Kip Winger has a career that many aspiring rockers dream of. Early on, he toured as a bassist with Alice Cooper and performed and recorded with rock legends like Alan Parsons, Bob Dylan and Roger Daltrey. In the late 80s, he struck out on his own, forming the eponymous band Winger and selling millions of albums worldwide.
His true passion, however, lies beyond the glory of hard rock. “I love performing,” Winger said in conversation over the phone, “but I’d rather be composing.” This weekend, the Nashville Symphony will perform his work Conversations with Nijinsky as part of their Classical Series opener.
For many listeners, the transition from rock star to classical composer is unexpected. For Winger, it felt like destiny fulfilled. “I always knew I would end up here,” he says, discussing his classical work. He remembers when he first studied with renowned contemporary composer Richard Danielpour: “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re a classical composer disguised as a rock star.”
Winger says orchestral seeds have been planted throughout his life. His first exposure to classical music came from his neighbor, who was playing the guitar music of Francisco Tárrega on his front porch. After taking up classical guitar himself, he enrolled in a ballet class and discovered the music of Debussy and Ravel. Even in his songwriting for his band, Winger says he’s used classical devices for years— he mentions the string quartet in the song “Hungry” as one example.
It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that Kip finally became serious about pursuing classical music. “It was really a down time,” he explains. “The grunge thing had arrived and my band had taken a hit.” In 1996 his wife was killed in a car accident. “I decided then that I should finally do what I had always wanted to do. I had no idea where it would lead, but I [started composing] because I wanted to. There was a pure authenticity of desire there.”
And while success wasn’t the motivation for his composing, the success did follow. His 2016 piece Conversations with Nijinsky topped the Billboard classical chart and earned him a Grammy nomination. “It’s been astounding,” he says. “I’ve sold millions of records but I’ve never had a #1 before.” It hasn’t been a quick trip to the top, however, and Kip says he’s spent years honing his craft with private studies and lots of self-teaching on the road during long tours.
It was his love of movement and ballet experience drew Winger to the life and story of Vaslav Nijinsky, the virtuoso dancer whose choreography was at the heart of some of the most groundbreaking works of the 20th century, including Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (which is also on this weekend’s Nashville Symphony program).
“Nijinsky had such an interesting life, and a career that was cut short by schizophrenia,” Winger explains. “I found myself conversing with him about the music he might want to dance to, had his life not been interrupted.”
Winger says as he composed he would often dance around the room, to see how the music felt when he moved with it. He recalls that by the time he reached the fourth movement, he “felt like he was taking dictation” from Nijinsky.
He has even befriended some of Nijinsky’s family. Kinga Gaspers, Nijinsky’s granddaughter, will be in attendance at the Nashville Symphony’s performance this weekend.
And Winger remembers fondly the high praise he received from Tamara Nijinsky, the famous choreographer’s daughter:
“My father,” she said, “would have loved this music.”