The Sound ‘Continues To Move In Space’
An avant-garde bagpiper may not be the guy you expect to meet, even here at our eclectic Music for Writers. But last week, that’s exactly who MATA Festival audiences in New York heard from.
Matthew Welch’s MATA-commissioned Comala’s Song was given its World Premiere on Tuesday, and he improvised with fellow MATA-commissionee Helen Papaioannou and ICE’s Ryan Muncy in the MATA Funhouse program on Thursday.
Notice one of the areas in which Welch is a lot like many of our #MusicForWriters composers: he’s a performer, too. This latter-day resurgence of performing composers on the contemporary classical scene is one of the most intriguing elements of the widening story we focus on in these interviews.
And the good news is that an artist like Welch proves once and for all that “Amazing Grace” is not the only thing you can play on bagpipes.
As you read our conversation, listen to some of the SoundCloud selections of his work that I’m dropping in for you. You’ll hear exactly the stately, majestic, heart-breaking drone of the Highland pipes you expect in some of these selections — and you’ll remember, yet again, how intense and quick a connection the voice of the pipes can make with your emotions. And in other instances, you’ll hear utterly different audio-scapes from Welch. As I told him, his piece called “We Love You Madly” could make Debussy cry; it’s as impressionistic in tone and bearing as the afternoon of the last faun you met.
So basically, I started where you have to start with an American in 2016 whose thing is bagpipes. And what bonnie answers this Welch has for us, too.
‘The Contemporary Landscape’
Thought Catalog: Trust me, I’m actually a fan of the pipes, but how does one become a virtuoso in this instrument? Such a rare and distinctive focus in a career — how does one come to it? Are you Scottish?
Matthew Welch: The bagpipe, and particularly the sound of the bagpipe, is something I was drawn to early on as a kid. Once I started playing, there was no greater goal than to master the instrument. With that goal in mind and that clarity of the goal, I was able to do it fairly quickly, but there was also a steady trail of other musics that I started to to get interested in. None were as high a priority for me as piping, but they sort of enhanced my general musicality and understanding of what was possible in sound.
TC: What’s it like to play bagpipes? It looks incredibly difficult, actually, and the kind of nuance you get into what you’re doing is fantastic. (I’m thinking of “The Favrile Opalescence” in which we hear you working the pipes over what, a celeste?) This has to be difficult, because as I hear it, the instrument doesn’t seem to offer a lot of subtle sound adjustments. Is that unfair to the pipes? And how are you able to get such a range of “voice” from them?
MW: The bagpipes are actually incredibly difficult to play. One has to essentially be in shape, but also mentally in tune with what one wants to do with the instrument. Concentration is key to making the proper sound come out; I often feel like I have to be in somewhat of an ecstatic or adrenalized state in order to play the music.
Once I mastered the fundamentals of the instrument, I began to explore new avenues of sound production, new techniques, and new ways to shade expressivity. I also broadened my musicianship by performing gamelan and saxophone, and learning to generate compositional content in real time through improvisation. All of this reflected back on the pipes in a way where I could move the instrument toward those ideas, albeit somewhat blindly!
TC: And now, as a composer: Have you got range or what? You’re associated with your fine work on pipes, and yet as a composer you give us something that could make Debussy cry. Talk to me about the (at least) two faces of Matthew Welch — how easily does the compositional side of your creativity sit with the performance aspect? You’re even working in gamelan. [This is the Javanese and Balinese “bell orchestra,” comprising metallophone instrumentation played with mallets, one of the world’s most completely distinctive sounds. And, by the way, Debussy was strongly influenced by gamelan, himself.]
MW: Composing and performing music initially went hand in hand for me, for an extended period of time. I often thought of composing as a means for having new and interesting music to play. I also wanted to have my compositions immediately performed, so I was interested in writing music that I could perform myself.
When I started playing gamelan, it seemed like the polar opposite of the bagpipes. Eventually I discovered that the two have some characteristics in common, but I also still think of them as very remote. On the one hand, the bagpipes can produce a solo music that has multiple sounds and can be completely self-sufficient. In gamelan, there are many voices working towards a common goal. Reconciling those differences is an essential composerly aspect of my ensemble writing.
‘A Very Filled-In Sound World’
TC: The “Sudamala” is so profound and with such a sense of bravura to it. Is this sound of something grand, glorious, serene, triumphant, I don’t know, is it an indigenous element of the pipes’ sound? Or do we think of it this way because we associate the instrument with ritual occasions?
And do you find this factor carrying over into music you write that doesn’t engage the bagpipes?
Your quartet is full of movement, like water currents, lovely, and yet I still think I hear something of a kind of “pride continuo” underneath it all, as if the tonic of the pipes never quite leaves you. What do you think, is this majestic sound as invasive of all you do as I think it might be?
MW: One essential component of piping is continuous sound production, and a particular type of sustained energy that goes into producing that sound. Even some of my earliest compositions — many of which tried to evoke, say, the mood of Morton Feldman’s piano music — still examined how sounds are sustained; I generally like a very filled-in sound world, as is the case with both bagpipe music and gamelan
For instance, in my Second String Quartet, I wanted to propel a certain amount of energy forward in the same way that you do so in playing the pipes, through constant wind pressure. That propulsion most effectively comes from continuous sounds, either in repeated rhythms or drones, sustained volumes in long notes, or in a quite and intense sound world, again reflective of Feldman.
Much of this is also influenced by the less-sophisticated aspects of bagpipe construction; Certain advancements in instrument building, namely those that occurred between the 17th and 19th centuries, were primarily associated with refining or broadening the way that the instruments were articulated. How a sound is produced is not necessarily always an interest. More of a primary concern to me is what the sound is, and how it continues to move in space after it begins.
‘Dissolving Borders And Interacting Cultures’
TC: Okay, here’s the hardest thing I ask composers: what does your music sound like?
I like to ask this because we can all come up with myriad things to say about someone’s work but sometimes hearing from them what they think they’re doing is wonderfully informative: it gives us a new thing to listen for, a new way to feel closer to what you’re after.
MW: I think my music sounds like an optimistic view of the future.
Describing it as having a “postmodern sound” is to use an already outdated term.>I’m not intending to produce dissonant combinations of music languages, or juxtapositions that reflect the pace and messiness of contemporary life. If we look at the innovations of 20th-century music, many looked toward a futuristic sound world, celebrated the sounds and products of machinery, or grappled with industrialization and urbanization.
Now, we’re going through a more transformative period, and I hope my music points to a new future, and a new era of global transparency.
TC: And where is this all going? What’s ahead for a piper-composer? I’m recommending our readers her listen to your “Piobaireachd: Looking At Loch Fyne,” so formidably sturdy and timeless.
Are you the next digitally enhanced phenom? Or the last man to leave Loch Ness? [ ask this with nothing but affection, having made my own trips to Loch Ness and the Castle Urquhart, more than once.
MW: Perhaps a little bit of both.
As a piper I certainly understand the region of Loch Ness and certainly have made pilgrimages there, and that is actually where my Scottish ancestry comes from.
But I cannot deny the fact that I grew up in the United States, and learned to play all of my instruments through international travel. Most of what I learned about pipes and a great deal of what I learned about Indonesian music was prior to the Internet era.
Nevertheless, I think my music fits nicely into the contemporary landscape, dissolving borders and interacting cultures in all.