Approaching musicianship from a decidedly different direction is visual artist and teacher, Wilhelm Matthies, at present focusing on making music with the kokeka, an instrument he himself invented.
Matthies, who also collaborates with other musicians and artists, including independent Hollywood filmmaker, Matteo Marchisano-Adamo, [see Matteo Marchisano-Adamo profiled in Combustus] recently talked with me about what drives his outside-of-the-box musical investigations:
Wilhelm Matthies: There is a great story on how I started using and designing instruments. It started when I was in graduate school at the Univerisity of Illinois-Champaign. I went to hear a new music performance by trombonist Jim Staley. Spread across the floor was a large canvas rolled out with squares painted on it. I saw Jim looking down at it, following the shapes as he was playing. I said to myself, “I can do that!”
Wilhelm Matthies: Yes. Jim Staley (by the way, still a performing artist), looked at that sequence of squares, and translated that into a direction for himself. Each square represented a tone and how it was sequenced in his mind determined which next pitch to go to.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I love this!
Wilhelm Matthies: I was in the MFA program as a painter, so I stuck a few brushes under and between my acoustic guitar strings. My grandmother had just given me some money, and I bought a boombox with a microphone. (This was forty years ago.) I used the boombox to record music with two friends using this “prepared guitar.”
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And so what led you to insert your paint brushes in with the strings?
Wilhelm Matthies: I had never seen anything like that done before, so it was at once annoying but also challenging!
After playing with prepared guitars, and later prepared mandolin, I realized that perhaps I could create an instrument that would suit what and how I wanted to play. An opportunity to spend time designing an instrument came up when I returned to school for an art education degree. I took a sculpture class and the professor was open to the idea that designing an instrument was a sculptural process. Some of the basic ideas that I developed from that project still hold. A main concept was that there would be a support bar onto which things could be mounted and moved. Another important idea was to have a resonator on each end of the instrument to not only amplify the sound, but if slightly different on each end, would allow for different tone qualities.
I checked out books (no internet at the time) and studied instrument forms. I looked at the ancient Chinese instrument some call Chi (seven-stringed instrument with no neck).
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: So part of what drives you is the challenge of discovering something new?
Wilhelm Matthies: Yes, for sure.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And where does that come from? A dissatisfaction with what is presently out there? Or enthusiasm to go even deeper?
Wilhelm Matthies: A bit of both. I am able to imagine forms and sounds that do not exist, but known things need to be the starting point. I want to go into things deeper so that things I imagine can be heard and seen.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Mmmm…yes! And where do you get your ideas from?
Wilhelm Matthies: I get ideas from many things. When I took the course to design an instrument, the given things I studied were photos of historical instruments from everywhere in the world.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You must have been very excited! You felt a sense of connection with musicians of the past, yes? That you were continuing on with something meaningful and important to humanity?
Wilhelm Matthies: I was very excited. I tried to imagine how the instruments were played and how sound travels through the body and out. I tried to blend instruments, that is, take ideas from some and merge them with others. I felt connected with past musicians, but I also wanted to make something new.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And so what sort of sound, tone, effect were you seeking? Did it have an emotional flavor to it? An energy?
Wilhelm Matthies: I find that I consistently look for a sound which allows for tone changes and bends, that means the quality of the sound and the pitch level can change while playing. It does have an emotional flavor, although not necessarily nameable. The only nameable quality is that it is the sound of uncertainty…
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Something very organic? Primal? Real?
Wilhelm Matthies: Yes, very organic and primal, exactly! Uncertainty means the sound does not have a fixed pitch level, nor a fixed sound color, so when you play with such shifts, it has a sense of uncertainty.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And how does creating and hearing this sound make you feel? Energized? Soothed?
Wilhelm Matthies: When playing, the focus is certainly on the process. When hearing, I hope the listener feels it but also hears the process. It is very exciting to make the sounds. I get extremely focused. I cannot name a particular energy, as each piece is different. Also, parts are meant to be more soothing and parts more excited; it depends on where you are in the piece and what the sequence has been.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: So “Time Stretched Violin Bowing.” That is about exploring the change in tone? Getting inside the process of music or tone-making?
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Wilhelm Matthies: The name itself does call attention to the process of tone making.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What brought you and independent Hollywood filmmaker, Matteo Marchisano-Adamo together?
Wilhelm Matthies: I heard music of his last year on Soundcloud, [MarchisanoAdamo] and I emailed him. We had some exchanges and I proposed making some music together using a compositional process that I was developing. He was too busy last year, I believe starting his film series, The Unadventurous Life of Ai. This May, I read a statement he made, hinting he would love to make some new music, so I contacted him again. So far I have recorded music, and he has responded. I try to make it so that it is very fun for him to play. It gives him a creative release, I believe, while he is campaigning for his film series. The long and short of it is that his work is very impressive, musically, especially as a keyboardist. I wanted to see what we could do together!
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You enjoy the collaborative process? That brings in yet another lovely unknown?
Wilhelm Matthies: Yes, I love the collaborative process!
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And what were you like as a child? Always inquisitive?
Wilhelm Matthies: My musical interests as a child were a bit annoying to my father sometimes. When I practiced piano, I did enjoy it; but what I really wanted to do was make up my own music. That was annoying to my father, but fortunately, my mother was supportive.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You father felt like you were just fooling around? But you have a classical training? A classical background?
Wilhelm Matthies: Yes, I was learning classical piano literature, Mozart, Bach, Handel… My father did not believe that you could just sit down and make up some music, doing that [in his eyes] was just fooling around.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What advice would you give a parent who wants to encourage musical exploration in their child?
Wilhelm Matthies: I would advise a parent to allow the child to follow their musical interest and support it. You never know where an interest can lead to; but if the child is engaged, and self motivated, what better can you do than just support that energy? I would give similar advice to a young composer. Everyone has their own starting point. Some people would only go by strict composition, some would only want to compose while they are playing, some would want some composition and some improvisation mixed. It is best, in my view, to support the direction a person feels is best suited for them.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And my last question: Is there such a thing as “good” or “bad” music?
Wilhelm Matthies: “Good” music means you want to hear the sounds, “Bad” means you do not want to hear them.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And is it enough if you play for your ears only? Must a musician have an audience to be a true musician? Is that the goal? An integral part of the equation? Or is the exploration more personal and if someone else enjoys it, so much the better?
Wilhelm Matthies: I think it can be enough if you truly hear what you are doing, as that can transform you to a new place. But I think a musician wants to connect with others through the medium, and so an audience is needed. How large should the audience be? That depends on the kind of music. It is important to have an audience so that the music resonates with others. Ideally, you wish that others can feel what you are doing with the music.
To hear Wilhelm Matthies perform along with other musical inventors: WilhelmMatthies.bandcamp.com/