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Composer Paul Elwood Maintains Sense Of Mystery With ‘Strange Angels’

Chipper Thompson

Composer Paul Elwood's music has been performed at concerts across the United States and throughout Europe. Elwood's entry into the world of composition came at Wichita State University, where he studied with acclaimed music professor J.C. Combs.

“I studied percussion with him when I was in high school in Wichita,” Elwood says. “I did that for several years, and then I came on out to the university and continued to study there for my undergraduate degree. J.C. was doing all kinds of interesting projects like pieces for pinball machines and percussion ensemble, and he talked Walter Mays into writing a piece for wrestlers with percussion ensemble. So I got to participate in all those strange projects.”

During his student days at Wichita State, Elwood also spent a week studying with avant-garde composer John Cage, known for his unusual use of instruments, as well as his questioning of the very nature of music itself.

“He gave lectures, he did rehearsals. Monday morning, when he showed up, I was in the first piece that he rehearsed,” Elwood recalls. “It was for three conch shell players with a variety of conch shells filled with water that we moved around and every now and then a bubble would surface and could be picked up by a mic. That was the piece, it was called ‘Inlets.’”

In addition to his work as a composer, Elwood is also a noted banjoist. If one thinks that banjo and the avant-garde aren't synonymous, they're probably right. And that strange relationship, for Elwood, is part of the appeal.

“What I was always doing was trying to remove the ‘Yee-haw’ factor from the instrument,” he says. “Because, inevitably, if I went to some club and started to unpack my instrument somebody would yell, ‘Yee-haw!’ I thought, ‘I want to get rid of the yee-haw factor.’ I want to do other things with the instrument other than play bluegrass.”

Among the things that the avant-garde is not known for is a sense of humor, but Elwood says he'd like to see that change. Moving music into new territories, he adds, can and should be playful.

“This is something that people don’t understand about the avant-garde. Sometimes even avant-garde artists don’t understand it,” he says. “There’s a certain playfulness to it. As I say, some of the avant-garde artists treat it way too seriously. Many free improvisers take what they do way too seriously. If they would just bring a spirit of play to it rather than just creating something weird for the sake of creating something weird, create something different for the sake of enjoyment.”

Elwood returns to Wichita this evening for a performance of his event “Strange Angels: Exploring the Paranormal.” The piece, he says, was inspired by the mysterious nature of New Mexico.

“In the Southwest, but particularly New Mexico, you have this vibration,” he says, “or you have the sense that there’s something more mysterious around you. I don’t know if it’s the Native American influence or just the centuries of geological development and decay and evolution of people wandering through there over the thousands of years. But there is something there.

"The first time I went to New Mexico, I was probably 18, and I entered New Mexico late on a moonlit night. There was just a sense of mystery to the state. That sense of mystery never left me. Every time I’ve gone back to New Mexico—many times now—I’ve never lost that. I was trying to evoke that in ‘Strange Angels.’”

Paul Elwood performs at 7 p.m. Wednesday at The Ffarquhar, 611 S. St. Francis.


Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.


Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.