FRACTURED AIR

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Step Right Up: Justin Wright

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When a phrase resolves, you feel release, because it finally wrapped up the way your brain thought it should.”

—Justin Wright

 Words: Mark Carry

justin wright

Having supported the likes of Colin Stetson, Hauschka, Bing & Ruth and Mount Eerie in recent times, Canadian cellist Justin Walter’s debut full length comes with a significant wave of feverish anticipation. Released last month, ‘Music for Staying Warm’ is a breath-taking suite of nine stunningly beautiful cello-based compositions: music to escape into the pools of one’s mind amidst a labyrinth of forgotten times.

The first taste of the Montreal-based composer’s striking debut was the lead track ‘Modular Winter’ whose string melodies – an intricately layered dialogue of rich string instrumentation (violin, viola, cello, double bass) that serves a heavenly inner-dialogue throughout.

Four (specifically titled) drone pieces are masterfully embedded across the record’s striking narrative. ‘Drone IV: Breath’ – perfectly placed immediately after ‘Modular Winter’ – awakens the senses as a plateau of forlorn, achingly beautiful colours and textures gradually exude ripples in the waves of your innermost self. This cinematic quality and highly emotive power is nothing short of staggering.

Music for Staying Warm’ is one of those rare jewels that unleashes an infinite, hypnotic spell with its modern classical splendor and immaculately interwoven instrumentation. ‘In Sunlight’s dazzling ebb and flow of brooding strings maps the warmth of the emerging light at dawn: illumination at every turn.

‘Music for Staying Warm’ is out now on First Terrace Records.

https://justinwright.ca/

https://www.firstterracerecords.com/

JR

Interview with Justin Wright.

  

Congratulations Justin on your stunningly beautiful debut full-length ‘Music for Staying Warm’. The seeds were sewn for this record when you were asked to write and perform a set of string works for a relaxation room at an event during the Montreal winter. Firstly, please take me back to this particular performance – and the preparatory work/writing stages that you undertook in the build up of this show? Do you have memories of the live set itself and how you felt during/immediately after the performance?

Justin Wright: Thank you! That was a really fun performance, there’s nothing like a pressing deadline to get you working hard, so I wrote about 45 minutes worth of music over a week, but a lot of those minutes were actually repeated segments. I thought I would be playing background music, and from my experience as a hire musician for weddings, nobody notices repetition when they’re not paying close attention. But to my surprise everyone sat there and listened attentively, making me very self-conscious about whether this music was boring or not, but ultimately it was great to see that people stayed interested and seemed to really like it. I remember at one point during the performance someone left a note at my feet, and it turned out to be a really sweet note written in beautiful calligraphy, telling me my music makes the world a better place. I still have that note hanging on my fridge door!

I’m very curious to learn how you developed these ideas further over a period of time following on from this Montreal show? I get the impression you felt you had a strong foundation of string works to build on, so I’d love to gain an insight into the process by which you further developed these compositions?

JW: I probably shouldn’t say this, but the original compositions were partly written to fill as much time as possible. They had sections doubled, had a lot more room for improv, and were written to be performed rather than recorded. So a lot of the work was cutting out unnecessary notes, letting some of the improvised segments calcify into real compositions after playing them many times, and adding textures or elements that might be hard to play live, but add a lot to the recordings. I also just wrote more tracks whenever I would feel inspired.

The title of the record perfectly embodies the deeply affecting cello-based works: the album permeates a beautifully immersive landscape for you to get lost in. Can you talk me through the narrative of this album that ties these nine pieces together? Also, I was interested to read how conceptually the music was heavily inspired by types of Ethiopian music. Please discuss the various elements of Ethiopian music that you wanted to draw from, so to speak?

JW: I think there are two main concepts that tie all the tracks together. The first is reflected in the title, which has a bit of irony. I had set out to write music that keeps us warm, but the album ended up being more of an exploration of that search for warmth, hence the occasional melancholic, brooding track. Maybe there’s a narrative in there, but I leave it up to the listener to decide what it is, and frame it in their own experiences.

The second is the idea of losing your sense of time, and different tracks do this in different ways. So much of music (and art in general) revolves around tension and release, and that kind of helps place the listener temporally in the piece, giving you expectations about where the piece is going. When a phrase resolves, you feel release, because it finally wrapped up the way your brain thought it should. It was from listening to a few styles of Ethiopian music that I learned that just doing away with this tension-and-release phrasing can create a beautiful and comforting feeling of aimless wandering, once you come to terms with the fact that it’s going nowhere. So a lot of the album uses this idea, either doing away with tension and release, or by dancing around a listener’s preconceived idea of where the track should go.

Four (specifically titled) drone pieces are spaced evenly throughout the album. ‘Drone IV: Breath’ for me serves the endearing heart of part A and how the piece gradually builds awakens something deep inside. Can you discuss the relationship you find between these drone pieces and also, the sequencing/spacing of the tracks themselves?

JW: For a while I considered releasing this as sort of a double EP, with the drone tracks on one side, and the more composed pieces on the other, but the tracks had such a good flow when mixed together. The drone tracks end up serving as pillars that give the album a steady foundation. They all have quite different feelings, but I think it creates a nice effect of always returning back to something familiar. The numbers in the titles actually refer to the order I wrote them in. I briefly considered renumbering them to fit the track order, but I like that they’re out of order. I’ve been really getting into the idea of strongly reinforcing and committing to moments that seem kind of arbitrary and fleeting, and I think that’s something I want to explore more on the next album.

For the recording sessions, can you introduce your various string collaborators and friends who guested? What was the day-to-day routine like for the ‘Music for Staying Warm’ recordings?

JW: I can’t say there was a day-to-day routine, because we recorded 90% of the album in a single 6-hour session! I expected it to be more of a preliminary session to set the foundations for longer recording sessions, and we said we’d just record as much as we could in that time, but it went so smoothly that we got nearly everything, and I just did minor overdubs later. I did have to do a lot of logistical planning for the session though. There’s always a trade-off to recording as a full ensemble versus recording each instrument individually, and I tried to get the best of both worlds by pairing specific layers to record at together.

My main string collaborator on the album is Kate Maloney; I’ve worked with for many years and she really knows what I’m going for, so I got her to play both violin and viola. I really lucked out, because she just happened to be performing in a series of shows in Calgary while I was at the Banff Centre. So she took the two hour bus ride over and we got straight to recording. Simmy Singh, a great viola player who was also at the Banff Centre at the time also joined us for one of the tracks that I wanted to record as a trio. Then finally back in Montreal I recorded some violin overdubs and background textures with Taylor Mitz who was studying at McGill.

What are your earliest musical memories? Can you recall the moment you knew the music path was the destined path for your own life?

JW: I started playing cello, when I was 8, so my memories from back then are a bit shaky, but I remember instantly loving the cello and learning melodies from some of my favourite classical pieces. I loved playing more modern and contemporary stuff pretty early on, and I was lucky to have teachers who found me the rarely-encountered contemporary classical music that was easy enough for a child to play.

I never really thought I was destined for music, I just always enjoyed it, and it’s only recently that I’ve realized that it’s actually a pretty viable path for me. When I went to science school instead of music school, I really didn’t think there was a place for me in the classical music world, where it’s hard to really excel even after you have decades of intense training and practice. But I think that ended up being a virtue, and it let me carve out my own niche instead. I can say pretty confidently that if I had pursued a degree in performance, I wouldn’t be performing in some of the venues I get to perform in now!

You have supported a number of incredible voices in contemporary music thus far. I’m sure you must have learned a lot from these different experiences? Can you recount your memories of these tours and how it felt to open for some of these artists?

JW: It always feels pretty surreal when some of these bigger concerts happen. I’ve played many shows over the years, and never get stage fright when I feel prepared, but these bigger shows happen infrequently enough that I get pretty freaked out, and it almost feels like a movie playing out in front of you. But it’s really rewarding, they’ve always gone better than expected, and you feel great after. Artists always like to say it’s humbling (do people actually know what that word means?) but it’s the opposite! It’s really reassuring to see people take your art seriously after you’ve always felt like an impostor, and it’s a big confidence boost that keeps you motivated and proud of what you’ve accomplished.

What other musical ideas and desires do you feel are itching to come out next, Justin?

JW: I’ve started composing for my next full-length album, and I’m bringing back the synths. I’ve been really getting into the idea of using microtonality in a subtle way, and finding new ways of creating it without strict microtonal scale systems. You can expect a much wider tonal palette, and a more contrasting and narrative set of tracks.

I’m also starting work on an unconventional immersive live performance for a medium/large ensemble, but won’t spoil the details just yet!

‘Music for Staying Warm’ is out now on First Terrace Records.

https://justinwright.ca/

https://www.firstterracerecords.com/

 

Written by admin

May 20, 2019 at 2:02 pm

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