Matthew Neil Andrews

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, writer, and magician specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. He regularly performs with (and occasionally composes for) Indonesian gamelan, plays cathartically raucous drums in various gonzo bands around Portland, and is currently a graduate student in Portland State University’s School of Music. Matthew is an incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, and can often be found taking nightly dérive walks all over the city. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com. Complaints and requests should be directed to music@orartswatch.org.

 

What are you after, after all this time?

A conversation with Caroline Shaw, composer of string quartets performed this summer at CMNW and WVCMF

When I read that Pulitzer-winning composer-violinist-vocalist Caroline Shaw used to accompany dancers—improvising on the piano, percussion, and violin for dancers, three hours a rehearsal—I immediately thought of Lou Harrison. If you’ve read Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s Harrison biography (written with composer Bill Alves), you know all about one of Lou’s first music jobs, and one of the most formative: in 1937 Mills College hired him to accompany their dance classes. It was one of the major starting points on his path to greatness.

So if Shaw starts making her own instruments, that’ll practically make her the Harrison of the 21st century, because she already has the same knack for treating genre lines as suggestions, synthesizing old and new musical traditions, performing her own music, making friends all over the place, and crafting gorgeous melodies to weave into strange sounds and ear-tingling textures.

Chamber Music Northwest programmed a fair amount of her music this year (though not as much as Mozart or Meyer, unfortunately). We got repeat Northwest performances of her string quartet Entr’acte (last year it was Calidore, this year Rolston—and oenophiles just heard it at Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival). We also got the co-commissioned Northwest premiere of her new quartet Three Essays. CMNW even gave us two chances to hear Calidore playing the new one: once on a Fourth of July concert at Reed College (alongside equal helpings of great Copland and boring Copland), and the next day on a New@Noon concert (alongside works by Shulamit Ran and Jacob TV).

Entr’acte was a major highlight of CMNW 2017, holding its own alongside music by Joan Tower and Gabriella Smith, and it was lovely to hear it again. The three movements of Three Essays—”Nimrod,” “Echo,” and “Ruby”—take their inspiration from various extramusical sources, but their strength is that they stand on their own eight feet as pure string quartet music. My ear was delighted right from the opening of the first movement, named for the Tower of Babel’s legendary overseer. Noisy, gritty, overpressured bowing effects color subtle harmonies which shift around and resolve in unexpected ways, like Radiohead playing around with Haydn.

It was twenty minutes of pure bliss, dear reader, some of the sweetest, most satisfying string writing I’ve ever heard from a modern composer. It’s not quite Béla Bartók (whose six quartets are solidly in the same “will never, ever be topped” category as The Empire Strikes Back), but it’s certainly on par with the finest of what we might as well call Accessible Modern Classical Music.

Now, I’m not talking about bullshit Lite Classical. I’m talking about the good stuff, the stuff that’s intellectually and emotionally satisfying, novel and traditional, and challenging enough to hold your interest while still being conventionally tonal enough that when you’re done listening to it you feel satisfied instead of drained. In other words, Three Essays—like most of Shaw’s music—is much closer to Tower and Riley than Carter and Crumb.

And that’s a very good thing, because now that it’s been a full four decades since Minimalism Rescued Tonality From Serialism, we need more composers like Shaw (and Andy Akiho, and Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and Jessie Montgomery, and so on) who can embrace the strangeness unleashed by a century of experimentation while still working in the “classical” tradition and writing engaging harmonies and melodies that audiences can put in their pockets and take home with them.

Take a minute or twenty-four to listen through Shaw’s prizewinner, Partita for 8 Voices. The vocal effects are all over the place—sometimes reaching nearly Meredith Monk levels of weird—but the actual pitch content is considerably more pop-oriented than you initially realize. Same goes for Orange, an album of Shaw’s music released this April by the Attacca Quartet. The only force powerful enough to get Orange off my headphones and out of my head this spring was Danny Elfman’s Violin Concerto, released around the same time. And, weighing Shaw by pop-rock standards, she’s essentially just released her first album (we’ll consider Roomful of Teeth’s recording of Partita an early EP in this extended metaphor).

It would be all too easy to compare Shaw to the majestic Icelandic singer-composer-producer Björk. But honestly I’m not sure a more obscure comparison would be more suitable, so let’s just call Orange Shaw’s Debut—and then proceed to get all excited for her Post, her Homogenic, her Vespertine, her Medúlla. She’s just getting started, in other words, despite already having a pretty extensive career behind her, and we can’t wait to hear what she goes after next.


Arts Watch spoke with Caroline Shaw by phone in July. Her answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

On accompanying dancers

I improvised most of it, especially if I had a piano, cause I’m a terrible pianist. And I had my shortcuts and things I felt comfortable with—certain notes. And then on the violin or viola I would play in a Bach style, I might hint at some of the Bach Cello Suites and kind of go off on my own. But I’d say 90% of it was improvised, and it was a really great experience for a lot of reasons.

One is the experience of making that much music everyday is really good for my compositional chops, but also a way of figuring out what I like musically. And the feeling of understanding that music is not the most important thing in the room. It is not the focus. It should just be to serve the dancers. If I was doing the best job as an accompanist, no one would notice. They’d only look over if I was doing something really wrong. Or if you do something really incredible, but it’s rare. I tried to just maintain a presence that was supportive and quiet, which is a good lesson for young composers.

You’re always inspired by the best movers in the room; you always catch them, in a musical sense. But sometimes it needed to be ,“just give us 32 bars in this tempo in 3 with this kind of feel,” and those are good challenges too.

On composing and performing

I think there are many different ways to be mostly just a performer or just a composer. For a lot of big performers who haven’t felt empowered to be creative in the room, I think there are a lot more who are feeling able to write and try their hand at a new work, which is really exciting.

It was the generosity of Brad Wells, who started [Roomful of Teeth]. He encouraged the singers: if there was anything you wanted to try writing, anyone can write for the group, not just the two commissioned composers. So I saw this fun opportunity to make something new and to have a little time to try it out. And that’s how it started.

You can’t do that with an orchestra. It’s really hard. I’m also really lucky to have gotten to spend as much time in the group as I have. And it’s weird—I’m finding now I do a lot less trying things in the room. I should finish my pieces earlier, so that we can try things in the room.

Certain ensembles—like string quartet—I know how all the instruments work, and I’ve played all of them, and there is a deep familiarity with strings, so I don’t necessarily need to try things out. Same with the voice. But other things, like winds, or particular singers, it is really important to discuss things rather than just deliver a set score. 

On string technique, harmony and technology, and Calidore celllist Estelle Choi

I think most of it is muscle memory, where I know what it is going to feel like or what it would sound like. But certain logistical things, especially with strings, even violin—which I’ve played my entire life and do better than speaking—I will bring it out just to check a passage, to see if realistically it can be this fast or this awkward. That little grit sound that goes into the chord—that came from a vocal idea. It was trying to translate the sound of a vocal fry going into a chord. The beginning of writing Partita was that sound, and the analog of it felt like that over-pressure into a chord.

To generate harmony, I always do that at some sort of keyboard, or midi keyboard or piano. I have to sit down. My inner ear is ok, but I feel like the music doesn’t flow if I’m trying to imagine the harmonies. Sometimes audience members think they’re asking a question, but they’re actually making a comment. They’re saying, basically, “you have it so easy. Beethoven and Mozart couldn’t hear anything. Mozart didn’t have Sibelius. You used a program. You’re nothing.” I’m like, oh! It’s funny. Schumann totally sat down at the piano. He could not hear it all.

I hope that Estelle one day writes music! I think she has some secret quartet pieces in her that would be really fun. But we played a Mozart quartet pretty early on, and she’s amazing. She’s way better than I ever was. And she’s a really great colleague. She’s open and so confident in her musicianship that I hope to get to keep doing more things with them.

On Marilynne Robinson and music as language

I do find that there is something very related between speaking and writing music, and when I am writing I try to pace it like I would want to pace a conversation with somebody, or hearing a story. Where there are large scale pauses and small-scale pauses.

I just happened to start with Suzuki violin, in which the theory and method is based on “anyone can learn music.” Because anyone can learn to speak. So the ideas are tied together, which is a really nice idea. It acknowledges the genius and brilliance and talent of every single person on this earth. What we do when we are speaking is so much more complex than singing, really. I’m always surprised when people say they don’t sing. Well, you actually just did something amazingly complex by telling me that.

I could definitely qualify [Robinson] as a starting point for [Three Essays]. Ultimately it had to be a piece of music, to work as a piece of music.  But before I wrote anything, I just listened to a lot of recordings of her speaking. I liked her writing because there is a certain pace to her sentences, even in her novels and written work, that you can hear when she is reading her essays. It is a very spiritual, old-fashioned kind of sound.

When I was writing that piece, she had just done an interview with Obama. They took a walk, speaking about morality and American issues, and [Nimrod] also started to become tied to this feeling of breakdown of the country. It was 2016 when I was writing it, so there was some really tough stuff happening, and the movement started out with this gentle, comfortable lilt that hints at the Copland Americana, but pretty soon after twists out of that.

I’m also interested in the structure of essays. You hear a really good writer and they present one idea in the beginning and talk about all the details of it, and by the end you realize it was about something completely different. So there was a sense of reveal. I don’t know if any of that really translated to the piece, but it was a fun way of trying to think about music, and it was a wonderful guide as I was writing the piece. I definitely wouldn’t claim that that piece exactly latched on to those particular elements of the essay, because I just didn’t find that a very satisfying way of making music in the end. It had to write itself, but there was a guide alongside. A conceptual touchstone.

It could be a totally bullshit composition concept. A lot of time when you are talking about new music, it comes very close to bullshit very quickly, so I’m trying to avoid that. I feel very secure in what I just said, but I feel like if I keep talking it would be very terrible!

On boundaries and openness

I definitely wouldn’t say that [boundaries] don’t matter, that the borders aren’t there. I see them all the time and they shape things in ways we don’t quite realize. If I’m writing a piece for orchestra, it’s not all going to sound like the production I do for Kanye. They might be conceptually related in the back of my mind, but I think my career gets put into that narrative pretty quickly because I do a lot of different things.

And I’m very pro breaking down the walls between these things. I’d love to throw out genre, I’d love to throw out gender, I’d love to throw out borders—but I understand how these things have developed. Ultimately, you just want to make the music that is right for you, that works for you, that sounds and feels good to you, and also is ethical and is for people who are making the music.

If someone asks me to do something that I’ve never done or don’t know how to do, I’ll probably say yes, just because I want to learn about it, and that was what it was like working with Kanye and in the hip-hop world. It was something I absolutely don’t know how to do, but I’m going to be myself and be honest in this and see what comes out. So far, that’s still a very interesting way of thinking about music for me. But I would love to see a world where everyone feels empowered to be creative. However we need to get there, I support that.

The poet Anne Carson wrote this thing in a program note I saw recently that I keep thinking about. She talks about genre and says, “genre is basically a matter of occasion, e.g. if you’re invited to a wedding you write a wedding song.” And I like that. It means there is an imprint of the occasion, or the people, or the instruments.

“What are you after, after all this time?”

[Editor: our favorite closing question is “if you were me, what would you ask you?” Shaw delivered this challenge.]

I’d ask myself the same thing I asked myself about six years ago when I wrote a little song. And that was: “what are you after, after all this time?” And I will keep asking myself that as I keep getting older.

It’s a different answer every day. Today, in this moment—I don’t have an answer for that right now. I don’t. Speechless. That’s an important question to be asked. What would you answer? What are you after?

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MusicWatch Weekly: Second summer chills out

Portland cools down with Montavilla Jazz Festival, two-score local bands, orchestral hip-hop, and a bunch of bleached assholes

Happy Indonesian Independence Day! Seventy-four years ago today, Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands after three centuries of Dutch colonialism (I’ll bet you thought they were always just about tulips and weed). To celebrate, here’s a little video (if you can’t read Indonesian, skip on down):

So in a minute I’m going to tell you where to hear a zillion local composers rock out this weekend, and Senior Editor Brett Campbell has some things to say about the Montavilla Jazz Festival starting tonight, but the gamelan band I’m in Bali with just played its freshly blessed instruments for the first time this morning, so as soon as I wipe these tears of joy out of my beard I think it’s about time to give you all a little music theory lesson.

Caution: All comparisons to Western phenomena are meant as a starting point, not an accurate description of genuine Balinese music. The present author is no expert, but only an egg. Caveat emptor.

Start at your piano, accordion, Casio, or other Western style keyboard. All those white keys make up the diatonic major scale, and if you shift around the starting pitch you get the seven so-called church modes. Music students learn about all that in first year theory and never use them again.

Start with the note E on your white-note keyboard. Play the next two white keys: F and G. Then skip one, to B, and then to C. Skip up to E and you’re done. In the West we might call that a Phrygian Pentatonic. In Indonesia they call it pelog, and it’s everywhere. Even the ubiquitous roosters crow in pelog.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Hello from Bali!

Music editor in Bali, women in wine country, classical jamming in NoPo

It seemed appropriate that practically the first thing we did in Bali—after stopping for bottled water and kretek—was stop into a beautiful restaurant featuring a thirty foot statue of Ganesha, the famous elephant-headed remover of obstacles. Ganesha is traditionally invoked at the beginnings of difficult endeavors, and although none of us post-Christian U.S. Americans were religiously savvy enough to know any traditional prayers and blessings, we still took His presence at our first dinner as a good omen.

Ganesha, remover of obstacles, blesses Semar Kuning Resto near Ubud. Photo by Sean Steward.
Ganesha, remover of obstacles, blesses Semar Kuning Resto near Ubud. Photo by Sean Steward.

Gods and goddesses are everywhere here, along with a wild profusion of temples, statues, offerings of fruit and rice and incense, street dogs, motorbikes, delicious “warung” food carts, and music music music. I’m here with Portland’s only Balinese gamelan, Wahyu Dari Langit (“Revelation from the Skies”), and we’re here to study the traditional percussion-centric music of Indonesia. It’s been almost embarrassing to encounter groups of kids on the street playing drums and gongs with skill and grace we all agree we’ll never achieve.

But we’re still learning, and I’ll tell you all about that as we go along. I’m also still going to tell you about all the stuff I’m missing in Oregon this week and beyond. But first, I have to tell you about the mini-opera we watched shortly after arrival—a deeply entertaining, spiritually fulfilling two-hour spectacle of music and dance centered around a mythical beast known as Barong.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Second Summer

Out-of-town festivals, funk at the zoo, opera ‘bout Guthrie, we’re all Kulululu

Oregon, as everyone knows, has two summers every year. The first lasts from the first hot weekend in May until the end of Chamber Music Northwest. The second summer—the one you’re in right now—occupies all of August and lasts until Oregon Symphony gets rolling for real at the end of September (their annual Zoo show on the 7th doesn’t count).

If you want to hear live classical music during Second Oregon Summer, you’ll have to head down to Jacksonville for the Britt Music & Arts Festival, happening right now through the 11th, or else head out to wine country for the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, happening right now through the 18th. You can read Alice Hardesty’s previw of Britt right here, and Angela Allen’s preview of the WVCMF right here.

Other than that, you’re out of luck. There’s no music happening in Portland during Second Summer, so you might as well stay home, stay hydrated, catch up on your reading, and dig into that 10-disc Lutosławski boxed set.

Polish composer Witold Lutosławski.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Happy accidents

Music editor misses Glass opera, amplified strings, and the end of CMNW

Allow me to get personal for a moment. You, my dear readers, know that I’m involved in this vibrant local music scene I’ve been writing about every week for the last three years. As a student at Portland State University, I walk past area composers Kenji Bunch and Bonnie Miksch in the hallways about once a week. Until recently, I sat on the board of Cascadia Composers (about whom you can read all about right here in Maria “Arts Bitch” Choban’s detective hunt). I play drums in a surf punk band and gongs in a Balinese gamelan, and most of my friends and acquaintances are musicians. It’s inevitable that your ever-busy music editor will occasionally find himself becoming Part of the Story.

Music editor Matt Andrews becomes Part of the Story. Photo by Matias Brecher.

So this week I’m going to lean into that pretty hard and tell you all about my brother’s band. I’ll also explain why you have to go to a bunch of wonderful local concerts in my stead this weekend, beautiful shows I’ve been waiting all year for, all piling up here at the bottom of July where I have to miss them because I’ll be spending the next five days packing for a six-week trip to Bali.

But first, a case for Mozart.

To garden or not to garden

Portland Opera earns its place in the city’s music scene for one reason: they pour almost as much time, effort, talent, and money into productions of operas by living U.S. composers as they put into the classics. (Honestly that’s a pretty generous “almost,” but they do alright for an arts organization of their heft. Oregon Symphony does better, but they also do more.)

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MusicWatch Weekly: Hot and cold running summer

Mandolins, saxophones, loopy music, and jazz fusion

Portland summers have a little something for everyone. If you like your summers dry, hot, and aggressive, you can easily get your fill of blinding, baking, oppressively sweaty sunpocalypse. If you like your summers bitter, cloudy, soggy, and unseasonably cold—well, you’ll get your fill of that too. And hey, if you like perfect summers full of warm, friendly blue skies and cool, refreshing breezes chasing fluffy clouds across the golden horizon….well, you live here. You know Portland’s got you covered for that kind of summer too.

The music here is much the same. Just this week we’ve got everything from massed mandolins and stacked saxophones to jazz of all stripes, a lot more Chamber Music Northwest, and digitally looped harp, voice, violin, and cello. Read on to get your weekly forecast—and remember your sunscreen!

This Weekend

If outdoor listening is your bag, you’ve got two good options in Southeast Portland this weekend. The two-dozen strong Oregon Mandolin Orchestra—“mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos and crazy-huge mandobass”—performs at 2 p.m. on Saturday July 13 in Westmoreland Park, as part of the all-day Portland Picnic Wine Tasting Festival. On Sunday, Portland’s favorite saxophone quartet—the majestic Quadraphonnes, led by Mary-Sue Tobin—perform in Western Pacific University’s free “Summer Concerts & Movies In the Park” series. The band plays at 6:30. The surprisingly entertaining blockbuster Aquaman screens afterward, with free popcorn. Keep an eye out for Dolph Lundgren’s astonishing beard!

Portland saxophone quartet Quadraphonnes.

Meanwhile, CMNW is cooking right along with unstoppable verve and ferocity. Just today, at the third New@Noon concert, we heard the Miró Quartet turn in a very lovely performance of Caroline Shaw’s Entr’Acte, and you’ll read all about how their interpretation varied from Calidore’s in a couple weeks, when we all stop going to concerts and finally have time to write about them. For now, I can only tell you that their excellent playing and lively vibes got me all excited for their two appearances this weekend.

On Saturday July 13, Miró finishes their complete Beethoven Opus 18 mini-cycle, begun last Thursday. This will be the good half of old Ludwig van’s early quartet set, with its operatic C minor and its serendipitously transcendent Bb major. Then, Sunday July 14, they’re joined by pianist Gilles Vonsattel, who today gave the only performance of Rzewski that made any kind of sense to me (more on that later as well). Vonsattel and Miró will perform Mendelssohn, Brahms, and the Schumanns.

The Territory and beyond

I can’t even imagine how local jazz composer Darrell Grant must feel about competing with the Sun Ra Arkestra next week. Grant’s The Territory has a two-day run at CMNW (Monday at Reed, Tuesday at PSU), while the Arkestra plays those same two nights at the historic Hollywood Theatre on Southeast Sandy. Although both artists fall broadly under the heading of “jazz,” stylistically and thematically they could hardly be more different. One is as local as it gets, a suite about the Pacific Northwest performed by a jazz great who’s called Portland home since the 90s. The other is—if you believe the hype—literally from outer space.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Flutes and strings and weirdos

Chamber Music Northwest plays Caroline Shaw and Jacob TV. We are Kulululu.

Chamber Music Northwest seems a lot quieter since the clarinet circus left town. After last week’s brouhaha—a wide swath of concerts featuring upwards of a hundred clarinets—the audiences at Thursday night’s Copland/Shaw concert and today’s New@Noon felt hushed, rapt, attentively relaxed in a way that only summertime and a lot of lovely string and flute music can induce.

Flutist Tara Helen O’Connor performing at Chamber Music Northwest.

Let’s talk about the flute first. Last night at Reed College, CMNW stalwart Tara Helen O’Connor played flute in a chamber orchestra of other CMNW stalwarts, performing Aaron Copland’s bland-but-beautiful Appalachian Suite. This afternoon at the New@Noon concert down in Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall, O’Connor did what she does every year: she balanced Thursday’s classical side with something daring, special, bizarre. Last year, it was Andy Akiho’s -intuition) (Expectation; the year before it was Allison Loggins-Hull’s electronics-laden Pray. This year, today, she played a bit of “boombox music” by bizarro Dutch composer Jacob TV, whose Grab It, for saxophone and prerecorded samples of death row inmates, caught everyone’s attention several years ago (two favorite versions: this one for jazz trio, and this one for two bari saxes and drums).

Lipstick—the one O’Connor played today—uses the same multimedia gimmick as Grab It, a combination of speech-to-melody transformations (used most famously by Steve Reich in Different Trains), wild chromatic flourishes on regular and alto flute, various extended techniques, electroacoustic stuff I couldn’t discern the nature of (was that a prerecorded track or a filter-delay effect on the live flute?)—all of it accompanying a manic MTV-age video montage of footage from talk shows and talent competitions, sliced and remixed and projected on the screen above the stage.

In other words, it’s exactly that madhouse smorgasbord of aesthetic layering we love so much about contemporary classical music. Hearing O’Connor play this stuff is always a festival highlight for me, because it demonstrates the one thing that really makes new music sing: love of craft. The rest of the time, we hear O’Connor and all the rest of the CMNW crew apply their considerable skills to Bach and Brahms with real dedication—and it’s wonderful to hear that craft applied to music by living composers.

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