Launching a movement: Wes Swing leaves it all to interpretation for Upswept

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Wes Swing accompanies Katharine Birdsall’s choreography with an original composition for Upswept at UVA’s spring dance concert, April 12-14. Photo by Kristen Finn, courtesy the artist Wes Swing accompanies Katharine Birdsall’s choreography with an original composition for Upswept at UVA’s spring dance concert, April 12-14. Photo by Kristen Finn, courtesy the artist

On his first day of college, Wes Swing rented a cello.

There was something about the instrument that called to him. Perhaps it was the vocal quality, its aural proximity to the human voice; perhaps it was the instrument’s ability to express a particularly full range of emotion, with its deep, full lows and intense, airy highs. Perhaps it was the way the cello is played, the embrace of the instrument in order to draw sound from its curved shoulders and round belly, from the strings on its slender neck.

That rented cello wasn’t Swing’s first go-round with a stringed instrument, but it was one he longed for. Growing up in Clifton, Virginia, Swing started playing classical violin, and by age 6, he was performing concerts for his entire school. When he was 12, he picked up a guitar and got into grunge and punk rock.

All that time Swing wanted to be playing cello, but his parents told him that the violin was enough. Swing wonders if his parents’ refusal was some kind of reverse psychology. “They refused me, which I think is the best motivation for kids…” he says, laughing. Intentional or not, it worked, because once Swing picked up the cello, he couldn’t put it down.

Swing currently has an eponymous cello and electro-folk project, Wes Swing, with guitarist and electronic musician Jeff Gregerson; he recently composed music for writer and Invisibilia podcaster Lulu Miller’s reading from her book, “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” and with funding from a New City Arts Charlottesville SOUP grant, Swing and local visual artist Bolanle Adeboye are working on an interactive project, “Now/Now,” where they produce music and visuals of people’s emotional states. Next month, he’ll do a Townes Van Zandt cover show and this summer he’ll compose music as part of Experimental Film Virginia’s summer residency on the Eastern Shore.

This week, at the University of Virginia drama department’s spring dance concert, Swing will perform a cello-and-loop piece that he composed for choreographer Katharine Birdsall’s dance piece, Upswept. Swing says that the 14-minute composition is unlike anything he’s written before.

Upswept began with Birdsall’s desire to work with pattern in movement, her curiosity about how and why movements make the shapes they do. She says that she makes movements first, then discovers the meaning within them over time, preferring to have live music composed for her original pieces, because “with music, you’re given that fresh, in-the-moment relationship. It’s so much more exciting, and the music is subject to all the same things that the dance is when it’s played live.”

A friend suggested she collaborate with Swing, who is also a fan of the live performance. In fact, Swing long shied away from compositional projects because he always wants to perform what he’s written; he has no interest in writing it down then giving it away for another musician to perform.

For Upswept, Swing paid attention to what Birdsall told her dancers—her descriptions of “luffing sails” and “wind blowing on water,” her requests for a certain quality of movement, or interpretive embodiments. Swing knew that a literal interpretation of the dancers’ movements wouldn’t be interesting to him, so he took copious notes and “subconsciously, a musical representation came to match it,” he says.

During rehearsals, the dance adjusted to the music, the music to the dance, eventually coaxing a full merge. “It’s almost like you have to look at it out of your peripheral vision, and feel that energy of the whole, and that’s where the music comes from,” Swing says. “I’ve never written music that way before.”

For all the music Swing makes, it’s hard to believe he nearly quit. “I had this wrist injury, and I realized I only knew myself as a musician and not anything else,” says Swing.

He learned to dance ballet, he started writing short stories and studied French. But once he let go of music, songs started coming in at a rate and intensity that couldn’t be ignored. Realizing he still had something to say, he returned to playing, and when he did, his wrist suddenly got better. Those songs make up the 2017 Wes Swing record And the Heart.

Swing is quick to say that his music—all of his music—comes from his subconscious, from the act of asking himself questions, sitting with his own honest answers and being open to how they manifest in the music. “It goes all places, and I’m glad that I can feel, and so that’s what I want to express” in music, says Swing.

“What I really care about is trying to make something beautiful,” Swing says. “…That tickle up the spine…that feeling is so wonderful. Being alive, that’s the real reason [I make music]. It makes me feel alive.”

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