Matej Sloboda – interviews with musicians

Tomáš Boroš: “Matej Sloboda – composer, artistic director of EnsembleSpectrum. In such profile interviews we try to avoid chronology of studies – that after finishing this school he moved on to the next one and so on. But I would make an exception with you, because both you’re a young artist and you’re close to all those study times, and I would say you’re also a study type, because every time we meet you tell me about a workshop you’ve been to, what you’ve studied, and so on. And also, because your study path was very varied – just mentioning the cities and places where you completed your studies after the Academy of Performing Arts – Vienna, Graz, Brno, Berlin. So how about you – have you finished your studies? Is this established composer already finished with studying or are you an eternal student?”

Matej Sloboda: “I, personally, think that in this field one cannot say that one is already a graduate. Even if it’s not at school or under someone else’s guidance, we still want to educate ourselves because if we stayed in that pension of information that we have and that we got at 25 and froze there, we probably wouldn’t get very far. I mean, at least I don’t feel like I’m “done” or anything like that, and I don’t think I ever will be, because there are so many beautiful things and beautiful themes that are not only in music, but also in art and in the world in general, in life, that one lifetime is not enough to encompass all that knowledge.”

T. B.: “So the answer is eternal student?”

M. S.: “I guess so, and I don’t take it pejoratively.”

T. B.: “If we were to go through the individual places – what did your thinking look like during or after your studies at the Academy of Performing Arts – where to go into the world?”

M. S.: “I am a person who usually has some plans or visions, but those plans are mostly vague. Everything that I have experienced has come more from the spontaneity of the moment. When I came to the Academy of Performing Arts to Ivan Buffa’s class, I knew that I definitely wanted to go on some Erasmus during my studies, but I had no idea that I would go in my second year, for example. It was on the basis of a recommendation from my professor. As we got to know each other over that, let’s say, first month or month and a half, I realised that the school where he was studying was extremely interesting. He was actually kind of the ‘kicker’, encouraging me to go and soak up information elsewhere.”

T. B.: “Was that Vienna?”

M. S.: “Yes, it was Vienna – Erasmus already in the second year in the summer semester. I stayed with Detlev Müller-Siemens and there I also met Konstantin Ilievsky, with whom I have been collaborating artistically for several years now. Then, of course, I went back to the Academy of Performing Arts and went to Graz for my master’s degree, and simultaneously was at the Academy of Performing Arts. There I was under the guidance of Beat Furrer and others, like Georg Friedrich Haas, he taught us on a seminar and we had various listening sessions on contemporary music.”

T. B.: “Then it was Brno – doctoral studies?”

M. S.: “Yes, Brno with Ivo Medko and also UDK in Berlin with Marc Sabat and others.”

T. B.: “Even though you have all this behind you, we come back to the fact that you are not finished yet.”

M. S.: “I don’t know if it’s possible to end this when, as I said, there are so many interesting things and interesting people that you want to spend time with, that you want to exchange knowledge with – maybe even equally over time.” 

T. B.: “Constant study is relevant for every composer, but I would say that maybe especially for you even more so, because your music works with microintervals, with microtonality, with acoustics, with the specifics of sound, tuning and so on. This way of composing and thinking musically especially requires constant study and maybe that theoretical background.”

M. S.: “Certainly, also in the interpretative sense. I often encounter the opinion that let’s go back to the virtual Primary Music school, let’s learn music and the perception of interval anew, especially in the context of pure tuning. I think that’s true, because those ideas of intervals as such that are around us – in terms of equal temperament and similar tuning methods – is slightly different and perhaps considerably deformed. Although we have it quite naturally in us and it’s quite achievable and therefore convenient for many…”

T. B.: “We’ve already messed up our ears.”

M. S.: “I wouldn’t even say that we messed them up, but rather we forgot about it. But it’s always there and it can be learned. Basically, anything can be learned, you just have to put the time into it.”

T. B.: “So it’s a challenge for me too – to go back to the virtual Primary Music school and deal with intervals in natural tuning, because it’s not easy. To give you a little better idea, you told me a funny story that could be very interesting. You said that you were at this workshop where you and a few guys got together in some gym and you were singing in natural tuning.”

M. S.: “Yes, yes, it was in a small town in the south of Estonia – Pärnu. It was an activity of the Estonian Schönberg Association. Specifically, we didn’t sing completely in pure tuning, but we practiced singing in an even-tempered 22-tone system, which has many interesting intervals found even in pure tuning, but like any even-tempered system has some of its ills and compromises.”

T. B.: “And how did you do? Can it be intoned?”

M. S.: “Our aim, as the leader of the ensemble, Hans-Gauner Lock, also said, was not to achieve total clarity within the ten days during which we practiced it, but to strive for quality – to find the means, methods and ways in which it can be taught. Of course, when we play on pure tuning instruments, tempered intervals that are similar to pure tuning intervals, we will naturally tune naturally – that is, to pure tuning. Only if we have a fixed instrument like an organ or a piano that is tuned to it, of course we will tune it in some way, like when a choir sings or a string quartet plays with a piano. Actually, anything that has a fixed tuning.”

T. B.: “So it’s not illegitimate – natural tuning is supposed to be natural, that is, maybe not always completely accurate?”

M. S.: “It is precisely the advantage of pure tuning that many intervals, even if they contain difficult intervals, are tuneable by ear – and that is its beauty. But why they chose 22-EDO, as an even-tempered tuning, is because of some of its qualities that they like – that’s how I would sum it up, I don’t want to get too much into ‘technicalities’.”

T. B.: “This is also the area that defines the specificity and peculiarity of your musical poetics – how did you and microintervals meet and how did this love come about?”

M. S.: “I think this love was created as it sometimes happens – by a strange coincidence. For example, I started composing in general when I got my hands on a copy of Sibelius 4 or a similar archaic version. One summer I had nothing to do, so I said I was going to arrange a piece I was playing in a band for “orchestra”. I had no idea, but I didn’t really care at the time – I didn’t even consider being a composer. Well, a Sibelius like that can guide you – it’s got different quarter tones, unfortunately, primarily just those, but you start to at least somehow become familiar with the fact that there’s another sound out there. It was always so strange to me when I sang with the piano – I’m singing something else, and how is it possible that I can’t find it on the piano? After all, I can sing it. Then during my studies, Gérard Grisey’s music came into my life, which I think is very ‘door-opening’ – it doesn’t bring microintervality in the kind of, slightly unnatural way that, for example, Hába does. Hába is a very interesting composer, he has interesting concepts, but in my opinion it’s more post-romantic music, with microintervality “crammed” on top of it – playing with quarter tones and sixth tones. By starting from pure tuning, Grisey suddenly makes it a completely different sound world. Of course, James Tenney, Rădulescu, and then everyone else, for example, but I think it was the French spectralists who were the most dominant in this direction for quite a long time. Then I discovered Ben Johnston – he was an American composer who was almost exclusively devoted to pure tuning. And of course, Henry Partch, and then other names, going more and more into pure tuning.” 

T. B.: “So, besides these names and specific inspirations, it was also, to use from pedagogy, a kind of “problem-based teaching”. Your curiosity and willingness to solve problems played a role. You’ve now asked some questions yourself – how is it possible that I can sing something else and not be able to play it on the piano and so on. So somehow your search looked like that too.
When a person listens to your work, they get the feeling that you’ve found what works for you and that you’re comfortable with it. Sometimes it’s also nice that one song flows into another, it’s like you’re writing one big, never-ending song. We’ve talked mostly about the microintervals in your music, but it’s also static music that develops very subtly. There’s a lot going on, but maybe not at first hearing. Is that really the case? Do you feel that way too, that it’s music that really suits you, that you’ve found yourself in it and that you’re likely to be in it for a long time?”

M. S.: “It’s definitely one of the music types that I’m extremely comfortable with, otherwise I wouldn’t write like that.”

T. B.: “Some composers have their own handwriting, but at the same time they have a constant restlessness in themselves – that they still want it somehow different. With you, on the other hand, I feel such a calmness that for now it’s what you have grasped. Of course, when you write a new song, you have a lot of things, solutions, searchings, room for originality, but at the same time, some kind of certainty?”

M. S.: “It’s true that in some aspects the feeling of repetition or the principle of the return of a method is present – if we were to talk specifically, for example, about a series of pieces that have no title – the “crutch”, the support, the conceptual basis of these currently seven scores is that they have to be written on one particular A4 page of paper with twelve systems, i.e., notation outlines.”

T. B.: “Despite the fact that they last, let’s say, 20 minutes.”

M. S.: “The last one lasts an hour. In terms of how we measure the length of each segment, it doesn’t matter if I break it down. Obviously not completely, but from my point of view I don’t need to do that extreme micromanagement because I don’t think it adds a fundamental additive sense to the piece and it can take one’s attention away from it. For example, when I write a one-hour piece in the classic way – focusing on the rhythm, the ligatures, and the overall micromanagement – it can take me down a different path, because suddenly, for example, I’ll come up with a new micromotive that I’ more interested in, and that will take me away from the goal, which might be to create a process, for example. I think that such an unifying element, regardless of whether it’s a micromanaged piece of music or such a one-page score or even a verbal score, is the building of a process. From a music-theoretical perspective, one could argue that this is something I picked up from Reich, for example. I, personally, feel more of the Grisey there, which is also about a unified process where you can feel a certain direction towards a goal – it goes there until it gets there and then something else happens. That’s very close to my heart – having that goal set out, where it’s going, how it’s going to end and what exactly is going to happen there.”

T. B.: “To muddle things up even more – but we’re going very deep already…”

M. S.: “Let’s go.”

T. B.: “Does what you said mean that in addition to what’s contained there, it’s also beautiful in the way it evolves – the process itself? Maybe it could be seen as more of an act or gesture – but not a gesture in the romantic sense – compared to music in the classical sense, where I’m looking for individual elements, development, form, and so on?”

M. S.: “The development and the form are there…”

T. B.: “I would say that everything is there, as in Chopin, for example, but on the other hand – is it also beautiful in its structure, logic or rational flow, even though there is also emotion?”

M. S.: “Definitely. A composer, Raphaël Cendo, once told me that I should try to find a balance between Dionysus and Apollo. He said he felt that I was more on the rational side, but I, personally, feel that there is also the emotional side, because that decides how the music will work, that is, how it will sound, and how it will be perceived. What procedures or calculations I use to do that is basically a secondary thing that just achieves that.”

T. B.: “Maybe it’s not only your own bipolarity, but also the listener’s – the listener can also perceive it as a sound, a musical colour, but at the same time somebody sees beauty in rationality and in these things, so maybe we can perceive your composition in a double way like that.
A very important part of your musical profile is EnsembleSpectrum, which you founded and are also its artistic director. It’s nice that even though we have several ensembles in Slovakia that are dedicated to contemporary music, Spectrum is recognizable. It has found, like we’ve talked about your work, its area and space where it feels comfortable and does it well. Can we say what is recognizable, typical and characteristic of EnsembleSpectrum and on what basis do we safely recognize it?”

M. S.: “Well, you tell me, I don’t know.”

T. B.: “That was pretty sneaky.” (laughs)

M. S.: “It’s, in my opinion, quite difficult to evaluate. There have been over 130 different songs in the last ten years.”

T. B.: “It should be said that you have recently celebrated your 10th anniversary. Yes, the pieces were really different, but one gets the feeling of such a unifying mindset – both in dramaturgy and in interpretation. Do you have that defined for yourself?”

M. S.: “I know where the ensemble should be – dramaturgically. I think one of the things I enjoy doing with my bandmates is to stand somewhere in the middle – I don’t want to say “be a bridge between one and the other”, because that’s quite profane in these days and in society – but to be a kind of intersection between contemporary composed music and more open, looser, perhaps improvised, aesthetically slightly differently conceived music.”

T. B.: “What about the spectrum in the title?”

M. S.: “Spectralism certainly has its firm position there. EnsembleSpectrum was formed during my second year in college when one of my dreams was to seriously play Grisey, who really is one of my biggest role models, and we’ve done that over the last ten years, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that again sometime in the future. I think that in addition to spectrality per se, the word is also inclusive – it offers open arms. We’re not going to say to someone who writes explicitly tonal music – but good explicitly tonal music – no, we’re not going to play you because you’re not in our “scope” aesthetic. Quite the opposite. For example, today we had a jury for our new album – this whole “call for scores” thing was invented to discover other writers outside of my own scope. Of course, I have some tastes of my own and tend to be friends with probably similar people. If someone started telling me the complete opposite, perhaps even aggressively, there probably wouldn’t be any interaction.” 

T. B.: “That is to say, in addition to what you are characterized by and what you tend to do, you try to go beyond your limits, and thus expand the spectrum, as you have it in the title.”

M. S.: “Because I know I have my own limits. I think the call took its toll because we got 117 composers from all over the world, and we had to choose six of them. There was really a cadre and that’s great, because that way we’re not going to close ourselves off in some “bubbles” of our own. That’s actually the worst thing an artist can do – and probably a human being too. I don’t just mean in a local bubble – Bratislava or Slovakia – but also in an European bubble. For example, I would love to get to know young composers from Argentina, but I don’t because I haven’t met them in any way. And this is the way to get to know the music and play it.”

T. B.: “So I wish you to be able to expand the bubbles and the spectrum to new discoveries – in your EnsembleSpectrum and in your compositional activity. May you continue to make the miracle that I see in your music being very challenging, but at the same time forging a path by reaching out to people. Proof of this, for example, is that you were even nominated in two categories at the Radio Head Awards – in both experimental and classical music. It’s music that should normally only appeal to a few people, but you manage to appeal to a really wider audience. I’m verry happy that contemporary music is alive in this way.”

M. S.: “Thank you very much.” 

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