The Perfect Nothing Catalog: Conrad Winslow’s Sound Gallery

Conrad Winslow’s impressive debut album of works, The Perfect Nothing Catalog, takes its name from Frank Traynor’s eccentric shack-turned-store and its concept from Caryl Churchill’s 2012 play Love & Information. Both inspirations explore disparate objects in space and time–neither are concerned with pre-determined narrative, instead promoting the stories that emerge from context and association. The release, performed by four-piece Cadillac Moon Ensemble and released on Innova Recordings, features the eponymous composition as well as three other pieces by Winslow. Though his artistic voice shines throughout, the strength of the opening work, The Perfect Nothing Catalog, threatens to overshadow the others.

Mechanistic pitter-patter opens the album into a driving exchange between flute, violin, and percussion, supplemented by ornaments from the cello. Winslow operates primarily out of a post-minimalist aesthetic–syncopated gestures punctuating a warm, energetic melody–but allows only a moment of this familiar sound world before shifting to the brittle noise of a bow laterally scraping up a string. This continues throughout the work, and it quickly feels like we are “allowed” brief glimpses into little boxes of music: out-of-time, reverberant drones; meanderings through the overtones of a cello; the sounds of ripping Velcro; all separated by the exaggerated sounds of footsteps, shuffling us from one box to another.

Conrad Winslow–Photo by Ryan Hallsten

The album as a piece of technology has, unfortunately, not reached the stage where listeners can leisurely sift through its sundry contents, so Winslow dictates the temporal presentation of these objects. This is where The Perfect Nothing Catalog best demonstrates his compositional craft, as he infuses a sense of narrative propulsion to the six-movement work. The opening “mixed bag” is, indeed, a mixed bag of Cadillac Moon Ensemble’s excellent performance to come. Movement two, “tunes,” focuses on more melodic material, while “materials” and “devices” strip the sound objects down into their component impulses. The rapid shifts between starkly different material exhibit the full palette of the performers’ artistry; melodies ebb and flow to the phrase, noisy textures are precise and dramatic, and their presentation as an ensemble is masterfully balanced and tastefully supplemented by electronics throughout.

The piece closes with “controls” and “coda.” The objects have started to coalesce into similar ideas, and edge towards some sort of climax in “controls.” This is the fullest realization of these objects’ potential as more typically developed music, an incredibly effective gesture after 20 minutes of exploration. “coda” finally recaps many of the melodic and structural impulses that we encountered over the past 25+ minutes–perhaps too neatly settling on one idea as a final gesture. The meta-compositional element is easily the most compelling aspect of The Perfect Nothing Catalog, as carefully crafted sonic interactions create a pervasive juxtaposition between interior ideas and exterior observation. No single idea threatens to overshadow the larger impetus of the piece; prior to the end, Winslow so effectively makes us lost in his world of objects that the final minutes threaten to betray that sensibility.

Cadillac Moon Ensemble

Unfortunately, the enticing drama of the opening work reduces the effectiveness of the album’s remaining pieces. Ellipsis Rules for solo vibraphone and electronics immediately follows The Perfect Nothing Catalog, and though the four-minute work further demonstrates Winslow’s compositional language it’s impossible to hear the two pieces in isolation (ironically enough). The textures and patterns of Ellipsis Rules do not stretch much beyond the typical confines of post-minimalism, and the interaction with the electronics is less intrinsically important. Abiding Shapes, for Cadillac Moon Ensemble’s full outfit, faces a similar problem; despite more stylistic variation and further display of Winslow’s strong orchestrational tendencies, the piece seems more like an afterthought to the album than it deserves. The final work, Benediction, comes closest to the standard set by The Perfect Nothing Catalog. Performed by Winslow and guitarist and co-producer Aaron Roche, the work focuses on the relationship between a flowing guitar texture and piano interjections. The material itself pushes against, without betraying, Winslow’s minimalist voice, and the dramatic impulse of this shorter work matches the conviction of The Perfect Nothing Catalog.

Winslow is clearly on the verge of incorporating a compelling philosophical element into his work, as demonstrated by both the showcase piece and, to a lesser extent, Benediction. Perhaps a reordered track listing would create a fairer impression of the album as a whole–could Abiding Shapes and Ellipsis Rules open the record and stylistically segue into the philosophy of the remaining works? Abiding Shapes and Ellipsis Rules are well-crafted, comfortable works, but Winslow has the potential to consistently push past aesthetic boundaries without abandoning his well-developed voice. The Perfect Nothing Catalog and Benediction are displays of a higher level of compositional consideration, introducing a composer with an incredible grasp of material and its meaningful possibilities.