The Anxiety of Influence) as the Great Poet who amputated the most of himself that was borrowed and yet managed to survived as a great poet. For years I thought that was the task. Then a composer friend, Gabriel Kahane, insisted that I read the Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem’s emphatic manifesto about sewing all the patches of your influence into a coat of many colors and flaunting it. True: it seems pointless to be ascetic in a time of such insane abundance.
But the Protestant Minnesotan part of me resists explaining too much about my influences. My favorite writing on this subject is in T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in which Eliot claims that the “progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” which sounds rather dystopic until he says “but, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Maybe this is typical modernist pabulum. But if you take it from a position of generosity—humbling and opening yourself—it’s super productive (this is sort of what Harold Bloom calls ‘kenosis’ or emptying oneself). To do it you have to trust your voice.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
For me, the perennial challenges are unchanged since I began: What does it mean to write in this tradition now? What is the special place of notated music in the crowded, flattened, cultural landscape?
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I loved the northern light in my apartment but I was driven out by the sound of the air brakes, at 15-minute intervals, of the city bus. I moved my studio into a little cave-room with a calming rug. The darkness is helpful. I grew up in a town in South-central Alaska with the prettiest view of ocean and mountains and glaciers and I could never work with that landscape in view. What’s the point of art when you’re surrounded by Nature? Art is more important in a crummy environment. I think you need a little grunge to make magic.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Morning sucks. My friend Christopher Cerrone reads for an hour in the morning and I’ve taken that up because I have to stop with the morning news. That can really send you off the road. I have an insanely unfixed schedule, but I think I compose best right after the afternoon slump into the evening.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think you should be a little bored, and have a few objects in mind.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
With the Perfect Nothing Catalog it was the combination of a junk shop/installation project by my friend Frank Traynor, a play by Caryl Churchill called Love and Information, a lot of time in between performing the acoustic version of the piece and recording it, and then producing the album with highly detailed layers of audio processing with a singer-songwriter named Aaron Roche that constituted the final project. I didn’t plan it that way.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
The great gift of technology is the ability to choose the medium, knowing that any tool authorizes the techniques that are available to you. Working with a looping pedal or a delay pedal might suggest dance-y or drone-y material, and working with a four-staff manuscript might imply a dense texture or counterpoint. What a blessing to pick your tools.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, including the artists performing your work?
Some interpersonal friction is essential.
How is writing the music and having it performed live connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I’m in the game to design the circumstances for an experience—not to telegraph your experience, but to set it up. I’m in it for the big frame. So, improvisation and interpretation flow from that. But you never really meet your piece until people breath life into it. Watching musicians make choices is a great joy for me. Playwrights are the closest to composers in this regard: they can’t do it alone. The script or the score isn’t the thing; the production or the performance is the piece.
Time is a variable seldom discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
It’s a flexible canvas, right? The whiplash from suddenly stretching or compressing one’s perception of time is a key part of my favorite musical experiences.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I guess compositional means “is this sound doing something in relation to what came before?” Maybe that sounds utilitarian and narrow-minded, but it’s amazing how quickly we change up our expectations. And in the back of your head is Morton Feldman admonishing you to stop pushing the notes around, and John Cage reminding you to broaden the palette. What I find fascinating is sound that means nothing and then everything in a single phrase.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Music is the land of mixed metaphors. Synesthesia narratives are boring because the conversation often stops at color analogies. Music can hint several associative connections at once; it should be suspended by several metaphorical points in the universe.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
It’s hard to do political art. I can’t, I don’t. I try to imagine music as a place apart, so that you maybe have an experience and reenter the world with a different point of view. Kurt Weill—with Brecht—could do it. LA-based composer Ted Hearne is the best at channeling a political impetus into a syntactical-emotional response that works as (pure) music but also deals frankly with political content. John Luther Adams quit activism because he felt it would destroy his art. Count me in his camp.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Do we? What is that basic concept? You mean in art music? If you think of “genre” as dealing with performance circumstances and function—how people use it—I think it’s a bit easier to unpack. From symphonic music, many subscribers essentially want a narcotic. From indie-folk-band-scenes, perhaps people want a lifestyle. From pop, people want to feel young. From church music people want a space for meditation and an anchoring ritual.
Maybe from art music, people want to be dislocated. They expect the thing to chafe a little, to be uncomfortable, but also be deeply pleasurable in a way that changes you. Like an exfoliant.
The best chamber music concerts I’ve attended or performed or presented have taken place in art galleries. That’s usually where I have felt the most electricity, often because the expectations of the audience—lay-listeners especially—are most in sync with the vibe of the composers and performers.