Name: Nick Storring
Occupation: Composer, cellist, curator, writer
Nationality: Canadian
Recent release: Nick Storring's Music from 'Wéi 成为' is out via Orange Milk Records. He is also one of the collaborators on Prisma+, initiated and released by Machinefabriek and mastered by Jos Smolders.

[Read our Machinefabriek interview]
[Read our Jos Smolders interview]

If you enjoyed this interview with Nick Storring and would like to find out more about his work as a composer, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.

To keep reading, check out our earlier Nick Storring interviews about Inspiration, Innovation and Imitation and Music as Cooking and Telling Stories with Sound.

Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?

At this point in time, I would say that it's pretty hard for me to trace my creative impulses back to particular sources. Music has been such a key part of my daily life for so long that it's just there all the time as another facet of my personality.

I certainly do have pieces of music (or even full albums) that relate to particular creative stimuli. For instance, my album My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell sprang from the idea of paying homage to Roberta Flack. Of course my latest album, Music from Wéi 成为 is the score for a dance piece so the process was informed by the choreography it was created alongside.

However, in both those contexts, even though there was an identifiable prompt that motivated the work, the impetus behind the music exists on a much more fundamental and subconscious level for me. In any case where there is a stated source of inspiration, it's never all that straightforward, because how I interact with that source is always quite oblique and open-ended.

Up until my mid twenties, I'd say that the connections to external elements were more literal and tangible. I would frequently make music in response to different personal events or things I encountered artistically.

I've never been all that interested in making overtly political music, personally, however I'm not averse to the idea altogether. I just don't feel I have much to say that isn't being said better by someone else in a separate arena. I'm a firm believer in the magical dimension of music, and it's extraordinarily difficult to make work that manages to say something coherent and political that doesn't break the spell of the music.

Literally the only example of this that I can think of is Sarah Hennies' brilliant "Contralto".

At any rate, political issues definitely exert themselves on my music, though, and I certainly don't believe that what I am doing is somehow apolitical.

So on a broader level, I feel as though my creative process includes this sort of filtration system that has emerged organically and is amplified by the approach I've decided to employ. It's as though everything I've digested in my creative life has left these small deposits within me that temper and blend any new artistic input as it enters my consciousness.

Nowadays, I might be really intrigued by certain music I've heard recently, curious about some sort of weird instrumental or recording technique I've discovered, or be affected by something more visceral—but the way that these emerge ultimately in the work isn't always clear to listeners, or even to me. Often I can still identify these discrete sources of inspiration if I actively try to do so, but not without really analyzing the music.

For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?

It varies for me, but typically how I start creating is by gathering smaller ideas and as I do this a form eventually starts to reveal itself amidst the mess. While it's seldom that complete aerial view materializes early in my creative process, there are two related things that tend to happen along the way, formally speaking.

First of all, I do play with formal diagrams quite a bit, but for me it's more a case of mapping possibilities than charting the piece's ultimate trajectory and adhering to it. More often than not, I end up abandoning the shape of the sketches once I'm in the thick of it, however, that doesn't mean these visualizations have no impact on the final product. I find that it's helpful to ponder what could happen next without being obligated to bring that particular outcome into existence.

The other thing that happens relating to projecting the overall form is that sometimes, I'll develop a musical idea and even before it's fully fleshed out, I'll know precisely where it needs to fall within the overall structure of the piece.

For instance, the first material that I developed for my 2013 octet piece "hypnic jerk", a commission from a long-running Toronto ensemble Arraymusic, was the ending.

I had this languid jazz ballad melody pop into my head and I just knew that I wanted to end the piece with that statement— something that sounded as familiar, almost as though I had quoted it. After I knew what I wanted at the end, I was tasked with composing the journey to arrive there.

Regarding the question of planning vs. chance, overall my process is not driven a lot by planning, but I wouldn't say it's driven by chance so much either. I'd be more inclined to characterize it as an intuitive process because despite not being terribly mapped-out in advance, I'm very fastidious.

What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?

Whether I'm creating one of my 'studio' pieces, or writing a score for an ensemble, I generally start with exploration on an instrument—textural, melodic, harmonic, or some combination thereof. It's not necessarily an instrument that is part of the ensemble, but often it is. In many cases I'll articulate an idea with my voice and record it on my phone. In any event, usually some sort of “idea” emerges from this preliminary noodling and becomes the first sonic ingredient in a new work.

It's important to note the first sound I discover isn't always hugely important to the overall work. It's just a spark; a starting point. As such, I don't really find that initiating a piece is particularly hard for me, the real challenge comes in building the piece from there.

Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?

Simply put: slowly; in fits and starts (with a few exceptions).

I'll often work quite intensely on something, even for a few days or weeks at time, and then set it aside. Sometimes that's for a week or a month. Other times, it'll be quite a significant gap. On numerous occasions, I've even started pieces and picked them up again several years later.

This wasn't always the case and it was definitely a journey to get to that point where I didn't feel as though I was accepting defeat by setting compositions aside for a period. When I was younger, my creative process tended to be much shorter. I can remember during my undergrad completing pieces in a few days or a couple of weeks.

As I mentioned in a previous question, in the years after I had graduated from my undergrad (2005-8ish), I found myself getting blocked creatively on a number of occasion. I was genuinely concerned that I had somehow lost my creativity. I would generate 3 minutes of music that I really liked and that sort of hinted toward a longer arc, but then I would get stuck and frustrated.

On my first album (Rife, 2011 on Entr'acte) there was a piece called "Indices of Refraction" that I had started in 2006, worked on some more in 2007-8, and ultimately completed in 2011. That was the first time I had shelved a piece and felt compelled to return to it like that.

Although that process didn't become normalized for me until much later—after I had adopted my instrument-oriented approach—this piece set a precedent that allowed me to gain more confidence in that regard. The last three albums I've released all have pieces that sat for long periods of time throughout their gestation and I've come to appreciate that time away from the pieces, rather than being frightened by it.

One of the crucial ways for me of staying “in touch” with the work is bouncing rough versions and uploading them to Dropbox. That way I can listen to them on my phone whenever I want—when I'm out walking or driving somewhere. Listening deeply, and in a variety of different scenarios is an essential aspect of my process.

When I finally sit down in front of the computer again, ready to work, there's an underlying intimacy there with the music, even if I haven't touched the piece for ages. My process is very intuitive too, so repeated listening is really the only way forward insofar as responding meaningfully to the material.

Funnily enough, this all could very well go back to the Suzuki Method as well, as within it pupils are instructed to listen repeatedly to recordings of their repertoire between practice sessions.

Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?

I definitely would not describe my music as being “out of my hands,” partly because much of it tends to be so tactile in terms of how it's created. I feel like there's a balance in how I do things between pure, immersive intuition and meticulousness.

That being said, “strict control” is pretty much the antithesis of how I look at things. I think given the scope of what I do, and how much layering and sculpting is involved, I would imagine that it tends to read as being very controlled. Sure I labour over it but there's a very instinctual, immediate and aural quality to how that's done, there's no preordained model that I apply.

I definitely feel like I'm in conversation with the material, rather than shoehorning it into a larger agenda of some sort, if that makes sense.

Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?

Depending on where I am with a given work, I'm not entirely sure that I'm distinguishing between the main road and alternative ones. By and large, I don't go in with a pre-established notion of where a piece is heading and when I do know the work's final destination, it's the beginning that's a mystery to me.

I more or less navigate without a map and just choose whichever fork in the road seems most fruitful. I don't tend to be in too much of a hurry to complete the music either, so there's often sufficient time for me to back-track if I discover that I hadn't taken the right path.

Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?

Believe you me, this rings very true for me. As much as I tend to take a really long time and to really work to refine something, there is always an end for me, and always has been a very clear sense of completion.

I don't really know how to define the feeling I get when the process is over but there is definitely a moment where I can hear definitively that the piece is finished. Sometimes I'll come back for a few little revisions after that point, but it's never drastic.

To be totally honest, I don't know if I could work for so long on individual pieces if I didn't have that trust in myself to be able discern when to stop!

What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?

I feel like these aspects are very important and sometimes underestimated on the part of artists. There tends to be this weird skepticism around mastering especially and I do not get that at all.

Production, mixing and mastering are crucial to all music in my mind as they establish a sort of world that is inhabited by the music. As much as people fuss about “authenticity” in the production realm, there are no neutral choices.

A recording is an inherently contrived medium and that's what's so great about it. Why not make conscious decisions about how you're approaching it? Choosing to put a live band in front of a single microphone and recording direct to two-inch tape is still a production choice and in today's world, it's just as artificial as any other decision.

Because of how I work, production and mixing tend be built right into compositional process for me and truthfully I can't really envision it being any other way. I feel queasy even thinking of making stems of one of my pieces. There are so many individual tracks in any given piece and there isn't an altogether clear way to render those into something a mixing engineer could parse, unless I've thought that way about it from the outset. I feel like if I had to outsource the mix it would just end up being frustrating for both myself and whomever else is working on it.

Mastering, is different and I definitely prefer to have someone else address that end of things. I have done some of my own mastering but I think it's wise to have a second set of ears somewhere along the line—especially given how personal and solitary my work is. Mastering is a great place for introducing that external element, as the person who does it stands to make a huge difference in the sound and reveal new details and insights about it.