MATT LONDON - 20.05.2018
(SD) Thanks Matt for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s start by taking a bit about your work and career in music so far.
You studied saxophone at the RNCM in Manchester with Andy Scott and Rob Buckland before moving to Brunel University
in London to focus on the composition of improvisation-based music with Colin Riley and Christopher Fox. You’re also
Musical Director of London-based Ensemble Entropy, which champions improvised music, working with some major
players on the UK improv scene. Tell us more about what you do, and what you’re trying to achieve overall as an artist.
(ML) Hey Shaun, thanks for having me. About myself, well, I suppose I would describe myself as a player-composer, both are
of equal importance and inform the music I produce today.
The majority of my training has been as a saxophonist and with it being such versatile instrument my musical consumption
has always been rather eclectic to say the least. I suppose it is this flexibility that has led me to really question and develop
my musical practices.
I endeavour to create music that has the emotive freedom and intensity of free improvisation - I love it’s energy, focus and
agility. Through a personal compositional language I have been developing using hybrid notation and graphics I try to
instil a broad structure and direction to the music in a linear fashion away from unconnected episodic moments a
characteristic often (but not always) found in free improvisation hopefully capturing the intensity and colours indicative of
this music. In essence, scored or scripted improvisation.
The way I present and create materials and scores for performers is constantly shifting around core procedures which is then tailored for the specific person or group the piece is being written for. I try to do a lot of listening research around the performers I write for by attending their concerts and listening to recordings, and whilst I am not writing composed music for them to read I like to get a good idea of their playing so that I can create something they will engage with.
Oh, and of course, my group Ensemble Entropy is based around this idea of the impromptu. I have a core group of fantastic musicians in Seth Bennett (double bass), Georgia Cooke (flute) and Rebecca Raimondi (violin) and I then invite guests to join us to explore music making. We’ve had wonderful musicians like Matthew Bourne (the improv pianist not the choreographer), drummer Mark Sanders, electronics inventor Jenn Kirby join us so far with more planned!
(SD) Fascinating, and unlike anything else we have in the programme. I adore this style of composition, and was a jazz guitarist and composer myself before exploring contemporary classical composition… I now find myself wanting to incorporate some of the freedom from jazz into my current work, and the results, as you touch upon, can be fascinating, and sometimes it’s so energising to be surprised by your own creation!
Unfortunately I find others, especially in academic circles, often questioning the composer’s amount of ownership when adopting this method… maybe it’s something one can’t afford to be concerned about, but do you have similar experiences, and if so, how do you respond?
(ML) I know what you mean. Whether improvised or fully composed, there's just music? I think the way we have been taught to think through Western music convention in not helpful. The need to rationalise everything so tightly. Can you hear where the written material stops and the improvisation starts? Does it matter?
(SD) Agreed 100%.
(ML) In a sense I am just going back to a very old way of performance practice. Before everything began to get codified. Improvisation... it just got lost in classical music. I'm not entirely sure why classical music gave up improvisation? It use to be there, in early music before standardised notation, even in classical cadenzas.
(SD) Precisely. There is certainly a clash in ideology between the classical and jazz schools, but I personally absolutely adore seeing the two traditions being fused, and would love to see more of it. I also think it’s very important that we strive to fuse the two scenes together, rather than just sticking a piece of Classical or Romantic Era music in among some cutting edge contemporary stuff… there’s far more in common than most realise between contemporary classical and contemporary jazz!
And there are some great things happening with that fusion but we need more!
Anyway, moving on...
We’ve programmed the second performance of your piece ‘Herbig-Haro’ for our upcoming concert on June 13th - I, personally, am very excited to experience it. What can you tell us about the piece in terms of influences, concept, the inception of the piece etc?
(ML) Well I can’t tell you how it will sound which I find really exciting! It is a hybrid
graphic score drawn by hand and is a result of some intensive study with Barry Guy -
one of my favourite player composers!
Last year I got to play in a large ensemble of his at Festival Mixtur in Barcelona. Barry
wrote us an extended work called 'Meditations and Hallucinations' and it included lots of
graphics! I have studied his work for large ensemble specifically his work for the London
Jazz Composers Orchestra and it’s latter incarnation the Barry Guy New Orchestra
which is predominately made up of improvisors. The way he harnesses their energy is
amazing. What I find so intriguing is that it is actually tightly controlled through fairly
But with 'Meditations and Hallucinations', Barry decided to use a different approach by
including a lot of graphics I hadn't seen from him before in this context. Getting to
experience it all with him in rehearsal over a few days, which included a jam session
and a few one to one lessons with him was amazing and it inspired me to revisit and develop my own use of graphics across all settings. 'Herbig-Haro' is direct result of this experience. Through this piece I have tried to extrapolate Barry’s use of graphics adding an element of narrative upon them instead of using them as separate contained events which he did with 'Meditations and Hallucinations'.
I think this way offers me a really concise way to engage the musicians, reduce the time the players interprets what is on the page hopefully opening up their playing experience so that they can truly collaborate.
What is really exciting for me is to hear the piece played by different musicians and see what they make of the score and how they interpret it.
The piece has a broad notation key that explains some of the graphs in a prescribed way and then there are many other elements that are purely suggestive and open for them... so who knows what will happen!
(SD) Ahhh yes, you recently introduced me to Barry Guy’s graphic scores and the approach fascinates me. Your final point there, for me, is the essence of writing improvised music - getting to know the players so much, as you mention previously, and the excitement of not actually knowing exactly what will happen!
We have 2 players different to the premiere performance for the Kinetic performance. I’m guessing you know Otto Wilberg’s playing well, and you’ll be working with Oliver Baily for the very first time. Oliver has no prior experience of playing in this style, but I know is very much excited by the prospect and really adores the sound-world that results from the score. Have you had any previous experience with presenting your scores to those less experienced in freely improvised music / graphic score interpretation?
(ML) For me once the piece is written that's my part done. It's all down to the players. And
whilst each piece is written for certain people in mind to engage them there is always a
broad system or premise to the piece so that others can perform the work. Hopefully this
allows others less experienced to also give it a go.
(SD) Cool, so it’s a shared ownership in a sense, and it’s great seeing that encouragement to
get performers into this discipline.
I’d like to go more into detail about the score… can you tell us exactly how it works? It is a
stunning score by the way, and it’s actually been a bit of a study material for me lately!
(ML) The piece is for violin and double bass and I have constructed a path each for the
players to follow. At points the players converge, diverge, agree and disagree. Herbig-Haro
are a cosmological objects... clouds of interstellar gas appearing and colliding with
each-other around newly born stars. I suppose the players have to chart themselves
around and through it!
(SD) Ahhhh a narrative!
And luckily for all of you reading this, I’ve posted the score and info key here, which act as links to larger versions on Matt's website.
Check them out - wonderfully presented and I’m really looking forward to seeing what arises from it!
(ML) Thanks. It was both fun and stressful creating it. Especially being left handed using a pen!!!
Moving on to a question that I’ve been asking all of our composers so far...
The music industry, and the nature of the music we create, is moving so quickly with developments in technology and the growing
power of social media. What are your thoughts on how recent developments in Western society have effected the creation of new
contemporary music, and do you think certain aspects of our discipline have become more or less important / engaging to a modern
audience? And does this subject have an effect on how you approach composition?
(ML) I'm really not sure. I think depends to the person and how they engage and use technology. You have people like Jennifer
Walshe who immerse themselves in it and as long as you really get inside it, understand it, find something to develop then I'm open to listening to it.
I saw a collaboration of Jenny's with Brain Irvine called 12 Vices and it was amazing. Jenny at some point was wailing like a teenager about One Direction breaking up reading actual tweets from that time accompanied by a free improv trio and string quartet.
(SD) Amazing… and yes, One Direction DID just get a mention...
Do you know her ‘THIS IS WHY PEOPLE OD ON PILLS /
AND JUMP OFF THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE’? So much
fun, and at the same time such an INTENSE process.
(ML) Yes! In fact my group performed the large ensemble
version, for 10 improvisers.
(SD) Brilliant - I’ve provided the recording here for our
readers to check out. Anyway, going back to the question,
do you find that technological developments and/or the art that results from that, has an effect on your own practice at all?
(ML) Not really. I'm pretty old fashion in that I am trying to peel everything I do down to the basics so I that I can understand it better. I think my music is pretty elemental and primal so that it gives the performers the space to expand, develop and depart from it.
(SD) Cool - well it sure works!
(ML) I think ‘THIS IS WHY PEOPLE OD ON PILLS / AND JUMP OFF THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE’ is actually very primal in that it asks the players to really contemplate everything they do... and this requires the players to really focus on the tiniest of details such as the grain of sound.
(SD) Yes, absolutely, with such precision in the directions. This meticulous attention to micro detail is something I've come across with Michael Pisaro also recently; it's greatly effected my current work.
Before we finish up, is there anything you’d like to plug? (apart from your involvement in Kinetic #3 of course =P)
(ML) Things coming up... I'm off to Zagreb in July for the World Saxophone Congress. I'm artistic director of the Tenor Saxophone Collective - 12 tenor saxophonists from around the world. We are playing a piece of mine called 'The Shaman' which is inspired and dedicated to Paul Dunmall my favourite saxophonist. It's the second performance of the piece and I'm looking forward to it as we have a few new players in the group this time so it will be fascinating to see what they make of the piece.
Excitingly for EE, our next guest is going to be the amazing mezzo soprano Loré Lixenberg. Lore is one of those fearless musicians who just wants to try everything and anything. Not sure when it is going to happen yet but it definitely will. I’m in the process of trying organise it at the moment.
(SD) Sounds like you have some really exciting stuff on the horizon! Be sure to catch up with another of our composers, Joe Shaw, in Zagreb! It sounds like a great festival. And keep an eye open for Ensemble Entropy activity folks; I'll post a link to their channels below.
To finish up, I'd just like to say a massive thanks for taking the time to do this interview - I am so excited to meet and have you in Manchester for Kinetic #3, and looking forward to see what 'Herbig-Haro' has in stall for us on June 13th!!!
(ML) Organising people is hard so many congratulations for making Kinetic #3 happen.
(SD) Tell me about it... (Sigh)...
(ML) Yes, I can't wait to catch up with Manchester and meet everyone involved with Kinetic.
(SD) It should prove to be a very special night indeed - see you there!
Please check out Matt's website for more.
Join us for the second performance of 'Herbig-Haro', and much, much more at Kinetic #3 @ LEAF MCR. Tickets now available - please see our 'What's Next' page for the link.