All Music Guide: Figments of Imagination: An Interview with Cellist Matt Haimovitz and Composer Du Yun

November 27, 2009

In a career spanning 25 years, cellist Matt Haimovitz has grown from a winsome lad of 13, making his debut with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, to an institution, noted both as a concert artist and solo recitalist. However, unlike many institutions, Haimovitz has never allowed himself to fossilize, and he is equally well recognized for edgy, envelope-pushing fare as for delivering the great Western classics with his special, personal perspective that has endeared him to standard concert audiences. In order to pursue both streams of endeavor, Haimovitz has found it necessary to employ strategies of booking that essentially divide his audiences. Haimovitz’ most recent Figment tour finds him in a more exploratory vein and collaborating with composer/performer Du Yun, co-founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and lately winner of Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s fourth annual Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for Female Composers.Figment

As they’ve reached a break in the tour, AMG’s Uncle Dave Lewis caught up with Matt Haimovitz and Du Yun via linked cellphones from an internet café in New York City.

AMG: I understand that you have just finished the first leg of your Figment tour with Du Yun. How is that going?

Matt Haimovitz: It’s going very well, thank you! I like doing this kind of tour where I am playing so often in unusual kinds of venues; it gives us time to build up momentum artistically and do get more deeply into our program and get more comfortable with it. It’s getting better and better as we go along, and it’s nice to be able to do something like this every once in awhile.

AMG: I play down at the Southgate House in Newport, Kentucky a fair amount, and I was surprised to see your name as an upcoming act on the bill there. I thought, “Man when I play the Southgate, I usually bring a guitar and a drummer…”

MH: Didn’t Abraham Lincoln visit there once?

AMG: Yes, I think he did.

MH: Yeah, I’ve played there, and it’s a great place! About nine years ago I started to play non-traditional venues when I came to realize that there is so much great twentieth and twenty-first century music that I care deeply about that I was unable to play because it was too risky for conservative venues. So I started to try and book myself into rock clubs, night clubs, bars and other kinds of places so that I would have the freedom to play some of this music. And I’ve found that it’s an altogether different thing that is rewarding in its own way; you can have more intimate experiences than is possible in a traditional concert setting and I learn more about myself as a performer; I learn more about audiences too. So, every two years or so I try to put together a tour like that.

AMG: So how did you meet with Du Yun?

MH: We met in May of this year (2009). Someone came over and dropped off a bunch of promo CDs of new composers’ works. I don’t know what led me to Du Yun’s CD as I rarely ever get to those piles, but something led me there. I heard San and I was really intrigued by it and asked for the music. It took me awhile to learn the piece as I was completely unfamiliar with that style, and I asked Du Yun if she was amenable to working with me on it. She was up to it, and over time I got interested in all of the different areas where she works; she does things that are more on the pop side with electronics, improvisation, writing music for the theater and other things.

All of that led to this program, Figment — it was an intriguing challenge to see how we might bring it all together. Du Yun is very inspiring to work with — she is so grounded compositionally but is also open to ideas; she always knows what she wants to hear. The first composer I ever seriously worked with was György Ligeti, who knew every single note of his music down to the double bar. That’s rare; to know how your piece works conceptually, but also how to realize its overall architecture — that’s what Ligeti was like.

AMG: Matt it sounds like you appreciate the qualities that some others — present company included — have found in Du Yun’s work.

Du Yun: Why, thank you! Matt had the concept of the program for Figment before meeting me and long before having the idea of performing with me; I believe he wanted to do something that alternated solo cello and solo cello with electronics. It was after meeting with me, we decided to add the improvisatory bits in between the pieces, and link them as a whole, rendering a seamless, theatrical flow to the program. In other words, I didn’t have any decision-making in the pieces he recorded on the Figment album. When I first started working with Matt on the Figment show, I found myself thinking about the idea of “nausea” and using that as a starting point.

MH: I knew right away what she meant about nausea, and by extension, “alienation,” which was another concept I was considering on my end, and I suspected Du Yun was someone I wanted to work with. I don’t know how I came about doing this, as I normally don’t do much writing, but I ended up writing some poetry, related to personal events and to some degree the program that we ultimately worked out. Du Yun was in a residency in Italy, but within 24 hours of my sending the poem off in an email to her she sent me an mp3 of her improvising music to the text I had sent. That naturally confirmed it and led to our recording of Mi-Randa (on Figment).

AMG: When I was back in retail, one disc I always had in stock — and one that I was always able to move — was your first album, the one for Deutsche Grammophon. Do you ever have a situation where fans of that album come to your shows and say, “Matt — I loved your first album, but this music you’re doing now I just don’t get?”

MH: (laughs gently) I am SO glad that you asked me that question! That’s become a central concern in my life, and one that relates again to nausea and alienation. People hear contemporary music and they become intimidated, scared by it. There are so many different languages, and it something doesn’t make an impression on first hearing, you need to listen again. At first Elliott Carter sounds like chaos, but keep returning to the music and you discover how incredibly organized it is. Indeed, after a concert I did with Du Yun at the Galapagos Club in Brooklyn there was a classical music aficionado who told me the program made her feel her age, she didn’t get it and asked, “Matt, what are you doing?!”

I guess you have to have a certain mindset to be ready for this sort of thing, to open your mind and heart to it, but I do it because I feel it’s very relevant. In cultural matters we spend so much time avoiding the issues about ourselves, and of course the current standard in entertainment has to do with bells and whistles, flashing lights. A friend of mine in Canada, 80-something years old, surprised me one night by coming to the Figment show at Montréal’s new eXecentris club. He told me how moved he was by Figment and how we do this, all of the commitment and passion involved; we talked a long time about it. Look, if you come, all I ask is that you get a drink, sit down and experience the show; let this music I’m playing speak for itself. People are allowed to hate it, but let them experience it and if we can do that then we’ve reached our goal; that’s our accomplishment.

AMG: A quick change of subject here; back when I was in music school, I remember hearing electronic pieces that involved live instruments. I took a master class with a composer who had performed a piece for cello and tape, and I think the tape was something generated by the old ILLIAC system at Illinois University. There was this odd sense of disconnect between the computer tape and the soloist; you had one, and the other, but they didn’t mesh. With some of the pieces on Figment — like the Du Yun and Serge Provost works — if there’s no electronics, then there’s no piece, they are indivisible elements. How much do you think has changed about the electro-acoustic interface versus where we were just a few years ago?

MH: Du Yun — you’re a professor of composition. Do you want to field that question?

DY: Certainly! The technology has improved so much over the old university model and moreover it has gotten a lot cheaper; you can do basically anything you would need to do in your home studio and never have to go to an electronic music lab. Schools and institutions used to spend millions of dollars just to make it possible to do relatively simple pieces, and of course back in the 1960s and 70s what was done was regarded only as a novelty, really. In preparing for Figment, Matt has been using MAX-MSP (software used in live, interactive processing — ed.) and I’ve been using Abelton Live. Nowadays the technology is of such caliber that you find yourself going back to the humanity of the music; your find yourself wanting to go back to the sound of live instruments.

MH: It also changed because audiences wanted something different. We always thought that within our lifetimes computers would eventually be better than us, that there would be no more real need for humans anymore. In music, at least, humanity matters and we have to go back to human ways of playing. For me, I find the combination of both to be very interesting and so far I’ve experienced no replacement of my role in this music!

DY: Indeed, computer music in 2009 is all about expression, finding ways to get the expressive human element into it.
AMG: Matt, I found it interesting in Figment that you have brought Elliott Carter — and Canadian composer Gilles Tremblay — who are both older composers that enjoy a certain “uptown” cachet — into a program that mainly features hot younger composers who work in a more “downtown” style. Overall, I find that the first Figment of Carter is one of the most aggressive pieces on the album, whereas the second one — that subtitled “Remembering Mr. Ives” — is more lyrical and traditional in feel.

HM: The impetus for this part of the project came last year when I recorded Carter’s Cello Sonata, a work many cellists consider “the” great American cello sonata and some the greatest of the twentieth century. I’m kind of a late convert to Carter — I only really became aware of him last year when I recorded that piece; before I never understood his music. After that piece — well — I had to find more. So I got to know the string quartets; started with that, and afterward investigated his whole musical world. It’s just extraordinary to me how this hundred-year-old man managed to put it all together; the edgier pieces, the more lyrical pieces — he was so unwavering, uncompromising and just kept doing what he needed to do. I agree about the Second Figment being more lyrically accessible, not to mention unbelievably brilliant — everything in it was determined by numerical relations; I love that. Moreover, there are several voices working at once in that solo piece, and all of it is under my fingers; it is a solid exercise of contrapuntal art, a tradition that goes back to J.S. Bach, whose cello music, of course, I have long played.

AMG: You’ve mentioned Carter’s hundred years; I find it remarkable that in the first 85 of those years he didn’t produce much music compared to his contemporaries, yet in the last 15 his output has gone through the roof and one can hardly keep track of him. The two you picked, by the way, were both outstanding choices.

MH: I’ve heard a fair amount of his late music, and what I really appreciate is the solo pieces. Just the other night I heard a clarinet solo he wrote, and it was so impressive; it explored all of the characteristics of the instrument, it was just wonderful. And that he keeps it short I find is helpful, to be honest, as it’s fairly easy to accept that kind of drama in three minutes, whereas if it were 30 then I guess it would be just too overwhelming for most listeners.

AMG: Du Yun, you do things other than just touring with Matt; how did your Alice Guy-Blaché film scoring thing go the other night? (NOTE: Alice Guy-Blaché was a pioneering silent-era film director who may have been the first filmmaker to maintain a complete story arc in a movie; the Whitney Museum in New York City revived her work in America for the first time in a hundred years at a recent screening, with scores by composers Du Yun, Missy Mazzoli, Tender Forever and Tamar Muskal. — Ed.)

DY: It went very well! It opened at the Whitney last Friday; the music is already recorded and married to the film. The commission for that came from Whitney Museum Live, and they were very keen to see the films of Alice Guy-Blaché matched to music of young women composers.

AMG: Wasn’t there a crime film among the ones assigned to you?

DY: Indeed, Madame a des Envies (1906) was a film about a female heroin addict. I started with a noise-based texture, but eventually moved to something more erotic, because I was interested in the idea of composing erotic music for a silent film.

AMG: I’d just like to put a final question to Matt. You are headed to Spain shortly, and when you get back you’ll be returning to finish up your Figment tour. Where can we find out about remaining dates?

MH: You can look up my record company website, Oxingale or my MySpace page, where we will be announcing the dates. We start on the West Coast in late January, and I know we will be in New Mexico in March; mostly this will be a West Coast thing but we will try and get something in the Midwest as well. Other dates will pop in as we learn about them; it would be nice to keep this going as long as we can.

by Uncle Dave Lewis

View article at All Music Guide

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