Daniel Matej – interviews with musicians

Tomáš Boroš: „Daniel Matej – composer, teacher, founder and artistic director of VENI ensemble. Daniel, I introduced you as a composer, but you also often conduct the ensemble and you are its artistic director; you play various instruments, operate electronics, not to mention the fact that you theoretically reflect the music, organize musical events and so on. Once you told me in such an oblique way that you are a “music-maker”, which could be loosely translated as a implementer (“maker”) of music, or even more simply, a musician. So, who are you?”

Daniel Matej: “I have been notoriously repeating this term in relation to myself, so I am glad that you said it for me. When I look back on my thirty-five plus years in music, I’ve gone through various stages. I was a student of music, music theory and later composition, I was also a Music Fund scholarship holder, where I was involved in the realisation of the dramaturgical projects – and it was there the Evenings of New Music was founded as the first ever contemporary music festival in Slovakia. So, looking back on my career and life, I would describe myself like this, as I did in an interview for Austrian Radio when asked who I am. I think that music is something really beautiful – a beautiful phenomenon that only works when several parameters are fulfilled – when someone writes it, someone plays it, someone listens to it and someone reflects on it. It is the oft-overlooked reflection of music that remains in the shadows at the expense of the music makers and artists on stage, and with it music theory, musicology, and pedagogy. However, I am increasingly aware that if it were not for this fourth – reflective or receptive phase – music would not actually exist. Nowadays, social networks and media also fulfil the purpose of music reflection, as something standing outside the direct listening to music. What is important is what keeps the music circulating, and this is something that ordinary people are often unaware of. But without that, there would be no music – similarly, if Mozart’s music hadn’t been published by publishers, if no one had written a tractate or a treatise on it, we might know nothing at all about classicism today. These are important things for me also because I am a music teacher.”

T. B.: “But this can work in different ways because it is done by many people, each with their own specialisation – someone reflects the music, someone creates or interprets it. Your new insight, however, is precisely the fact that composing music is only one stage and then music should be understood comprehensively with all its components – that is, above all, realized. Coming back to the “music-maker” – with you all this comes together in one whole.”

D. M.: “Somehow it worked out, even though I didn’t plan it – I never sat down at my desk and wrote down the points of everything I wanted to be. Around the age of 15 or 16 I knew I wanted to be a musician, but originally, I wanted to be an artist. Because I grew up in a rather harsh regime as a “normalization child”, having started school in 1969, after the fall of the Soviets, all of my studies in elementary school and part of my studies in gymnasium are tied to the harsh normalization years of the “Charta” period, which were very difficult times. My father was a political prisoner, coming from a very strongly religious family, and he worked as a mechanical engineer. All these factors, from religious to political, caused that I had no patronage or the right cadre profile. My parents did not in any way accept that I could become a musician, and they considered studying music the worst thing I could do in life because it was dangerous, I might fail, I would be forced to become a communist due to ideas of the humanity departments, and so on. So, I had to assert my decision strongly, and all my efforts were concentrated on becoming a musician. Although I didn’t even go to the conservatory, during my studies at the gymnasium I began to mobilize myself towards an artistic direction. For a long time, I solved the question within myself of how I was going to be a musician and an artist at the same time. I know how to obsessively deal with such things, so I dealt with it even at night. As time went on, the art direction naturally took a back seat because I realised that I couldn’t pursue it with the same intensity alongside everything else that needed to be done. So, I gradually started to devote myself more and more intensively to music. I got in to private teachers, such as Juraj Pospíšil, a professor at the conservatory, and to other colleagues of his, such as Boris Turz. Later, during my studies at the gymnasium, after I had already completed seven years of elementary art school – which, by the way, didn’t go very well because I didn’t practise – to Milica Gálingová, who brought me to a completely different relationship with the piano. These people gradually pushed me forward, even though not everyone understood that I wanted to be a professional musician. But I kept telling myself that I wanted to study music. Then the time came when I prepared for the exams at the Academy of Performing Arts and I did them. It was such a strange thing – I couldn’t even believe it, and when I got accepted, I was really jumping for joy because I couldn’t imagine that in socialism without a systematic musical education, I could have got into the Academy of Performing Arts through gymnasium – and I got in. When I became a student, part of that period was also a great disappointment, because I was expecting that the Academy of Performing Arts and this whole musical environment would be very intellectual, as I had dreamed it would be in isolation. I didn’t know any musicians, and I found that many of them – I’m sorry to say – had a similar mentality to, say, athletes. I have nothing against athletes and similar types of people, but I imagined that it would be a philosophical-aesthetic to religious haze, that we would be there to deal with huge themes between heaven and earth. But most musicians are practical people who deal with completely different things besides the performance ones. So, I was disappointed, and my view of who musicians are has become more realistic. I was piecing it all together and coming to terms with it. I had very good teachers, though. I have to say that those of us who studied in the eighties were lucky, because we were taught by the best representatives of the Slovak avant-garde, who we also cornered by normalization, retreated to schools, and were all the more intensively engaged in teaching. So, I was lucky that I had such wonderful professors, for whom the Academy of Performing Arts was a kind of asylum. The music faculty was quite quiet – there was no dissent, but rather a kind of quiet island of positive deviance with no outward manifestations. They created a relatively safe environment for us to work on music and its analysis. This was very important to me, and say this in the context of the fact that I didn’t really deal with what I was going to be – I just absorbed the music.”

T. B.: “I’m waiting for this point in connection with the “music-maker”. This whole development could have led towards you being a music composer or a music theorist, since you’ve been involved in both of those areas. However, I have a feeling that you wouldn’t have felt the complexity if you were purely into composition, because the whole context of performing and producing music is important to you.”

D. M.: “For me, yes. As you said, I started out as a music theorist. I studied theory because I didn’t even have the courage to apply to study composition, and gradually it evolved so that I became a composer as well, and so I studied two majors. Then came the time after school when you have to decide what you want to do. I feel that the opportunities came on their own – of course, I was ready for them because I thought about it. One of the impulses came at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, which at that time was the only Eastern European festival of a large format where contemporary music could be heard live, other that the music of the socialist composers of that country or the “regime” artists whose music was being played. I was stunned to hear music that I knew only from some very bad recordings, from a third copy, suddenly live in Warsaw. I said to myself that this is what I would like to do – to play music, to have friends with whom I can play music. At the same time, we were listening to the big-beat underground, so for me this “band” way of creating and performing was also quite natural, as if from that other, non-classical zone. That’s where the idea of the VENI ensemble was born, that I and my friends from the Academy of Performing Arts, for example with Ronald Šebesta, put together this ensemble. Then came the fact that I received a scholarship from the Music Fund, where I was able to work on dramaturgy, and the Evenings of New Music festival was created. That’s why I’m describing it this way, because that was the evolution – that’s how it went, I didn’t plan anything from my desk, I just enjoyed it and that’s how I did it. And that’s how I became the person I am. Then, of course, I wanted to teach, because you can’t make a living in music in Slovakia unless you want to do commerce, which I didn’t want to do. Very few composers – we could count them on the fingers of one hand – who were really freelance, somehow survived. And also, when you have a family, you have to think practically. But I really wanted to teach – it’s again one of the phases of how music is spread. I had great teachers, and I thought I probably had some of those capabilities for pedagogy, so I started teaching music. That was another aspect – that’s how it all gradually accumulated. Of course, I wrote lyrics as well. Because a lot of time it’s like Steve Reich said about interpretation. I often say that to my students, and it’s true of everything: “Do you want to hear your music interpreted well? Play it yourself.” I would say: “You want good lyrics about music? Write them down!” It’s not like you wait and someone writes the lyrics – every person who’s done something in their life has had a certain urge to do it, both because they felt a personal pressure, but also because it seemed like no one was doing anything around them and they just had to make it happen. And so.”

T. B.: “So, within all these considerations, you have confirmed that you are a “music-maker”. But I would rather say that you perceive music in complexity. As you said, new areas are opening up all the time, such as pedagogy, reflection, organizing music, composition, and so on. But I would still single out musical composition. You had a very nice anniversary in your life and supposedly such anniversaries inspire some people to look back at what they’ve been through. You’ve given us an insight into your musical development. But anniversaries don’t work like that for someone – it’s just an age, a date in the calendar. How is it for you? Have you found time for self-reflection when it comes to your work? Has there been that looking back at what you’ve created?”

D. M.: “In connection with my jubilee? No. You have now inspired me to look back on my life through this conversation. Of course, I reflect on it from time to time, but it is not connected to any jubilee.”

T. B.: “You didn’t wait until you were sixty to do it, but you do it continuously.”

D. M.: “No, no, I’m rather reflecting continuously, especially on what else I would like to do.”

T. B.: “So it’s not a summary balance sheet yet, but more like looking ahead, what else would you like to create?”

D. M.: “I may be ready, but I’m not going to die yet.”

T. B.: “So it’s more about what you want to get done.” 

D. M.: “What’s different than when I was younger is that I made more plans because I had more desires. Now when someone asks me how you’re doing, I can’t give a good or bad answer, but I have all sorts of semi-funny formulas for it like “age-appropriate and world situation-appropriate”. I don’t really think about how I’m doing but I know how to be happy about each day and the little things or, conversely, sad about it. Maybe it’s not the age, but the pandemic we’ve had where we’ve been home a lot and isolated from people. I live more day to day now than I used to, I don’t plan as much, but I try to enjoy the moments I do have. Whether it’s composing or working at home in the garden, I enjoy it, I naturally enjoy it and I try to take pleasure in the little things because I think that’s good and that’s the only way to live a happy life.”

T. B.: “So did the anniversary inspire you to make such a balance sheet? I would love have done it, but there is no room for it now. If we were to characterize your work – what I like about your compositions it that they offer various sophisticated solutions and contents, but at the same time they are simple and their compositional plan or concept can be characterized in one or two sentences.”

D. M.: “Well, say some.”

T. B.: “For example, it is possible to describe the development or principle of a composition. Is concept and plan important to you in composition?”

D. M.: “Yes, that’s right you got it right. I don’t know if you can completely do it in one or two sentences, but sometimes maybe you can.”

T. B.: “This is precisely the advantage that an overall analysis is possible, but a brief naming of the concept is very important.”

D. M.: “Right now I’m teaching students, and I don’t’ know exactly who I was saying that, but a lot of times the music itself inspired me – meaning I’ve used something I’ve heard somewhere. I’m a “sampling” composer, so since I’ve been composing, I’ve often been fascinated by a piece of music that sounded familiar and kicked me off and I started thinking about it. Sometimes that impulse is audible in my music, many times it’s not, but I know that’s how it all started. I remember one idea that stuck with me for quite a long time, and sometimes I’ll still remember it and make it happen. I one came across the music of a Danish composer, Pele Gudmundsen-Holmgren, who has a fascinating entropic music – music as a failed experiment. It falls apart at the end – it started somehow, with a certain energy that gradually faded away. I was fascinated by it because it gave off this perfect emotion of this weird despair, but not this negative, expressionistic great despair, but this weird sense that things are just falling apart.”

T. B.: “Is it something like a leitmotif or a persistent structural element?”

D. M.: “Yes, it’s audible in the texture – for example, it “sneezed” or started to subdivide. I said to myself – this is a good concept, this inspires me. Every composer solves and has to solve – since music flows in time – one of the most important things, and that is, not only for the composer, but also for, say, a playwright or a choreographer, just for all the arts, flowing in time, the question of how to build a form. If you have ten minutes of time and you don’t fill those with a meaningful structure that shows some relationships and makes sense, then you’ve failed. That’s why one has to think a lot about time when composing music – where I want to go from where, how I’m going to arrange it, whether it’s going to be a block form or whether the principle of recursion is going to apply… The decay principle doesn’t have to be negative – for example, the piece that the ensemble and I will be performing in about two months’ time at a concert to celebrate the ensemble’s 35th anniversary and my 60th birthday, called JMF for DM, begins with great verve and ends with a quotation of the chorale. For me, the idea is similar to that of a break-up, except that this is not a break-up, but a lull. That’s what I wanted to say by way of illustration.”

T. B.: “That was a very good illustration of what I had in mind – it could be named, although you talked about it longer, very simply, in one sentence, like the process of disintegration.”

D. M.: “But what has never been close to me are the heroic forms that are related to the end of the 19th century – those robust, but also structurally large forms. I went through that when I was very young – I went from Mahler and César Franck through all the great composers of the late 19th century, but now I know that it’s not really close to me, and I’m tired of creating the illusion of something great.”

T. B.: “It’s important to know what I don’t want.”

D. M.: “Yes, I definitely don’t want that and I believe it’s not in my music.”

T. B.: “A very important part of your personality is your many years of teaching at various types of schools, from elementary art school to universities. Actually, you also answered the question of what is important in composition. That’s exactly what I wanted to ask, what is important for you to pass on to the young musicians or composers that you are currently involved with. You said that you talk to them, for example, about time in music, about form and so on. What else would you add to that, that’s important to pass on to young people?”

D. M.: “I don’t know it it’s like that for many people, but I’m more and more interested in that form. Not form in the sense of teaching about musical forms, but about how to “tidy up” musical time as a process, that’s what I try to pursue most with my students. The other day I was working on a composition problem with one of my students, and he kept showing me what interesting new elements would be there, and I told him I didn’t want to hear it now because the interesting elements were an afterthought. I’m interested to see how it works for him in time, because if it doesn’t work for him in time, he can have the most interesting elements in the world in there and it won’t work as a whole. That’s why I keep coming back to it. For me – good composition is a way of finding an adequate space and time for the sonic material to emerge. When there’s not enough time it comes across as unfinished and weird, when there’s a lot of time it gets boring again. So finding the potential of the material – that’s very important, and the older I get, the more I think musical form is very important. Of course, I don’t want to underestimate the details, because music is also about expression and just those details, but that’s not the most important thing. When you come up with a good thing, however good, but you don’t spread it out in the appropriate time and space, it’s like you’ve kind of wasted an opportunity to give the material what it’s asking for.”

T. B.: “Thank you for your interesting story. That was Daniel Matej – the composer and music-maker, how we came to this. Thank you for being here with us.”

D. M.: “Thank you for the invitation, it was very pleasant for me.”

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