Joel Matthys is a composer who studied at the University of Cincinnati and now teaches at Carroll University in Wisconsin. He composes acoustic, electroacoustic, and interactive music and media which explore language, meaning, structure, and our relationship to the modern world. His latest piece, Three Dissolving Fiddle Etudes will be premiered by violinist Jack Bogard on our April 5th Solo Soundbox concert in collaboration with Chase Public
CSB: Could you tell us about the work you’ve written for this concert, Three Dissolving Fiddle Etudes?
JM: When I was first contacted about composing for Jack Bogard and Cincinnati Soundbox, I immediately responded that I wanted to do a set of pieces based on fiddling. I was a fiddler when I was a kid, and it seemed like a good challenge, because fiddle tunes are so grounded, durable. It can be hard to get past the fiddle tunes into something compositionally interesting. But I wanted to play with what happens when you strip the tunes away and are just left with the techniques of fiddling, like cross shuffles, and bariolage. The idea is that the ground falls away and we’re left with something a little more abstract.
CSB: What is your approach to writing for electronics vs. acoustic instruments?
JM: I’m really interested in exploring the behavior of systems in my pieces. I know that sounds kind of cold; what I really mean is, I like to set up a set of rules and see what happens when they play out and interact. Sometimes it takes the form of game-like elements, like in my laptop orchestra pieces. Or I use the computer to sonify some natural physical behavior. So for me it’s relatively easy to do when I’m writing electronic music, because I code everything into the computer, the sound and the behavior. But with live performers, I try to incorporate their behavior in the piece–they’re another “system,” a very complex and interesting one. I want the live performers to have some agency in my music, as active creators rather than just interpreters. And that means I try to think about options for the performer and how they will interact with the other systems in the piece, like rhythm and form. For me this is hardest with fully acoustic pieces like these fiddle etudes, because I have to try to anticipate the ways that the performer will interact with the other elements in the piece, and it all has to be expressed in musical notation and performer directions. It’s more ambiguous than code. But that’s also why it’s so rewarding.
CSB: What have you been up to since leaving Cincinnati?
JM: I took a job teaching music theory and composition at Carroll University, a school in southeastern Wisconsin with a small music program. I’ve been able to pursue a wide variety of interests, from developing aural skills and counterpoint software, to building unique new cube speakers for my laptop group CLIME (Carroll Laptop and Innovative Music Ensemble), to introducing a music therapy program. I’ve taken the university wind ensemble to Perugia in central Italy to perform my wind ensemble piece Eclipse, and I’ve been active as a jazz pianist in and around Milwaukee. And then there’s Walter and Mabel, my four-year-old and two-year-old. They keep my wife and I very busy!
CSB: What upcoming projects are on your agenda?
JM: I’m working on a number of chamber pieces for a composition recital next spring, both acoustic and electronic. I’m developing software to automatically check music theory assignments for part-writing errors, which ought to make my life easier (and make a lot of music theory teachers happy too). And I’m planning a “flash mob” with my laptop orchestra in a coffee shop this spring–oops, I’ve said too much!