The Perfect Nothing Catalog
Words: Steve Smith
Photograph: Kim Winslow
Customarily, a recording artist releases an album, gives it time to find an audience that will bask in its novel sounds, and then, perhaps, after a respectful interval, allow someone else to remix the original version to provide a fresh experience or altered perspective.
Conrad Winslow, an Alaska-born, Brooklyn-raised composer, had something different in mind when he prepared The Perfect Nothing Catalog, his debut recording. Winslow – whose playful works have been commissioned by Alarm Will Sound, Carnegie Hall, the American Composers Orchestra, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the New York Youth Symphony, and more – lovingly crafted 50 gemlike miniatures for the innovative and industrious Cadillac Moon Ensemble (Karen Kim, violin; Roberta Michel, flutes; Aminda Asher, cello; Sean Statser, percussion). Then, for the recording, he teamed up with producer Aaron Roche to transform his raw materials with electronic production elements and sound design.
The album is due Friday, Nov. 17, on Innova Recordings… but thanks to Winslow and the label, you can hear it streaming here in its entirety, exclusively—right here, right now.
To accompany this preview, Winslow shared some thoughts about his inspiration, intent and working methods:
I love to follow big arcs in music. And I wanted to create one that wasn’t Romantic and histrionic, and wasn’t about strict processes or algorithms. So when I started The Perfect Nothing Catalog (2014), my second commission from Cadillac Moon Ensemble, I went to the theatre.
A recent play by venerable British playwright Caryl Churchill, Love and Information, suggested a solution for this project. The play avoids plot and character development by presenting a dazzling succession of miniature scenes that cohere by their thematic insistence. I realized I could similarly string together suites of musical miniatures, each suite focusing on different kinds of musical material, and then swirl these miniatures together near the end.
The name of the piece is an homage to the work of my friend, installation artist Frank Traynor, whose Brooklyn ice-shack thrift store had, for several years, been selling little pieces by artists—and craftspeople who don’t identify as artists—that force you to examine the ways that you come to value any Object for Sale.
Musical miniatures are so fascinating because their scale also prompts you to reconsider value. Great instrumental miniatures—by Janáček, Kurtág, Ravel, or Webern—are gems whose musical qualities are superbly matched to their size. It’s very hard to do because their personalities must instantly shimmer, and they cannot demand development.
After hearing Cadillac play the Catalog live several times, I felt that the miniatures were working together. But I also sensed that the piece wouldn’t be complete without collaborating with producer Aaron Roche to laminate the surface with electronic processing, gelling the miniatures into bigger shapes that I love.
Abiding Shapes (2012), my first commission from Cadillac, is a formal precursor to the Catalog, tracing its macro-structure from small ornamental dynamic gestures inspired by primary wave forms. Sean Statser, the percussionist for Cadillac Moon Ensemble, commissioned Ellipsis Rules (2014). It’s a resonance etude that Aaron Roche and I again coat with many layers of electronic resonance, exaggerating the form of the piece.
To close out the album, I wrote Benediction (2017) for Aaron and me to play. It’s sort of a chaconne, a set of chords, that can be arranged in many ways. For the album we recorded it on piano, synthesizer, acoustic and electric guitar, and layered the same chords moving at different speeds. I intend it as a blessing to my friends who breathed life into this music.
Look for The Perfect Nothing Catalog at your favorite terrestrial or virtual retailer on Nov. 17. One night earlier on Nov. 16, Winslow, Roche, and Cadillac Moon celebrate the impending release with a concert at 1 Rivington in New York City; you’ll find ticket details here.