Justin Wright is a Montreal-based composer whose music falls into the category of contemporary classical, with an experimental underlining. The voiceless nature of the music allows you to take complete control in how you choose to make meaning of it. In a world sometimes filled with too much noise and outside opinions, it’s important to take a step back and drown yourself in the music itself, allowing yourself to seamlessly become part of it.
In his latest release, Music For Staying Warm (MFSW), Justin Wright touches on a range of emotional, instrumental scores. The product is brimming with a combination of droning overtones mixed in with both improvised and written experimental layering. This album also includes a handful of collaborators, including violinists Kate Maloney and Taylor Mitz, plus few others.
Justin Wright discussed with me his recording and creative process, background on the new album (MFSW), and what he’s listening to currently.
I wanted to start just by asking you what got you into creating this type of layered, composition-heavy music?
I guess it was just a combination of my own tastes and what naturally came out of my instruments. I generally don’t have concrete ideas of what I want to write beforehand, so I just sit down and experiment. Usually at some point an idea just clicks and the whole piece suddenly unfolds in my head. But I think it also stems from the limitations of composing solo; I can’t write all the parts at once, so I play what comes out first, and then play it back and record another improvised take on top of it.
I know you play the cello, but can you list out all of the instruments used on your debut LP, Music For Staying Warm?
Every sound on the album is made by a string instrument, and we pretty much used the full spectrum, from violin to a few notes of double bass.
Do you have any collaborators on the new album?
While I did all the composing and producing, there was so much freedom in the parts and in the way we recorded it that pretty much everyone who worked on it could be considered a collaborator. In the drone tracks, there are no fixed rhythms, so all the performers determine how the different parts intersect. A large part of this album is also about creating complex textures rather than just notes, so James-Clemens Seely, the head engineer on the project, and Pietro Amato, who mixed it, both had a lot of creative influence.
My favorite track on MFSW would probably be Modular Winter – it sort of reminds me of a movie score with a lot of underlying emotion. What kind of movie scene would you imagine this song pairing with? Is there a story behind this song?
It’s funny you pick that one out as having a movie scene, because it’s one of the few tracks I wrote with a concrete image in my head. I was walking between the Banff Centre for the Arts, where I recorded the album, and downtown Banff, and there’s a cemetery you pass every time. One time I saw a man visiting a gravestone there with his child, who was holding a balloon and prancing around the cemetery, and I thought it was such a sad and funny image that I ran back to my studio and wrote most of the track right then.
Do you have a favorite track or story behind another song that you’d like to share?
Most of the drone tracks had a funny and unexpected challenge when we recorded them, which is that it turns out listening to them and performing them can be a very different experience, especially with your sense of time. With Drone I, I wanted the track to be about 4.5 to 5 minutes long, but in the studio, I would always stop after about a minute thinking we had already been playing for 5 minutes! Despite being one of the easiest tracks, it took the most takes just because I kept stopping and couldn’t believe we had been playing for so little time.
What is your creative process like?
I haven’t really settled on a process, and I’m not sure if I ever will, but generally it involves recording improvised layers, and playing around with synthesizers in unpredictable ways. But it can really vary from track to track. Sometimes I’ll record layers over a track, and then abandon the original track and make a new track starting with those new layers. Sometimes I’ll run synths through this mediocre multi-effects unit and push it until it creates interesting artifacts, and that’ll be the foundations of a new track. And sometimes I just sit down with my cello and use the first thing I play. I’ve been having a lot of fun exploring new ways of composing that make it easier to break free of the same patterns that most trained musicians fall into.
Who are some of your favorite artists right now?
I’ve really been enjoying the latest singles from Aldous Harding, especially “The Barrel”. And I’ve been listening to a lot of Robert Ashley’s vernacular opera lately, especially Celestial Excursions and Private Parts.
Radiotrails is all about music discovery and highlighting “lesser-known” artists. Are there any artists that you think me and my readers should check out?
Maybe I’ll start with some artists are/were known in their fields, but that I feel people are really missing out on. There’s a weird disconnect between classical music and experimental music, and I wish that some people who pride themselves on being musically open-minded would realize how big and wonderful the world of classical music is. I would highly recommend Hans Abrahamsen (especially his work “let me tell you”, if you want to hear how beautiful microtonal music can be), John Tavener’s bigger works, Britten’s suite for solo cello, or anything by Caroline Shaw (but especially her Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 voices). There’s a lot of contemporary stuff that is complex without being TOO out-there, that can be a great gateway.
I also have to recommend this long-defunct band from Manchester, UK called Homelife – I have yet to meet another person who’s heard of them and know very little about them, but I was obsessed with them for many years when I was younger.