I found an interview that I did earlier this year with Mary Anderson on a website called Stock, I thought I would post it here for something a bit different – Mary asks some interesting questions about the experience of music and transference between composer, musician and audience.
I hope you enjoy!
Matthew Dewey was one of five composers featured during Sounds Tasmanian: New Works by Tasmanian Composers, which played at Hobart Town Hall, Saturday 17th May 2008. Matt’s Symphony No.1 for String Orchestra was developed out of a score written to accompany the 2007 theatrical premiere of Tom Holloway’s play Beyond the Neck, which explores the lives of characters affected by the Port Arthur massacre of 1996. Speaking to him following the performance of his symphony, Matt reflects on how and why music moves us, and the possibilities inherent in composition as a form.
How would you want an audience to remember your work? The humming of a tune, a general atmosphere, a sense, an idea?
The humming of a tune is a great complement, but it’s probably a fairly superficial complement, too. Because you can hammer a tune into somebody’s memory simply by repetition. So for me, I’m most happy if somebody comes away from one of my pieces with an elusive sense about it. Because what that means is it’s done something to them, even if they don’t know what it is. And it’s my belief that the currency of music is emotion. And we’re not aware of emotions on a very conscious level all the time. In fact, not many people are ever in touch with their own emotions. So, for them to be uncertain of what it’s done or for it to have drawn something out of them is to say that it’s moved, stirred, changed, affected them in some way. So that’s what I look for.
In the program note that you wrote to accompany your symphony, you express an earnestness, an interest, an engagement with processes of questioning. I’m wondering how you maintain a commitment to questioning in your work? What is the function of questioning in composition?
Questioning is fundamental to the human experience. We don’t know anything outside of that and what we do know, we all see differently. So, if we stop questioning then we give up. So it’s not a commitment to questioning, it’s a commitment to living.
In watching your symphony in performance, I was particularly engaged with the bodies of the instrumentalists. I was drawn in to their movements, their sweat, their facial expressions, the angle at which each instrument was held. Each cellist had a different physical relationship to each cello, as each violinist and violist was performing a unique physical relationship. What do you think about the physicality of instrumental work?
It’s interesting, isn’t it? Once you’ve written a piece, it’s no longer in your control. Which is good. But it’s an offering, like you say, to audiences, but to musicians, as well. So, to look at any given musician, it’s interesting, particularly in an orchestral situation where you might have a lot of people in the violin section – violin I’s, violin II’s – all playing the same music, but they all play it in their own way. Because they’re all reacting to it differently. So, you look for an experience where people have got their own innate individuality about the way they’re sitting or the way they’re holding or the way they’re focusing because if they’re not engaged then it’s the death of the piece. The realization there will be no energy.
Do you think that there is a location that music exists in the body of the composer, in the body of the instrumentalist, in the body of the audience member? Does music live in a place?
No. I think it passes through you. I think it hits you in different ways. Powerful music will hit you probably in the stomach first and then the heart and finally the head. It hits you on an instinctual level, and then it warms you or it cools you or whatever and you’re left you digest it. So, it passes through you. I don’t think it lives. It lives briefly. I don’t think it lives somewhere.
So there is a transference or transposition between bodies, between ideas, between feelings in the working out of artistic or aesthetic problems. I got such a strong sense of the collective while watching your work, and thought that your symphony, conceptually and somatically, took some of the themes and questions in the play Beyond the Neck into a deeper place because of the collective qualities of orchestral work. There are soloists, there are sections, but the overwhelming experience that I had of watching your piece was one of a chorus of voices, different questioning voices. Whereas theatre is still so largely driven by individual characters in a drama that even in an ensemble effort like Beyond the Neck, you still have the overwhelming presence of individual actors’ characteristics and the extent to which these characteristics are doing as much work onstage visually and sensationally as the words that the actor is uttering. In watching your piece, I felt like perhaps the orchestral form lends itself better to collective expression. Are there possibilities inherent in a particular art form that don’t exist in another?
Writing music for that play, what was seen as the imperative was not to overburden the play with too much sentimentality… And that I found hugely frustrating. In writing the symphony, I trusted my instinct for emotions and the emotional and the notion of a charged environment with the concept that if I feel it intensely then I will be able to express it intensely. In his review of Beyond the Neck, Robert Jarman describes the play as a meditation on our common grief and anguish. It’s, as you say, appropriate, that the symphonic form explores that… It was described to me that opera composers are playwrights who are three dimensional. Because not only do they write format, but they also inform the subtext and they drive the energy. So, the interpretation is limited in a different way, but because it’s a far more complete picture. And I take that concept to be in concert music, as well. That a composer is an architect of an emotional experience. I wrote that piece in three movements and the middle movement is really the centrepiece. But in order to get there, I needed to write everyone’s ears into that and out of that. You can’t hit people on the head. You need to nurse them into something and out of it, too. So there has to be a respect that you are taking people on an experience and if you don’t have that respect then it won’t be successful.
Mary Elizabeth Anderson is a writer and performer based in
Hobart, currently completing her PhD thesis as a Fulbright Scholar in
the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of
For more information related to Matthew Dewey or the work of Matthew Dewey, please visit www.matthewdewey.com.