Conrad Winslow ’07

The Music Maker

How Conrad Winslow ’07 earned his musical chops.

by Maureen Harmon | photo by Yvette Kojic ’07

CONRAD WINSLOW ’07 WAS 5 WHEN HIS MOTHER BOUGHT A PIANO. She wanted to play, but her son took an immediate and intense interest. “I was always making things—writing stories or horrible poems,” Winslow says. “Making things was part of my universe.” So the little boy made music.

But he never thought it was his future. Not sitting at that piano in Homer, Alaska, where his father was a fisherman. Not in high school. Not at Rollins when he was composing music for theater productions like Henry V or for the senior matriculation ceremony. “But once I started going to concerts [of new classical music],” Winslow says, “I thought, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do.’ ”

Winslow headed to NYU for a master’s degree in film scoring and then to Juilliard to earn a master’s in composition, but he knew it would be harder than that. Degrees from NYU and Juilliard were certainly quite impressive, but taking those degrees and making music in the real world (in this case, New York City) required much more than that. “I needed chops,” Winslow says. “Making art in the city is a long road.” And he was thankful that thus far, he had taken the long way ’round. If Winslow had been through the conservatory track from a young age instead of having his traditional high school and liberal arts college experiences, he says, “I’m not sure I would have had the same perspective.”

Chops came from working with renowned musicians. He taught at Juilliard, but he also worked as an assistant to Alan Pierson, artistic director of Alarm Will Sound and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He worked as an assistant on the San Francisco opera The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. And now he’s working with pop star Rufus Wainwright to notate music for his opera, which will debut in 2018. It’s technical work, not exactly the romanticized ideal of a young artist crafting his masterpiece in a secluded Victorian somewhere, but it’s just as important, Winslow says, as the creative work. “The various jobs I’m doing that are minimally creative or not creative at all are all circling around the clearing in the center.”

That clearing in the center—that dream life he’d like to have someday—is coming. Winslow is a patient man. “I would love to get to a point where I can take a commission and go off to Alaska and compose for six months,” he says. But for now he’ll head to Wainwright’s home in Montauk, New York. He’ll also work with students at Juilliard and the Hoff-Barthelson Music School in Scarsdale to help them achieve their music goals. These are important relationships. “I think teaching is a sacred act, and maybe the most human thing that one can do. The mentors I’ve had in my life have made what I’m doing possible. You learn a great deal from teaching others, and it’s the best way to grow.”

None of this is to say Winslow’s not already doing creative things. Great creative things, in fact. He’s won a slew of awards and distinctions, including the Yale Glee Club 2013 Emerging Composers Competition, and he’s often commissioned to create work, including an orchestral piece for the New York Youth Symphony, which will debut in Carnegie Hall in May. The piece he’s composed for the young musicians is about decay, what he calls a dash of reality in a concert filled with more bright, optimistic pieces. But it’s not grim, he says. “Everything in the piece is in the process of decay. The brass fades; the delicate piano gets rusty; muscular chords atrophy,” Winslow says. “Decay can produce some of the most beautiful things in the world.” It’s similar to the way he views his own work when he gets that sacred time to compose, to work creatively, even if nothing comes of the time spent. “Maybe I’ll write three pieces of music and throw them all away.” That process is just as productive, he says, as spinning out the perfect piece every time.

And he surrounds himself with people on the same path, working to create something new. It’s part of the reason he returns to Alaska each year, leaving behind the harried and glorious city life and returning to that fishing town where he first made music at his mother’s piano. It’s there that he co-founded and serves as artistic director for the Wild Shore Festival for New Music, using the experience to influence his own drive to create something new.