Nick Storring: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyor of: Chamber music, improvisation, pop tunes on cello and beyond
File next to: Thin Edge Music Collective, Alice Coltrane, Picastro, Arthur Russell
Playing: Friday Oct. 24 at The Garrison for WL624 with Ben Frost

A fixture in various and overlapping local music scenes, Nick Storring has created looped cello dance pop, austere textures for Picastro’s sleep rock, and free-ranging improvisation in The Knot and I Have Eaten The City. But for the past couple years, he’s also been making a mark as an composer, with his 2011 Toronto Emerging Composer award from the Canadian Music Centre leading to material that is now being released on his new Gardens album. Joe Strutt spoke to Storring to discover more about his musical green thumb.

Gardens was “designed as an informal tribute” to Charles Stepney. What in his work inspired you, and how did it play out?

Stepney isn’t something someone might hear right off the bat with my stuff, but it’s certainly there. When I first heard Minnie Riperton’s Come To My Garden (which Stepney co-wrote, produced and arranged) I was really just taken aback by how his arrangements managed to be dense, ambitious, and deeply psychedelic, but also unabashedly sentimental. While that’s not exactly what I’m doing per se, I appreciate the scale that’s it operating on, the fact that it could’ve only been conceived on recording, and that it’s still happening within the framework of a song.

The other feature of Come To My Garden I find endlessly fascinating is how on the surface it’s very sensual and also sentimental, but somehow Stepney smuggles these complex emotions and ideas, these sort of woozy Ravel-like tapestries of sound, through the back door. In a sense, I feel as though I’m doing the same thing, except backwards — I’m bringing sweet song-like ideas and these moments of nostalgic lushness into something that’s ostensibly sort of opaque and abstract.

I went into making Gardens knowing exactly the sort of album I wanted to make: orchestral in scope using only acoustic and electromechanical instruments (no heavy processing), but still crafting something that could only exist on an album. I also had this feeling that I wanted to somehow pay tribute to that particular album (it’s up there as a favourite of mine alongside Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness). Yet I was never doing that directly through actually musical allusions to the songs. I just let the creative process flow. In ways it’s more like a dedication to Stepney, but felt that “paying tribute” is more celebratory, whereas dedicating it felt a bit artificial.

You’ve also said that this was an important step forward from you from earlier work such as Rife. Is that development more in getting to a similar place by a different method, or was it a matter of discovering a whole new terrain?

For me it’s pretty radically different — in structure, sound, style… everything. I guess I can say that Rife and other earlier work shared Gardens’ density and also had a lot of activity happening on a microscopic level. Other than that, though, it’s pretty different.

That being said, it’s not as though the approach is coming out of thin air. Gardens and the other new stuff that’s coming out later, rather than drawing on the electronic stuff on Rife, is borrowing ideas from other aspects of what I do. I’ve been writing a lot of chamber music since 2009 and also been playing a lot of acoustic improvised music — especially with Tilman Lewis as the Knot. I’ve also worked a great deal composing music for theatre — especially this company called MT Space (and nowadays that’s trickling into dance), where it was created from mainly from layering instruments. I sort of brought my approach to the theatre stuff together with the sort of nose-to-tail butcher’s attitude toward the cello that Tilman and I share then bunch of aspects in from my chamber music.

Following up on “song-like ideas” and “crafting something that could only exist on an album”, let’s burrow a bit more into process here… are “composing”, “playing”, “recording” and “editing” separate things for this, or all part of a whole? Are you working in the old-fashioned composer mode here of creating a score and then playing it, or are the musical ideas themselves emerging through playing/recording? To put it another way, did you know on paper in advance the musical elements that a certain section would have and then tinker around with various instruments until you achieved it satisfactorily?

This is a really great question. The basic answer is there is no, there’s no notation happening at all. I’m realizing the music through performing and recording. Often editing is not a big part of it, either. The most significant editing I’ve done on it is extending silences and shaping the volume and panning. For the most part if I don’t like a take of an idea, I just redo it outright.

I often take something I’ve started out on my iPod though and then draw out a structural diagram of how I want the piece to flow and what sort of potentialities I can imagine. I sort of sketch out bits of the piece, label it, and even scribble down ideas about instrumentation/texture/rhythm etc.

Insofar as the actual music, how ideas are generated ranges from super off-the-cuff improvised things to really working at something at an instrument before laying it down, or doing many takes to get it right. Sometimes melodies would be come to me in the shower or when I’m out on a walk, and I’d grab my phone and sing it into the voice memo app to save it to play later. I’d say for the most part it’s as composed as something I’d score out, just created a bit differently.

Much of what I write on paper for chamber ensembles is more of an abstraction of my own playing than anything else, anyway. I’m always trying to capture a very idiosyncratic quality in the written-out stuff — conveying weird things I’ve discovered playing with an actual instrument, rather than assigning notes to an instrument. By the same token, I could totally see working something out first on paper before it existing on recording. I actually have some sketches of stuff that I intend to use later for recording.

This is an excellent “headphones” album, because you can let your ears zoom in from the wider musical sweep to the layers of sound that are woven together. When you’re making a sonic bricolage like this, how do you know when you there’s “enough”? Did you ever record and then have to strip back some layers?

Absolutely. It’s not so much a question of stitching things together to form new ideas, it’s about mixing and adding space. This is one of the biggest parts of my process.

I’m definitely at points going for a really super-rich and saturated feel on the album — sort of a snowblind quality of stuff being at once blurry and super clear. I like this idea of having too much detail to the point of it almost feeling a bit monotonous — but just on that cusp. I like disorienting the listener to the point of it feeling like there isn’t a foreground or background, but really I’ve worked really hard on getting it to sit in a particular way.

On certain tracks like “(Come To My) Thicket,” it took a really long time to find an appropriate mix of the various layers so that everything was still audible, but maintained an overwhelming, tangled feel. On top of the question of creating these very opaque feeling textures, I’m also fond of doublings or quasi doublings, where I have the same idea being played by several different instruments, and the way I like things this is not so in sync. I like it wonky — like the two metronomes in the background of “Nothing Seems To Rhyme” that are going at two different tempi. But that wonkiness always causes some extra clutter with things not being so tidy and on-the-beat. So it’s then a question setting up the appropriate aural relationships.

As I mentioned in the previous response too, I’m often recording something and then finding as I add layers that I need to space out the material more, so I cut between phrases and add to existing silences to afford more room. This happened a lot in the final section of the last cut of the album.

There were many, many, many ideas that got flushed down the toilet on this album. Sometimes great ones, but it’s all about what works in the complete picture.

Given that you played a huge list of instruments on the album all by yourself, what are you going to do to present this as a live experience?

It’s not going to be quite as wild as the album, if that’s what you’re thinking. Transporting all of those instruments on the album would be so hard to manage!

The set will likely be based around, cello, voice, clavinet, synth, and electric mandola, with some computer processing and some outboard manipulation using a self-inputting mixer, cassette Walkman, vibration speakers placed on resonant surfaces, and small amps. I may even bring my spring reverb along.

That’s not for sure yet though! It’ll also likely be a mix of improvisation with preconceived material. I think now that I have more physical ways of processing things (the amps and vibration speakers), I may employ some pre-recorded sound too, which was something I was always wary of in the past, even though it can provide structural anchoring to certain performances.

Besides being a composer, you’ve done a lot of work as an improviser and pop dabbler. How does that all interplay in your artistic practice now? Is your preferred balance shifting?

Well I still do the improv thing on a reasonably frequent basis, but only with pretty specific things, chiefly I Have Eaten The City and The Knot. Tilman and I are actually putting out a tape on this label Cabin Floor Esoterica later, who have done tapes for a wide range of people including Tashi Dorji, Kuupuu, Big Blood (members of Cerberus Shoal) and Dylan Golden Aycock (who runs Scissor Tail, the label that’s doing Gardens).

The pop work I was creating as Piège is on hold for now, and the reasoning behind that is a bit complex. The bottom line is that I’ve found with the music that I’m creating now is that I’m just feeling more at aesthetically at home, than I have ever felt before. Consequently, I’m pretty focused on that work. The pop stuff I was doing as Piège, while very genuine, always felt like a bit of a private experiment somehow.

Another factor is that I just feel like I’ve had more momentum and more interest (both personally, from audiences, and even from a career standpoint) in composing other stuff — whatever you call this stuff on Gardens and chamber music. When I was doing the bulk of the Piège music, it was before I was getting regular invitations to compose for ensembles etc. and to create work to accompany dance and film. This work takes up a lot of time, as it’s my primary source of income.

I do, however, have a personal project cooking in the back of my mind however that may bridge those two worlds again that I’m tentatively calling Inhabitation Songs. The premise is that I’ll only be using my voice, layered, but also processed through acoustical or electromechanical means — spring reverb, talkbox, amps, and using contact speakers to send the vocal recordings through the resonances of other objects again and again. It’s a technique I’ve played a bit with on a new recording that’s not out yet… but it’s a very fruitful territory. I expect that this project will have proper songs interspersed with more abstract stuff… I’m hoping to start working on it by the end of the year.

Gardens is just one product of your recent creative burst. What else is in the pipeline?

As I mentioned I have some other new albums coming out. Orange Milk, who’s based out of Ohio, and has released some phenomenal stuff for Sean McCann, Christopher Merritt, Ashley Paul, plus local Toronto favourite Man Made Hill, is putting out a full-length tape called Endless Conjecture sometime in November. It compiles four pieces made in the same manner as Gardens including “Terminal Burrowing” which was commissioned for Montréal’s AKOUSMA Festival last year and “They Carry Light” which was the score for my friend Mikel Guillen’s short film the Natural State.

Later on, Notice Recordings is issuing another full-length on cassette entitled Exaptations, featuring two long pieces. The A-side is called “Field Lines” and is again a more instrumental-oriented piece that I made for Yvonne Ng’s dance piece “Magnetic Fields.” The second side, “Yield Criteria” is quite processed albeit not with computer. I only play a small set of instruments on it, but then that material is used to excite the resonance of various objects and instruments. Then I take recordings of that sympathetic vibration and send it back through the instruments. I also make extensive use of a cassette Walkman as another processing tool.

I’ve also been working, albeit quite slowly, at Canterbury Music with Jean Martin on a full album of my chamber works performed by the Thin Edge New Music Collective. It’s uncertain as to how that’s going to come out just yet.

You also intersect with music in yet another way, as a journalist. Is that more a chance to unpack and celebrate what your contemporaries (and inspirations) are doing, or does that inform your work as a composer as well?

Through journalism I’m sometimes discovering new music that I really love so that impacts my creative work, but aside from that it’s pretty separate from my practice as an artist. It’s more for me about stimulating community and stirring up excitement about different music or ideas that I find intriguing.

Speaking of community, there’s a rich scene developing in Toronto of new composers and DIY chamber music. Both here and further afield, what should curious ears be investigating?

Locally and globally there’s a whole load of really interesting stuff emerging lately out of the “new composition” vein… Locally we’ve had a long history of DIY music intersecting with composition thanks to composers like Martin Arnold, Allison Cameron, Linda Catlin Smith, Stephen Parkinson, John Mark Sherlock, Eldritch Priest, Marc Couroux, and their various endeavours: Cowpaws, Drystone Orchestra, Marmots, neither/nor to name a few.

These days there’s been a really strong DIY spirit among younger composers and ensembles even when the music itself has a less conspicuously DIY aesthetic per se. Some of these emerging composers who I really dig include : Cecilia Livingston, Emilie LeBel, Jason Doell, Christopher Willes, and Anna Höstman.

Further afield there’s a lot of very exciting music orbiting around Maria De Alvear’s label World Edition (including Toronto expats Chiyoko Szlavnics and Marc Sabat). De Alvear has close ties to Toronto, and her music, to me, is some of the most beautifully audacious and ambitious music out there. It’s genuinely powerful and preposterous — delving deep into spiritual themes without it coming off heavy-handed at all.

I’m also very fond of Sean McCann’s Recital label because much of what he’s putting out operates in the same in-between world that I’m in with Gardens using recording technology and layered instrumentation in idiosyncratic ways. His own album Music for Private Ensemble blew me away last year, as did Vancouverite Ian William Craig’s A Turn of Breath earlier this year.

The various members of the Wandelweiser collective is also a fascinating entity with whom I feel a strong connection, as it emphasizes community in a major way and has brought a folk music-like sensibility to the performance of new music that I really love, but with a really focused listening.

Many recordings of that community have been released by UK label Another Timbre, who’s also put out amazing releases by people like Laurence Crane, Richard Glover, Bryn Harrison, Ingrid Lee, and others that have somewhat of this “outsider” vantage point to modern composition that I so admire.

Thanks for your time! Looking forward to the show and hearing the rest of the music as it comes out.

Thanks Joe!

– Interview by Joe Strutt