On the day his CD The Perfect Nothing Catalog is released on Innova Recordings, composer Conrad Winslow sits at Gorilla Coffee in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, describing the occasion as a release in the emotional sense of the word. “If something is just making you feel secure about what you already believe then I think it’s failing, it’s an incomplete work,” Winslow says. “For me, it’s not worth doing if it’s not a little bit uncomfortable. Or a lot.”
The previous night Winslow manned a laptop for the debut of the electroacoustic version of The Perfect Nothing Catalog, performed by Cadillac Moon Ensemble (flute, violin, cello and percussion), at New York City’s 1 Rivington. The riveting performance incorporated choreographed stomps, with the musicians switching instruments and playing everyday objects like zippers and Velcro.
Winslow’s work has been described as “compelling” by The New York Times. Winslow has been recognized with awards and honors from the ASCAPlus, The Jerome Fund, the Yale Glee Club, the Juilliard School and New Music USA. He directs the Wild Shore Festival for New Music in Homer, Alaska.
Scott Bolohan spoke with Winslow about the performance, the interdisciplinary inspiration behind his work, and the 21st-century taste for disjunction.
Scott Bolohan: You’ve had these songs since 2014, but last night was the first time playing them live with the electroacoustic arrangement. How does it differ playing live and on the record?
Conrad Winslow: I always imagined on that record that it would be like listening to an old-school radio play where you hear all these Foley effects and changing spaces in sort of an abstract way because there’s not any voices but there’s a sense of a narrative. So from the beginning it was my idea to record it entirely as an acoustic piece. I brought Aaron [Roche] on to help figure out all these changing spaces and how to light these objects in just the perfect way, so it was then taking it out of that and trying to come up with another, different version live.
SB: Do you think there is a visual component to what you aim for?
CW: I think so. A recorded version should be separate. There are certain requirements that make a recording special that I think exists on a separate plane. The live version of a piece has other considerations. What is it like to watch people make these choices, play with each other, coordinate, to suddenly drop their instruments and pick up these weird objects like zippers or Velcro? It’s inherently more theatrical. It’s a ritual. It’s bringing this thing to life in front of you. There’s kind of a split-brain approach to this piece that I wanted to record. What’s going to make it work in the studio and what’s going to make it work in the room?
SB: What drew you to these Foley effects?
CW: I guess it’s working from the biggest perspective to the smallest. In nineteenth-century orchestral music there are these great emotional journeys that move from darkness to joy and it’s all spelled out for you. At least to our ears now we recognize these orchestral effects as having intended emotional meaning: you understand how big arcs are made in symphonic music because you can relate these sounds to emotional ideas. In minimalism, there are processes that determine what happens over the course of a big piece. This little rhythmic thing that gets gradually drawn out, or this phasing thing that you are witnessing, or this thing that has nothing to do with an emotional narrative.
The question at the very beginning of this for me, was what’s going to make this all hang together? I saw this play by Caryl Churchill called Love and Information and it has all these tiny little scenes. The stage work is dazzling because it’s lights out, fifteen seconds go by and then it’s a completely different scene. The whole thing coheres because her writing is so focused on themes. It’s very tightly constructed even though there’s not a lot of repetition.
So if I were making a big piece out of all these miniatures, there’s the smallest phrase, something that lasts 30 seconds, and then there’s the bigger thing, twelve of these things that are bound together by some idea, and then there’s the biggest shape which is the whole thing. In the middle movement it was like, ‘Okay, we listened to seven minutes of all these melodies in the middle of a song and [the melody] gets cut off.’ I as a listener need a break and want to sit with something that just doesn’t do anything, so that middle movement is just static musical textures. They’re playing notes and rhythms but essentially they just do a thing and it just goes. It’s not like a melody that has chords, but it’s like staring at a piece of fabric. So then I thought maybe I could be quite literal and that would be the symmetrical bracketing of that section of the piece with literal textiles, Velcro at the beginning, zippers at the end. And then in between are these musical textures. It’s kind of literalizing a metaphor. That’s what drew me to that idea.
SB: You brought up the artist Frank Traynor a couple times last night, saying you even got The Perfect Nothing Catalog name from his installation. What role does he have for you in this piece?
CW:I think with him it’s a tone less than the specific structural stuff, which came from Caryl Churchill. He’s now doing different pop-up projects in different parts of the country. He’s in Seattle right now doing a project where he puts subwoofers in a hot tub and you go under the water to listen to the music. But his The Perfect Nothing Catalog was created when he brought this ice shack down and you would go through all these objects that were for sale that were sourced from a range of artists and craftspeople. Some were consigned from people who wouldn’t even identify as artists. It was so comforting and disorienting at the same time. You would pick something up and nothing was clear in terms of value in a really lovely way, in a subtle anti-capitalism way. Nothing is capitalized in terms of what it means or says, but it worked really well when you went into that space.
So the tone of that is the vibe that I wanted to carry over to this project. I’m deliberately picking musical material that is quite simple, sometimes on the line of banal, and that’s an uncomfortable place for someone whose job it is to have the best taste. My whole job is to find material, is to find gems and imply all kinds of development. When you start thinking about the weight of classical music it can really force you to clam up and reject a lot of materials because they’re not good enough. I threw a lot of stuff away, but there were two things at play. To find things that work as miniatures is a very different task than finding something a symphony can develop over 25 minutes. So one question is, does this work as a miniature? Think of a ringtone that is twelve seconds long, or a movie cue that’s four seconds. It has to contain a world within that time. And the other is, is this dumb? Or is this beautiful and perfect? So I’m asking myself that as I’m doing it, is this just a stupid little melody or does it disarm you enough in that moment to swing left on the next turn? So that’s a hard line to ride. And that’s a hard thing for listeners, because it doesn’t go on for too long. Or maybe you are listening to it and want it to go on for four minutes.
SB: How much did you cut?
CW: I probably wrote almost twice as much music.
SB: Watching last night I had a sense of not being able to guess what happens next, of unexpected moments. When you are laying this out, how do compartmentalize each section into making it into a whole work?
CW: A lot of trial and error. I tried even within the sections of the piece to order them in all different ways. I would hope that even though moment-to-moment everything is unexpected or surprising or whatever, that there is still a sense of something that you totally could follow. It does follow some kind of logic that I don’t understand but it is making it move forward. There is some kind of unseen fiber that is pulling it all together.
SB: I think there is something different between jarring and unexpected, too.
CW: I believe in having a thread very strongly. There’s something about connecting that to the way I live my life in the world now, that I’m interested in the thing that connects very unlike things. We are used to all this disjunction so it is easier for us as twenty-first-century listeners to try to switch up our expectations and try to find connections between things that are so unsimilar.
SB: The musicians play a huge role in this piece, how do they affect the piece?
CW: Most of the sounds that I asked them to play, I knew that they could do. Ways of producing tone, ways of playing together, making a composite rhythm together, all the physicality of playing it had to be worked out in rehearsal. How long something should go, how loud something should become, how much something should sing or be restrained and mechanical – we are just talking about interpretation.
SB: It sounds like a pretty intense rehearsal process.
CW: I think every piece of new music should be an intense rehearsal process. I think it’s a little bit disappointing when you write something and the musicians don’t have any questions, they rehearse it for twenty minutes, and it’s ready to go. I think that’s disappointing and boring. In terms of developing a big project, I want musicians to have a strong opinion. Even if I disagree with them, I can push back on something. If a musician says, “Is this what you want? Yes? No? Okay,” then the piece can’t be as good as it can be. I’m giving them a piece for them to breathe life into, so if that musician says they really don’t like something, can we do this or make this longer, I can see another door and we can go through it. If there’s a strong personality I’m working with, it prompts better choices.
SB: Does each piece mean something to you?
CW: Certainly. I have a lot of memories that are attendant on each moment of the piece. But that’s private. It wouldn’t help for me to say, “This is about my brother getting married and me feeling more distant to my family, or this is about a breakup, or this is about a best friend.” I’m not writing poetry in a way that’s going to mean something to somebody. There are European composers who are even more down the road along the lines of not talking about feelings in music. I’m much more open to talking about feeling in music, but I can also recognize that what I felt is not what you felt, so I’m a hybrid creature, I’m not just a formalist. But I love form as a prompt for organic responses. I felt everything I put in this piece. I didn’t choose anything purely analytically, I felt everything I wrote. The other paradox of Catalog is if it seems like a Twitter piece in terms of all the snippets, that it’s a reflection of the time when people had short attention spans, the paradox is that by placing them all together and making this big 25-minute thing, it requires more attention, you really have to tune in.
SB: Last night, every single musician did something that I didn’t know they could do with their instrument.
CW: I hope that paradoxically, even though it’s called “catalog,” it’s not just a catalog of effects. It’s organized into departments like a Sears catalog. But the experience of it should open up onto something else, because a catalog is boring. It shouldn’t be boring. Even though it is a rainbow and maybe the ultimate young composer piece with too many ideas, it should kind of flow.
SB: How do you balance the organic aspects of the music with the permanence of releasing it on CD?
CW: It’s kind of a mark of a moment in my life. This is something I was thinking about all day: if it’s just about me, it’s not totally acceptable. I want people to be able to find themselves in it too.
SB: Do you think in terms of big picture all the time?
CW: I think you have to go back and forth. When I was at Juilliard the composer I was studying with literally believed in taking a big piece of paper and drawing out shapes. I also believe in that. That’s why I’m not a jazz musician. I like setting out a big form. If I weren’t a composer I would be an architect.