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Photo courtesy Justin Wright

Composer Justin Wright talks music, Montreal and leaving academia

By Troy Hasselman, June 25 2019 —

After performing with acts such as Common Holly and Year of Glad, having two residencies at the Banff Centre for the Arts and doing string and arrangement work on countless releases for other artists, Montreal-based cellist and composer Justin Wright has branched out into solo work that highlights his progressive take on classical music and has performed at the Sled Island Music & Arts Festival for the second year in a row.

At last year’s Sled Island festival, Wright opened for Mount Eerie at the Central United Church in a solo set that used looping pedals and synthesizers to draw widely from material off his 2017 EP Pattern Seeker. This year, Wright returned to open for Ukranian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk with a band including violins and keyboards to further flesh out his sound and perform tracks from this year’s achingly beautiful full-length Music to Stay Warm.

Speaking to the Gauntlet on the phone from Montreal before his flight to Calgary, Wright admitted that opening for acts like Mount Eerie or Melnyk can be nerve wracking but finds them to be exciting at the same time.

“It’s a little scary but very rewarding. [Opening for Mount Eerie last year] was a very fun show. It was also nerve-wracking because I had switched my set up to play solo for that one so a lot of things were half working,” Wright says. “This time I’m coming with the band that I played the last few shows with. My keyboardist Annabelle will be there and my violinist Thanya will also be performing at some point in the festival. It’s definitely much more solid having played with people who have played the set a few times already.”

Wright’s reasoning for returning to Sled Island for this year was quite simple.

“Basically, I had a great time last year,” Wright says. “It’s my second time playing solo but I’ve played with the Year of Glad at Sled Island before as well.”

Aside from being a performer, Wright is as much a fan as anyone else at the festival and mentions his excitement for seeing minimalist composer William Basinski perform in the Patricia A. Whelan Performance Hall at the new Central Library on the Friday of the festival.

Music to Stay Warm differs from his previous EP in that it is entirely string-based which is a slight departure for Wright whose work is heavily rooted in ambient music and has used keyboards prominently in the past. This shift in instrumentation has more to do with the context of how the music on it was first written, with the album’s origins coming from commissioned work he did for an all-night event in Montreal.

“[The stylistic shift] didn’t start consciously,” Wright says. “I wrote a few of the pieces for this ‘chill room’ in this all night event in Montreal so I was limited to a string trio for it but I really liked them and that’s what turned them into the album.”

Photo by Mariah Wilson

Wright’s live performances are spontaneous and dynamic compared to many other classical music performances with his arrangements leaving room for bits of improvisation. While he still tends to stick to his composed work faithfully, he does allow himself to experiment with the cadences on notes and timing.

“There are moments of improvisation and more structured stuff in between notes,” Wright says. “Most of it is pretty composed but there is a lot of freedom in the compositions for playing around with the notes and timings.”

Wright hails from Montreal, a city that has maintained its status as an artistic hub, producing many notable acts that blend classical and modern-experimental forms of music such as Colin Stetson, Bell Orchestre or the roster of Constellation Records.

“I think Montreal is a great city for experimentation — I think it’s because the rent is so cheap,” Wright laughs. “No one really works full time, you don’t need to make music that really sustains you. You can take risks and not worry too much, whereas in other cities, if you’re going to be a professional artist, you need to make stuff that can pay your rent. It started with that and there’s a nice community where you can play weird music at a venue and people will show up.”

Before devoting himself to music, Wright had a background in academia having been a Masters Student in molecular biology before abandoning the field to focus on music.

“I’ve always been doing music as well but it was never the focus,” Wright says. “I just got a bit sick of academia — science is hard. I would get emails from my supervisors at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night saying ‘I was just going over this paper and that paper’ and I realized to really excel as a science professor you need to be obsessive about everything you’re studying and have the kind of drive to be thinking about that at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night. I’ll get that with music but science not as much. I still enjoyed it but I wasn’t really obsessive with it. After I graduated I worked a sa research assistant for a bit but I couldn’t really find the same feeling that I found making music, so I just made music the focus.”

One of the more notable releases that Wright has worked on in recent years is last year’s Polaris prize-winning album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa from composer Jeremy Dutcher who Wright saw perform for the first time days before the two collaborated on the album.

“My first time seeing him live was a few days before recording him,” Wright says. “He actually opened for me at my EP release. You could kind of anticipate the reception his album is going to get from seeing him play live. A couple days later we had a low -budget recording session. We found an empty classroom at Concordia and recorded in there. We set up a little string quartet formation and played on quite a few of the tracks.”

Justin Wright’s music is available on all streaming platforms and can be purchased through his Bandcamp page.

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