The album cover, in a way, tells you everything. It’s simple: a cardboard box with two pieces of tape: one from the box’s original packing, the other haphazardly slapped on. They imply two separate states–ordering and reordering, original state and redefined context. The Perfect Nothing Catalog, the debut recording from Alaska-born, Brooklyn-based composer Conrad Winslow, invokes this very idea of objects and ideas placed, shuffled, and replaced, provoking questions of how arrangement shapes meaning.
The title work, an electroacoustic suite of six movements, was composed for the Cadillac Moon Ensemble, an unusual and striking group made up of violin, flutes, cello, and percussion. The opening movement “mixed bag” is just that, an assortment of stomps, string melodies, scratches, and glitches. “tunes” features more melodic material, sprightly and melancholy melodies spliced against electronic grinding and clattering. Velcro, zippers, whistles, and creeping harmonics converge in “materials” while “devices” lingers in reverb, dreamlike glissandi, and electronic incursions.
Composed in 2014 much of The Perfect Nothing Catalog was influenced by a 2013 art installation of the same name by Frank Traynor. Traynor’s installation examined the idea of curation and limited control and how the meaning of an object can change depending on placement and proximity. Likewise, playwright Caryl Churchill’s 2012 work Love & Information, a play constructed of small, non-repeating scenes, served as another inspiration. This overarching idea of how smaller, somewhat restricted episodes relate to one another begs questions not just of the artist’s intent, but our own preconceived notion and perceptions to everyday objects, emotions, and experiences.
Taken all together Winslow’s work asks the listener to consider what these brief episodes mean, both isolated and placed against one another. Does the sound of recorded velcro mean anything different when placed after a cello or before the sound of footsteps? How are these sounds and textures defined by similar and contrasting material? Penultimate movement “controls” begins with footsteps and an electric howl–is this threatening? Does it merely indicate a beginning? What about the violin and vibraphone dialogue that follows? “coda” closes the work with more of the same, elements that initially seem disjunct yet take on new meaning in the greater context of the suite.
The work premiered in December 2014, and the liner notes describe the performance. The performers donned a toga-like garb designed by Traynor, their movements and gestures becoming as much a part of the performance as the music itself. It’s impossible not to think about what the theatrical element would add the work as a complete whole. An implication of something somewhat lacking, perhaps, although the composition itself packs enough curiosity and substance for the adept listener. Co-producer Aaron Roche deserves laud alongside Winslow for building such an evocative audio landscape.
“Ellipsis Rules”, the first standalone track on the album, examines the balance of resonance between vibraphone and electronic manipulations. The interactions between the two seem less based on actual musical material but, rather, the tonal colors that blend and contrast between the analog and the digital. “Benediction” for piano and guitar undergoes more sound manipulation, yet these electronic elements adds to the work more than detract. A cycling of 28 chords, it’s an undeniably introverted work dealing with space and variation. As a musical meditation, it feels more accessible than the Perfect Nothing suite, taking into consideration more musical elements than philosophical ones.
The Cadillac Moon ensemble returns on “Abiding Shapes”, a composition inspired by waveforms–sine, square waves, etc. Stretching out over ten minutes it explores colors and gestures among the four players, a severe test for the quartet. The work is a fantastic journey that demonstrates both Cadillac Moon’s ensemble unity and Winslow’s prowess as a composer with intent.