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Kip Winger Rocks in Oberlin: A Reflection on Recording “Conversations with Nijinsky”

Feb. 15, 2012

by Marina Kifferstein ’12

Webcropped2Kip And Orchestra Denise Troscello
Kip Winger with members of the Oberlin Orchestra. Photo by Denise Truscello

In January, the Oberlin Orchestra recorded “Conversations with Nijinksy,” a ballet suite by a very special guest composer. Although most of us in the orchestra had never heard of hair metal icon Kip Winger (among classical music majors in the con, ‘80’s metal enthusiasts are something of a rarity), the multi-platinum recording artist, who is best known for his band Winger and his youthful days as a bass player with Alice Cooper, has had an extremely successful career both as a band member and a solo artist. He also turns out to be a really nice guy.

We had all signed up to be a part of the recording, which was a paid gig, unlike most Oberlin-affiliated special projects. The opportunity for professional experience was exciting for all of us, and forced us to take the project seriously. “I don’t want to say it,” admits senior flutist Annie Gordon, “but with the money being involved, it put me at a different level of commitment.”

There was also quite a bit of excitement surrounding the conductor, Scott Yoo. A child prodigy on violin, Yoo made his concerto debut with the Boston Symphony at age 12 and went on to win a slew of international competitions. He graduated from Harvard with honors, and was the 1994 recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant. As a conductor, students know him best for his work at the prestigious Colorado College Summer Music Festival (CC), which a few of the students in the orchestra had previously attended.

Yoo is notorious for his high expectations, and his reputation preceded him. “I've worked with Scott Yoo before,” says junior violinist Katherine Floriano, who attended CC last summer, “so I knew the experience would be good for the orchestra, and we wouldn't get away with anything. I think he really held us all accountable and pushed us to our highest potential.”

Despite our excitement and commitment, there was an undeniable air of skepticism regarding Winger’s background. Could his music really be “concert” quality, or would it be fully orchestrated pop rock? Would we be able to take it seriously? Even Winger was prepared for this. “Coming from where I’ve come from,” he noted, “I’m sure a lot of people were skeptical about whether the composition was worthy or not.”

But Oberlin students came through and performed with flying colors. “You guys kicked ass,” Winger said. “I was really happy that everybody was willing to take my music seriously. I’m editing it now and it sounds really awesome.”

The orchestra members felt good about the product as well. “The Oberlin group stepped up their game for this project,” says junior clarinetist Zach Good. “It's amazing how a little money and an insistent conductor like Scott Yoo can make a huge difference in performance.”

Oberlin isn’t the only classically oriented community that embraced Winger’s non-traditional background. In fact, quite a few established institutions have taken Winger seriously as a composer, including the Tuscon Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco ballet, which performed his first ballet, “Ghosts,” in its 2010-2011 season. “Ghosts” had a very strong reception, earning Winger much critical praise and a nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Music/Sound/Text from the Isadora Duncan Dance Award Committee. Described as “Sibelius-meets-Stravinsky” by the San Francisco Examiner, “Ghosts” is by all definitions neo-romantic, which is rare coming from a contemporary composer outside of Hollywood.

“Conversations with Nijinsky” is equally romantic, but it tends less towards Sibelius and more towards Bernstein or John Williams. “I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the composition,” says Floriano. “I thought Kip Winger had some really great ideas that were communicated effectively. I could definitely catch some glimpses of Stravinsky in his work. I also heard a lot of Hollywood compositional aspects, but I think it will work well as a ballet and will be interesting to see as a finished product.”

Everyone involved in the project is excited to hear the completed piece, but we’re going on faith that the audio engineers know what they’re doing. We recorded the entire piece just a few bars at a time, rarely exceeding a take of 30 seconds. “I was surprised at the piece-by-piece, cut and paste nature of the process,” says junior violinist and concertmaster Wyatt Underhill. “It was practically the antithesis of live performance, so there's no single run through to reflect on and evaluate.” Because of the fragmented process, there is some concern that the end result might not be cohesive. “On a technical level, it should sound great,” says Good, “but on a musical and structural level, I anticipate it being choppy.”

The short takes, which were punctuated by hushed, tense phone conversations between Yoo and the audio booth, were certainly a new experience for most of us. But as modern audio technology continues to develop and improve, this style of recording is becoming ever more prevalent. Most of us will probably record in a similar environment again in our professional lives, and now we can say that we know what to expect. “Because it was my first experience like that,” says Underhill, “I think the biggest thing I’ll take away from it is just the knowledge that the next time I do something similar, it won't be new anymore.” A simple gain, but an important one nonetheless. 

Regardless of how the final product turns out, it was undeniably a valuable opportunity. “I think this was a good professional experience,” says Floriano. “We were treated with respect and I learned a lot from this recording session.”

“It simulated a professional orchestra job,” says Gordon. “It didn’t really matter what I thought of the piece or what my interpretation was. All that mattered musically was what the conductor, Kip Winger, or any of the guys in the studio said to me. My opinion was totally irrelevant.”

Gordon was also one of a few students who ran into Winger after the final recording session at the Feve. “He thanked me and he shook my hand,” she says. “He was really respectful.”  

“I was hoping to speak with more of the students,” says Winger, “but I never had the chance.” He ended up spending most of his time in the audio booth, but his interactions with students always demonstrated just how happy he was to be in Oberlin.

“The facilities are incredible,” he says of the school. “I think that anyone going there should feel great about it because it’s very rare to have. I was really impressed by the whole thing. I think everybody will be surprised at how good it came out.”

We’re all looking forward to its completion.  We’re anxious to see how the final product sounds, and to see if it gets picked up as a ballet. Winger says he’s hoping to have something lined up with a dance company within the year, and with the success of “Ghosts” still lingering in the air this doesn’t seem implausible.

It’s pretty incredible that a small town in Ohio could attract someone as high profile as Winger, but it makes sense; the quality of our recording equipment combined with the talented, enthusiastic student body really can’t be beat.

This isn’t the first time that Oberlin Conservatory has offered the opportunity for students to work outside the metaphorical box. In my five years here, I’ve done a slew of mixed genre or otherwise innovative projects: I’ve played in a live orchestra pit for Buster Keaton films on the big screen; toured China and Singapore playing “American” sounding pops; and I’ll be dancing while playing Steve Reich’s “Eight Lines” on the Oberlin Dance Company/Contemporary Music Ensemble side-by-side concert in May, to name a few. In the spring, Oberlin Orchestra will play a new composition based on Dr. Seuss’s book Sneetches, with narrator John de Lancie (Q from “Star Trek”). (Keep an eye out for that concert!)

Now we can add this to the list. These “weird” projects are what we’ll remember most vividly in our experience at Oberlin Conservatory for years to come, and they’re what set Oberlin apart as the forward thinking, eccentric community we all know and love.

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