Listening to the music of Kansas City-based composer, improviser, drummer and musical expeditionist Morgan Greenwood is a rewarding experience. Incorporating elements of jazz, rock, contemporary classical and experimental music, Greenwood's compositions are both adventurous and tenacious. For this edition of Listen Local, Greenwood provides insight into his creative life and work and shares examples of his prolific musical output.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?
My name is Morgan Greenwood and I write, play, and improvise music of all kinds. I guess it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to call myself a composer, though that doesn’t quite get at all of what I do completely, either. Probably just better to call myself a musician, whatever that might mean.
Your work is multifaceted, covering everything from experimental classical to solo percussion to rock (as drummer in the band Riala). What primarily motivates you as a composer?
I would say the main driving factor behind my music is the creation of a thing (a sound, mainly) that I have in my head, that I would much rather have out in the world. Something that didn’t exist before I created it. I find it exciting that any sound I make can evidence my state-of-mind and my surroundings at that specific time. Because a lot of things I’ve written might have taken an entirely different direction if I wrote them now.
It may seem like a lot of what I take part in musically covers a lot of ground, but I’ve never really thought of it in that way. It’s all the same to me in that I approach all of it the same way. If Nick (singer and guitarist of Riala) brings the majority of a song to practice one day, it’s the same for me writing my drum parts as it is if I’m writing a piano piece. It’s all about taking the initial idea, whether it be mine or someone else’s in the group I’m in, and serving it as best as I can with the tools that I have at the time. I have to be honest with the original idea and myself at the same time. “What strengths can I accentuate or bring out of this that’s already here, that may be hidden? What can I bring to the table that maybe no one else can?” That’s what I ask myself all the time. If I’m playing in the band it’s a lot more improvisation based, I think. It’s a lot of playing a song over and over for a long time; figuring out what works, what doesn’t. It’s a lot of “doing.” We’re all still thinking critically about what we’re doing, of course, but it’s a big free flow of information over a long period of time. There’s a lot more space to bounce ideas around three heads than one.
Describe your creative process. What tools do you use? How do you break through creative blocks?
To tell you the truth, I’m not entirely sure I have a single process. It’s always different. I always carry around a small notebook full of music staves for jotting every idea down if I’m out and about. Looking through it right now, there doesn’t seem to be any common thread between how my ideas are laid out. Some of them are abstract word associations with lots of arrows pointing every which way, some are just a list of the instruments and techniques I would want to use, others are prose representations of what would happen a piece second to second, and some are actual drafts of music.
I think the musical drafts and fragments, the actual written down things, have been scrapped more than all the abstract stuff. Almost all of them are crossed or scribbled out in some way. I think this is because I didn’t/don’t have a clear idea of what purpose those fragments would serve. Are they a beginning/introduction to a piece? Maybe, but what does that suggest should happen after? I work best when I have a clear conceptual idea of what I want the piece to be about. Sometimes (most of the time) that means sitting with an idea in the back of my head for months or even longer.
I have a piece called then gently light unfading that’s for a small ensemble of six instruments. It’s about this idea of translation, how the medium of an idea or statement changes the inherent meaning of the statement. Similar to saying something in English and then a literal translation in French. They might say two very different things; the actual meaning of the sentence might change, despite them technically being the same, because of the associations the words might have in the different languages. So in that piece I was exploring that idea with the instruments: how does the fact that a violin need to use a bow change the same set of notes that have just been blown through a clarinet? This piece I could just not figure out how to write. It started out with the instruments it has now, and then it evolved into a chamber orchestra work, and then it became a full symphony orchestra work. But it still wasn’t working for me. Then for some reason, I started looking back at the early drafts (the sextet) and comparing them to the full orchestra version, and they were completely different. They were wholly different pieces at that point, despite their common genesis. The process of writing the piece had mirrored the initial idea! Suddenly I understood how I needed to move forward and was able to finish not just one of them, but both. The orchestra version became unheard footfalls only sound. It took over a year, but now I have two pieces instead of just one. I wrote other things during that time, of course, but those two just needed that much time to cook. So my process is pretty messy, but it seems to work for me if I let everything simmer enough.
Who or what inspires you?
Oh man. Everything and everyone! I know so many great musicians and other composers around me that constantly amaze me. My two friends in Riala, for one. So many other local bands on the KC scene. Kansas City just has an air about it right now. There’s a lot of people doing really interesting things. I don’t want to name names here for fear of leaving people out, but: Jorge Arana Trio, Via Luna, Temp Tats, David Hasselhoff on Acid, Janet the Planet, SeaKings, Teri Quinn, After Nations, Monta at Odds, Author and the Illustrator, Bears and Company, Not Like Igor… Just off the top of my head. The thing of it is that’s just the rock-oriented scene. Everything else is booming too. The classical scene, jazz, all of it.
I’m also very drawn to the non-musical arts as well: painting, sculpture, fiction, poetry. I’m finding most of my inspiration lately from the way other artists work and their ideas about their art form. Like how Richard Serra might deal with space using his giant sheet metal constructions and guide people with their shape and trajectories at certain points. That might inspire me to try to find something analogous in writing music. How might I create a “space” that I can guide a listener on an exploration of, that they can move around in (metaphorically or literally) rather than just drag them down a hallway with a door on the other end?
The Shining --Stanley Kubrick
The sense of space in this film is tremendously well done. I've heard from several people that the Overlook Hotel is almost a character in the film and it's true. It's oppressive. People go down corridors that shouldn't exist in relation to the previous shot. It messes with you. It's hallucinatory. I could talk all day about the Grady-Torrence bathroom scene. Not to mention the great use of music in the score: Bartok, Penderecki.
The Body Artist by Don Delillo
After he wrote Underworld, Delillo scaled way back on the size of the forms he was using, and I think the smaller scale is where he really excels. The events in the later books are "smaller" as well, but for me this somehow makes everything more impactful, rather than less. Not to mention that he's one of my favorite sentence-level writers around. It was a toss up between this novel, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, and Point Omega for which Delillo to recommend, but The Body Artist is so abbreviated, bizarre, and strangely poignant that I couldn't choose another.
The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands by Nick Flynn
I picked this up several years ago in a local book store some years ago and was immediately floored by it. As far as subject matter, it is not lightweight at all. It tackles, among other things, the Iraq War and the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghaib. The way the book creates large scale (book length) form with repetition/variation of smaller forms (poem sized, stanza sized, line sized, a single word) almost seems fractal to me, like looking at constantly smaller versions of something larger. I've set two of Flynn's poems to music, one of which is from this collection: "Imagination."
Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
Great story writer. Funny and weird that borders on lots of different things. Often tragic, as well. At first, Saunders' world seems so bizarre and far removed from our own, but the longer you read, the more (somewhat scary) similarities you notice.
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
A poet on a Fullbright to Spain spends his time avoiding his project that sent him there and rather contemplates whether or not his work (and, by extension, himself: as a poet and as a person) is fraudulent. There's lots of great thoughts on the nature of art and lots of clever writing.
Another Language by This Will Destroy You
This band's name is probably the truest thing they could have picked to call themselves by. This album, their latest, seems to be a solid mixture of all their previous work: long ambient interludes, dense climaxes that can sometimes edge to noise (in the best way), and a good grasp of dynamism. Look to their album Tunnel Blanket if you're looking for something a bit longer and darker.
The Terror by The Flaming Lips
Similarly, this album's title is probably the truest thing the Flaming Lips could have chosen. This album is a lot like walking through a neighbor's house. You walk in and look around a room. It's a lot like your house, very familiar, but very small things are very different in strange ways. Everything seems neon, but the lights are low, you can't quite tell what the shapes are. You move to another room, one that serves a different function, but you can tell it's in the same house. Each room is almost homogeneous but your perspective to it changes. But then, after a while, you start to think this is all actually your house and that you'll never leave. Or that you won't want to.