Gestures of Other Worlds and the Musician’s Duty: An Interview with Alex Winkler

Alex Winkler

By Adrienne E. Meyers

I’m Alex Winkler, a musician who is starting his third year as a Music Composition major at the University of Houston. I study classical piano and composition, but my interests in other instruments, genres, and roles as a musician extend far beyond that. I’m interested in writing music in all styles and for many different purposes, but my various works are all aimed to move people through music. I wholeheartedly feel that it is my duty as a musician to combine my various interests and passions for art into a holistic creative process.

I’m currently working as the sole composer for Liberators: The Musical (Morningstar Theatrical LLC), which was accepted as the only musical theater work in this year’s Houston Fringe Festival which showcases local theater projects. This project has been a side project since the fall of 2011 and the first act will be premiered in late August – early September. Some of my past projects include playing keyboard, singing, and playing drums for rock bands in the Houston area, working as a recording artist for local studio Noteworthy Music, recording with various jazz musicians in the area, as well as being selected as the film composer a student film during my freshman year. My diverse set of interests have given me (and hopefully others) a lot of joy, and I hope to continue to work with great artists in the future as I pursue a career in Film & TV music.

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What inspires the music/creative process for you? Does it pull from past events, ideas, surroundings, interactions, etc., or does it begin more spontaneously?

I couldn’t say I approach the creative process in any one way, since I write so many different styles and each piece means something different for me personally. For instance, once when I was wandering the UH campus on a quiet, dark night, I looked into a fountain to find the reflection of a tree, illuminated by the soft yellow street light, looking back at me. The solitary melancholic image stuck with me sparked a melody in my head later that night, which I immediately played at the piano with the harmony and all. But sometimes things don’t come that easy as a composer. Sometimes you’re not trying to illustrate an image, but trying to execute a more abstract gesture, like shapes and colors and mathematics. My good friend and fellow composer Daniel Silliman once explained his upcoming piece to me by drawing a line slanting up, then forming a diamond, then back to a line descending down the page, finally ending in frantic scribbles (the strangest thing is that somehow I knew what he meant by it!). Personally, I’ve always liked telling stories with music because stories are told to teach people about the world, which is ultimately what I’d like my music to do.

How do other art forms, previous musicians, etc. influence your work? Do you have a specific genre or artist that you are specifically drawn to?

Every artist pulls from the work done by others before them, and retells the same stories their predecessors told but with a different setting, different characters, and a different perspective. I don’t pretend that I am any different or that I am capable of any greater innovations than those before me. One of my all-time favorite composers Igor Stravinsky once said “Lesser artists borrow, greater artists steal,” which I think speaks for itself. That being said, my favorite musicians (at the moment) are Chris Potter, Imogen Heap, Michael Gordon, Aaron Jay Kernis, and McCoy Tyner. My favorite music to listen to shifts frequently with my moods, but the style of music I really have been drawn to recently is the jazz-fusion/funk albums by Chris Potter, who is possibly the greatest improviser alive today.

In your piece, ‘That Which Was Not There Before’, there seems to be a journey from a more lively beginning to a mellow state at the end. Is there a narrative that you’re working with here, and does the flow play into the title of the work?

The piece for saxophone quartet I wrote which was selected by the Journal is titled “That Which Was Not There Before,” which drew inspiration from a painting of the same name that I bought at an art festival in Denton. I was immediately drawn to the artist’s colorful contrasts as I passed by his booth and couldn’t resist purchasing the work. I modeled the piece after the painting in a couple ways. First, I saw that the art juxtaposed two worlds: a grassy plain spotted with trees and sunshine, and an other-worldly planet with a cratered surface dimly lit by moonlight. I decided that I wanted to juxtapose to different “worlds” of music side by side, which meant writing music that had sudden shifts, leaps, and coloristic contrasts that would transport the audience into vastly different emotional realms. The second aspect of the painting I adapted into my work was the blue Avatar-like humanoid that exists in the foreground of the picture. On first glance, you may think this creature dominates the earthly world alone, but on closer inspection it is seen atop a spire in the dark world as well. So, to me this creature constituted a common thread throughout a painting with constant breaks in continuity. I attempted to recreate this musically by keeping smaller, more subtle bits of musical material constant through the shifting landscape of the piece. In addition to those influences, the artwork’s title itself also gave me a sort of general creative inspiration. The idea of constructing a beautiful thing which was “not there before” is the utterly exciting possibility that pushes all artists into action, and, with this in mind, I set out on writing a piece that pushed my capabilities as a composer and helped me improve my creative process greatly.

Image: That Which Was Not There Before

In your introduction, you mention feeling certain duties as a musician. What sort of a role do these duties, as well as music in general, play in society? Also, what brought you into the arts, music specifically?

I hope everyone has had at least one moment in their life where, in the course of listening to a song or watching a movie or observing a ballet, they become so caught up in the passion of the art that they forget about everything around them. For me, once I had even my first “out of body” musical experience, I knew all I wanted to do is replicate that experience for other people. For me, my attraction to pursuing music was the possibility of lifting someone up with my music or causing their hearts to sink, making someone laugh or cry; to move someone’s heart either up, down, left, or right. The easy part for me was deciding I wanted to share those sublime experiences with my audience. The hard part is getting good enough at what I do to even come close to reaching somebody else that deeply. I honestly don’t know yet if I’ve touched someone at the core with my music, but I know it’s a personal duty I hold as an artist to keep trying and producing the best work I can. It’s always encouraging to hear compliments about the technical aspects of my music, but what means most to me is when people say things like “I felt scared and disturbed when I heard that one part!” or “the ending of that piece made me feel so peaceful”, because the fact that I’ve instilled any sort of emotion in my audience’s brain means I’m doing something right. I think one thing that talented composers forget about in writing their terrifically complex music is that an audience is an active party in any performance. Without an audience, a performance is not a performance at all; it’s a rehearsal. That’s why I think it’s essential to a composition that it considers the audience and the reaction it might have to the notes being played. It’s fine to write music that pleases your ear and yours alone, but if you spend your entire career pleasing only yourself, what have you contributed to the world in your short time on Earth? I guess when it comes down to it, I love life and I love people much more than I love music. Music is simply my way of understanding life and connecting with human beings on a very unique and beautiful plane: a world of sound that infects us with joy, fear, and every emotion you can think of. Music connects us with others by allowing us to react to the sounds we hear in common, to identify with them, recognize our humanity in the music, and share it with other people. It’s my goal in life to contribute what I can through my music and leave the world as a more connected and beautiful place to live.  ♦

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