Name: Nick Storring
Occupation: Composer, cellist, curator, writer
Recent release: Nick Storring's Music from 'Wéi 成为 is out via Orange Milk Records.
If you enjoyed this interview with Nick Storring and would like to find out more about his work as a composer, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
For an interview with one of his recent collaborators, we recommend our Machinefabriek interview.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was around 12 or 13 when I first really got into composing instrumental music on my own. Up until that point, I had been taking cello lessons (which I continued until I completed my Bachelor's degree) and I was also writing little songs that one of my classmates and I would putter around with in his parents' basement (or perform in school assemblies).
I distinctly remember that I sent away for some demo version of a piece of MIDI sequencing software, and I would write little things on that and I would record it to cassette tape (it was a demo, so I couldn't save the songs!). From there, I might overdub cassette-recorded found sound, or some rudimentary playing on an external instrument. Even at this time, I can recall being interested in the tucked-away parameters that would allow you to alter the tones of different sounds.
Around that same time I also wrote my first piece of music for others to play, a solo cello piece that had a strong resemblance to the unaccompanied Bach stuff. Even it though had a passage that involved a glissando through the natural harmonics of one of the strings.
In terms of early influences, two things really jump as pivotal for me, the latter of which really set me on a path toward exploration of my own. I remember at age 11 being totally mesmerized by the Orb's “Little Fluffy Clouds.”
Much Music, the Canadian music television station had a show called X-Tendamix that showed dance music ranging from the underground to stuff like Cece Peniston. It was the early 90's and I was already fascinated by how dance music was employing technology to produce interesting textures. The Orb, however, was a total paradigm shift. Unfortunately at that young age there wasn't really a way to seek out that music.
[Read our Alex Patterson of The Orb interview]
[Read our Thomas Fehlmann of The Orb interview]
About a year and half later, I saw the Quay Brothers-directed music video for His Name Is Alive's Are We Still Married? By then I had gotten into taping Much Music's weirdo late-night show City Limits and I had never heard something that had that eerie otherworldliness to it. The juxtaposition of that almost lullaby-like sing-songy melody with this surreal, almost sickly-sounding electronic processing on every instrument was nothing short of awe inspiring (and the spooky visuals certainly added to the mystique). I didn't know that music could do even produce those strange emotional states.
This notion of music being, on its most fundamental level, psychedelic—that it can be this conduit for bouquets of sensation and thought that we can't totally penetrate with our rational minds—is still a major aspect of my fascination with music. It's a concept that's deeply embedded in the way I make music and the way I listen to it, regardless of its style or approach.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Imitation is a thing that I have really had to wrestle with throughout my creative development, and as such, I don't feel like I can divide things up so neatly into emulation and originality per se.
My relationship with imitation stems directly from my training, which started very early. I began cello lessons at age 4 or 5 in the Suzuki Method. The chief difference between Suzuki and more standard approaches is that initially the pupil learns by ear—by mimicking your teacher (and recordings)—rather than by reading notation. I happen to think that this is mostly a good thing, as it privileges listening above all else. I definitely credit it with providing me with the foundations for working improvisationally.
While I would readily attribute a lot of positive things to my Suzuki training, by the time I reached a reasonable level of facility with recording implements, production skills, and various instruments, I was pretty well-equipped to faithfully reproduce the sound of different specific genres, be it New Jack Swing or Javanese Gamelan. This has been an asset when I've done for-hire work to accompany film or theatre, but within the sphere of my own artistic practice it became somewhat of a weird distraction. I had cultivated very eclectic tastes and it was all too tempting to dabble in different stylistic worlds.
In my mid-twenties when I moved to Toronto, I was juggling a lot of different musical interests and had just decided that my “voice” wasn't one sound, but something polymorphous. I was really active in the improvised music community playing mainly cello and live electronics. I was also beginning to write more for ensembles. In addition to that I was playing in bands, doing music for theatre, and creating my own solo work which spanned abstract electronica over to pop music and involved various instruments but also all sorts of electronic manipulation and synthesized sounds. I really admired artists such as Arthur Russell who seemed to do a lot of different things and reside in multiple musical worlds simultaneously.
However, around that time, I found myself floundering. I was thriving in collaborative situations of various kinds, but when it came to my own personal compositional output—which I had nurtured since my early teen years—there was this blockage I had never experienced before. I had always had this insatiable desire to make stuff, and things had always just flowed very naturally.
Sometime around my thirtieth birthday, a few things started to fall into place. I was slowly realizing that just because I liked a certain style of music, didn't mean I had to compulsively attempt to reverse-engineer it; the energy I was spending on that game was better invested elsewhere.
I also started to have this serious hankering to ditch all of the electronics I was using (aside from the basic recording and mixing tools) and work from a more instrumental basis—at least as far as my solo “studio” output was concerned. The idea was that I'd work by ear / quasi-improvisationally playing only acoustic and electric instruments myself, layering them as much as I want.
In 2011, I applied to the Canadian Music Centre's Toronto Emerging Composer Award with a proposal to make an album in precisely this way and I won. This became 2014's Gardens (Scissor Tail Editions), and the process I developed has remained with me since that point. It has certainly helped to keep the music fresh.
Despite all this, imitation also still remains a crucial ingredient for me. I'll often allude to specific styles and sounds in my music but any of those references tends to be part of a larger whole. The restrictions I adopted with Gardens also exert themselves in a funny way if I decide that I'm going to reproduce a particular genre or framework. Things can easily drift elsewhere as I build things up layer by layer. It can be hard to accurately evoke particular sonic worlds without the aid of studio trickery or certain access to certain instruments. So, I may start with the intention to imitate a sound, but if deviations from that path pile high enough, they may end up guiding me toward a new centre of gravity (which I like!)
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
Even though I know such a division exists for a lot of people, I actually try not to think about this dichotomy too much, especially when it comes to my own music. Truthfully, I don't feel like it's a very healthy way to look at music given today's climate.
There is simply too much musical stimulus out there for anyone to have a clear picture of what constitutes innovation nowadays, let alone the future. Traditionalism is a bit clearer cut, however the irony for me is that, more often than not, anyone who insists they're making innovative / transgressive music these days tends to fit squarely within a tradition of some sort, whether that's crunchy Lachenmann-style chamber music, power electronics, free jazz or something else. The issue is that genres such as these are often so bound to a discourse of radicalism and innovation that it obscures the fact that the stylistic tenets and ideology of this music have become static over the past, 30-60 years! Sure, most people don't hear those genres as traditional, but in a way that's beside the point.
I guess where my head's at is somewhere between the two models mentioned in the question. I feel like I'm aiming to make music that's entwined with multiple traditions simultaneously, but at the same time doesn't feel beholden to convention. I'm by no means hellbent on defining the future of music, but I also have very little interest in aligning myself with one particular lineage. I think some would label my outlook postmodern, but I also veer away from the cynicism, irony, and fragmentation that tends to be a part of po-mo thinking.
I also should say that I think that there's a very big difference between making music that's unique and music that's innovative. If you look at the twentieth century when the notion of innovation was totally rampant in all sphere there were also so many utterly singular artists, many of whom were overshadowed by the more readily quantifiable achievements of innovators.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
It's hard for someone like me not to feel as though every new gear purchase has drastically changed my way of approaching things. Excitement for new sounds is one of the key motivations behind my work.
There is however a major and early turning point for me that I feel has shaped everything since. In 1998, I was in the 10th grade, and after puttering around with various shareware synthesis programs and reading about all different kinds of electronic instruments in magazines like Keyboard and Sound On Sound, I decided to save up from a job I had to buy a Yamaha DX7.
The fact that it was so notoriously difficult to program made it all the more enticing to me. In fact, at the music store where I purchased it, there was also a Juno 106 for sale for the same price ($300) and I ended up choosing the DX7 because it seemed like such an expansive world of possibility. And I can't say that I regret that decision either (despite what Junos sell for nowadays).
[Read our Juno 106 feature]
[Read our Lewis OfMan interview, in which he talks about the DX7]
And upon acquiring the DX7, I immediately erased all of the presets stored on it and spent countless hours staring at that tiny little two-line LCD screen learning to program FM patches. It was really fun to come home from school and explore those raw, metallic tones.
The method of listening that it taught me was super formative and instantly dovetailed with the by-ear learning I had been doing with Suzuki cello. It resulted in me becoming very excited about timbre at the same time as I was cultivating my other musical skills (which certainly isn't the norm for those of us with classical backgrounds). It also taught me patience and care about refining that dimension of the music—that sometimes it's worth it to take a lot of time to hone in on specific colours.
The fact that the DX7's architecture employed six operators instead of the more standard two oscillators gave me an appreciation of how many elements can come together to produce a single sonority as well. Certainly my command of synthesis and timbre at that age was not all that sophisticated, but it unquestionably laid the ground work for where I've since gone as a musician.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
I really have a hard time reducing things to essential features (and perhaps on a level that's an important aspect of my artistic outlook.) Nonetheless, I do see the value in it and have managed to identify a few important things:
First off, I play a lot with the concept of familiarity, and its opposite, and also exploring the space between those two poles—the tension between them but also how they can be reconciled. This notion can manifest in a variety of different ways. I frequently reference recognizable styles or gestures but those references often dissolve (sometimes gradually) into each other or other soundworlds that aren't legible as a specific style. I also unabashedly work with conventionally beautiful sonorities, but I'm just as driven by sonic curiosity, which tends to lead me in a more ambiguous direction, or toward more ambiguous or strange territory. Consequently melodic figures are as important to me as more textural ideas.
Another crucial idea that meshes with that previous one is plurality. As I mentioned there's a bit of a plurality of style to my work, but there's often other kinds of overlapping information — temporal, emotional, and others.
Physicality of sound is also of utmost importance to my practice. I like my music to feel tangible to the listener. Even when the source of a given sound is not clear, I like audiences to be able to feel how it was produced on a visceral level—the impact of a mallet, the velocity of breath, the pressure of a bow, etc.
Space is another nebulous but essential concept for me, and I mean that in a broad sense of the word. Having a sense of space in the music—of breath, of reprieve, of room within it is important to me, but I also want the sounds to be evocative of a location / environment too, or carry a potent sense of atmosphere — both of which for me are also forms of space. There's also, of course, the question of so-called headspace—the psychological state that the music gives rise to or interfaces with.
To be clear, I'm not interested in (re)producing specific spaces of any kind in the listener's mind, but I do endeavour to make music that is somehow evocative, even if it's difficult to describe the feeling that it evokes.