Composer Nicholas Rich operates in several musical worlds.
In one, he may be putting 19th century Shaker poetry to music. In another, he may be toying around with algorithms to generate some electronic pieces.
Rich, who plays guitar and mandolin for progressive folk group Winterbirds, also dabbles in classical, chamber and experimental music. One piece of his, “There’s Always Something There to Rewind Me,” draws inspiration from and manipulates 1980s pop tunes. In “This is a Picture Of,” he incorporated some lighting elements and addresses issues of accessibility.
In a recent interview, he spoke about his various musical styles, the programming language he uses in composing some of his works, and reconnecting with his bandmates for a new album.
How did you get interested in music?
Music was in my family. My parents played music. My grandparents were in a bluegrass band. My aunts and uncles did folk and country and folk rock.
My dad, especially, was a big influence. He was a bass player and a guitar player and really was my hero when I was a kid. He introduced me to a lot of music. So it was there right from the beginning. It was kind of inevitable.
I got my first guitar when I was 10 or 11, but didn’t really start practicing until I was 13. By the time I was in high school, I was practicing guitar pretty seriously.
Who are some of your musical inspirations?
In the songwriting world, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Gillian Welch, The Beatles, of course. In the classical world, Stravinsky is a big influence.
There is a wonderful composer that I spent a while studying when I was getting my master’s degree, Conlon Nancarrow. He was an American-born composer, but he moved to Mexico City to escape McCarthyism, and lived in Mexico for the rest of his life. He had a brilliant musical mind, and thought about sound so differently from the way many other composers of his generation thought about sound. Wrote incredibly complicated dense music for player piano.
How would you describe your music?
I’m in different musical worlds at different times. I have a folk band called Winterbirds. With that group, we do progressive folk, but (it’s) music that’s recognizably folk music, influenced by the history of bluegrass, New Grass Revival, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and so on.
And then in the classical and chamber and experimental world, I do something completely different. I write music for chamber ensembles, music that draws inspiration from everywhere, not just classical music, but pop music and folk music also. But it’s still music that we would recognize as chamber music.
What is your creative process like?
It depends on what type of music I’m trying to write and for whom.
If it’s music for Winterbirds, my folk band, I will start with a guitar in my hands, and usually my songs start with either a vocal melody in mind, or some kind of guitar or mandolin lick that strikes my ear.
If it’s contemporary chamber music, I try to find creative ways to come up with sound ideas. Sometimes that means picking up a guitar and playing until something strikes me. But, more often than not, I’ll use algorithms or I’ll use computers to help me out in coming up with interesting ideas. I enjoy using Max/MSP, which is a visual object-based programming language geared toward musicians and composers.
How did “There’s Always Something There to Rewind Me” come about?
That was a collaboration with my friend, Laurent Estoppey, who’s a Swiss saxophonist, and the idea was to start with some of my favorite ‘80s pop music as source material, and then to sort of brutally distort and manipulate and mangle that source material, but to do it in a way in which the distortions and manipulations were interacting with what a performer was doing live.
Laurent is an amazing improviser on the saxophone, and I wanted to create something that would keep up with him. And so a Max/MSP patch listens to what he’s doing and responds to his rhythms and his pitches that he’s playing, and uses that information to manipulate that source material, those original pop songs.
If you could open a show for any artist, who would it be and why?
I think maybe Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. They’re heroes of mine and I would love to see them soundchecking, and I would love to just hang out with them.
Do you sing karaoke or sing in the shower, and, if so, what do you sing?
I definitely don’t do karaoke. But, I’m always humming to myself when I’m alone in the house. I constantly have fragments and ideas for pieces floating through my head. As far as singing in the shower or singing a pop song, I typically don’t do that.
What’s the funniest or weirdest thing that has happened at one of your shows?
During a Winterbirds tour, we had been playing this tune by a Brazilian jazz composer, Hermeto Pascoal, it was called “July 21,” from his collection called “Calendario do Som,” or Calendar of Sound. It’s one song for each day of the calendar year. He said he wrote it, so everyone would have a song for their birthday.
So we had been playing this tune at every concert on the tour and asking the audience at each gig if anybody had a July 21 birthday and nobody did, and finally the very last concert we played somebody in the crowd had a July 21 birthday, and we were absolutely overjoyed; we were so giddy. We played the tune with huge smiles on our faces the whole time. And it was actually somebody we knew, a former classmate of ours from UNCG.
What’s your favorite song to perform?
The last song on our first album, it’s called “Love by the Handful.” For some reason, it’s everybody’s favorite song on the album, and whenever we play it, we take the time to improvise during the introduction, and it’s a time for us to free ourselves from the structure of the song.
What’s next for you?
At the end of this month, I’m recording two short chamber pieces, one of which is a short piano piece that I wrote for a former teacher of mine, and that I’ve been waiting for two or three years to record.
And we’re working on the second Winterbirds album, “Annie Bell’s Quilt,” which we started recording before the pandemic. We hadn’t been able to get together to continue working on it, but in July, we plan to get together as a band for the first time since February of 2020.
— As told to Robert C. Lopez, firstname.lastname@example.org