Creativity Amongst Crisis: Josh Winestock, composer

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I recently put out the call to my immediate musical network, to see who would be happy to share with Fever Pitch Magazine how they have adapted during this period of social distancing. The last few months have been disorientating and frequently exhausting, and stage three lockdown has recently been re-implemented in Victoria. Prioritising your mental and physical wellbeing is more important than ever.

This prompted me to start an ongoing series called Creativity Amongst Crisis. Today we will be hearing from emerging composer Josh Winestock. Josh is currently based in Sydney and works within a variety of ensembles, including new music ensemble SPIRAL and protest choir The Black-Throated Finches, part of environmental advocacy group Extinction Rebellion (XR).


Can you tell us a few sentences about yourself, what your musical practice is, and how you’re currently working on it.

I’m a Sydney-based composer and improvisor interested in experimental, independent and community music making. Before the pandemic I was involved in a collaboration with dancers, running an activist choir, playing with and writing for my amplified ensemble Spiral, and writing a bit of acoustic instrumental music here and there as well. I try to exist in many musical worlds, but I think my music takes a lot from minimalism, impressionism, folk and modern jazz fusion.

Josh conducting a flash mob choir as part of a protest by Extinction Rebellion Sydney (XR), December 2019. Photo credit: Rigmor Helene Berg

What have you found to be most challenging aspects of this time of COVID-19, as a performing artist and more generally day to day?

Like many people I went into lockdown with many projects that I thought I would be able to get through, and of course it wasn’t that simple. The uncertainty of the situation, the many questions of ‘how much can I get done’, ‘how much am I supposed to get done during this time’, ‘what is even possible at the moment’, ‘how long will we be locked down’, were part of why it was difficult to stay focused. I started the lockdown by practicing guitar a lot, but as months went on I found it difficult to motivate myself with no rehearsals or performances to work towards.

Josh conducting protest choir The Black-Throated Finches as part of Extinction Rebellion Sydney (XR). December 2019. Photo credit: Rigmor Helene Berg

Anything particular you’d like to reflect on in this strange and disorientating socially-distanced period?

I think musicians have a really strong awareness of time, since we have to divide and manipulate it pretty carefully when we’re writing or playing music. Being on online calls I became really aware of how relative time is on this platform. Anyone who’s tried to make music over web conferencing knows about the staggering time delay that makes it impossible to play any conventional music together without comical results.

Experimenting with it made me realise how time is relative in that online space; two people clapping might be perceived as in sync from your perspective but out of sync from mine, just based on the speed at which each person’s video stream reaches our computers. Maybe one person’s internet connection is getting worse, so they might slow down from our perspective, but for them it’s the rest of us who are getting slower. It’s a bit like the way the universe works, where we “see” distant stars thousands of years into the past, where time and space are literally distorted according to the speed of light. In this environment we may think we’re playing “out of time”, but there’s actually no such thing as playing “in time”, there’s no objective perspective on the flow of time; how can you play in time in a space where the word “simultaneous” is meaningless? That’s pretty cool I reckon, and I think there’s a good piece in there somewhere…

Do you have any projects in the works you’d like to share?

I’ve been involved in pretty diverse bunch of web-based musical projects during lockdown: a few socially distanced orchestras, an isolated choir video project I’m still editing, and some specially commissioned pieces for Zoom with Ensemble Onsombl. So I’m feeling like a bit of an expert on isolation internet music! One project has stood out to me, something I think produced genuine and worthwhile art that embraced the circumstances rather than trying to recreate the music we would otherwise be making.

For a while I’ve been playing with a longstanding free-improv collective in Sydney, the Splinter Orchestra, and we were invited to play at the Avant Whatever festival in Melbourne, which was sabotaged by the pandemic. The organiser decided to take the festival online, which isn’t self-explanatory at all; “taking the festival online” isn’t itself a course of action, it’s the start of a complex and unfamiliar discussion.

Still from the full video performance by Splinter Orchestra, ‘Gesture & Suerte’. You can find the full video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acW0PNvfHCg

The Splinter Orchestra, as a group, has a really strong connection to “place”; they’ve gone into the bush multiple times to play, walking around and engaging with the sounds of nature. During lockdown we took our regular weekly plays onto Zoom, chatting and catching up before trying to improvise with each other through our microphones, recording our sound locally at high quality to sync up later.

Fortunately we don’t generally play music with a central rhythmic pulse, so the time delay that sabotages most attempts at music making over the web didn’t destroy us, but of course there were a lot of other issues. We could only ever hear a few of the fifteen-odd people on the call, and even those not very well, with Zoom struggling to distinguish between intentional sound and background noise, mangling our playing in the process. We got some decent recordings out of those early sessions when we combined our recorded audio in post, but while we were playing it was unsettling and frustrating, and the online environment was obviously totally at odds with Splinter’s usual engagement with place.

Over time though we found different ways of working with the medium. A couple of people had been messing around with virtual backgrounds (as you do on a friendly Zoom call), or typing stupid comments in the chat box during a play. One of us put a doll in front of the camera to replace his own face.

Still from the full video performance by Splinter Orchestra, ‘Gesture & Suerte’. You can find the full video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acW0PNvfHCg

We gradually realised that these were the kinds of things that Zoom was good at conveying, and we learned to focus on them; we had people using coloured lights and knitted hats to create kaleidoscopic patterns in their window, or people putting coloured film over the camera and distorting their own faces, people dressing up in costumes and face paint, people tricking their virtual backgrounds into painting their faces digitally, or combining themselves with swarms of monochrome pigeons or cartoon characters.

I enjoyed using brights lights to create abstract patterns over video I had lying around on my computer. We captured both the gallery view and several different speaker views to edit together and overlay in post, and we could embrace the subjectivity of each person’s perceived experience of the improv, influenced by their connection speed and the mysteries of the algorithm.

We ended up presenting a 73-minute video piece at the festival, and I’m really proud of it. I think we moved past trying to cling on to what we had lost, and we found something really new. It felt distinctive to this era of isolation, but not hopeless or a pale imitation of something that would have been better in person. It was different; not better, but under the circumstances kinda “right”.

How do you sustain hope for the future, or overcome periods where you feel less motivated?

I think I got pretty weighed down by all my plans when the lockdown first started. Things felt a lot more positive when I moved on from the projects I had originally planned that I was obviously not going to get around to. I’ve ended up being pretty busy recently just by embracing things as they come up, doing this as they interest me, and I think there’s something to learn from that. As for hope for the future though, that’s a hard one…

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