An interview with Jonathan Matis

On Saturday, April 14, 2012 Zoe Keating, Noveller, and the Low End String Quartet (LESQ) came together at the CenterStage in Reston, Virginia for an evening of new music. LESQ started the night with compositions from founder Jonathan Matis, and closed their set with premieres of new works commissioned from Zoe Keating and Sarah Lipstate (Noveller).

Has LESQ commissioned any works previous to these?  

No. This was our first attempt at commissioning music from other composers. Our other repertoire is from ensemble members. I wrote most of it, our former cellist wrote “Mystery Snail.”

How did you come to choose Sarah and Zoe for the commissions?

I was trying to find composers that would intuitively “get it” in terms of what we’re about. People who already understand why we’re amplified, and how that works. I also wanted to find composers who are working outside of the typical “new music” world. Both Zoe Keating and Sarah Lipstate are great composers, but they aren’t necessarily recognized as such since they’re performers too.

With both of them, I heard their music and I loved it immediately. That’s important to me. I want to play music that has an immediate, visceral appeal. I also want there to be more going on beneath the surface, but I feel like so much contemporary music coming out of the classical tradition is too concerned with its own construction, and not concerned enough with the actual sound and the experience of hearing sound. I’m not interested in music that’s about how clever the composer is. I want music that is awesome. And that feels awesome the first time, and the 100th time you hear it. Zoe’s and Sarah’s music has that quality. It’s beautifully put together, but that’s not what it’s about.

I heard a Noveller show at a club in DC a few years ago. Hearing her music live, it was obvious that she was very thoughtful and intentional in her compositional approach. Other “experimental” electronic music performers I’ve heard are more improvisatory, and they’re turning knobs for the fun of it. Sarah was clearly using electronics in service of the music she was writing, not as a means of inventing the music. That made me think she’d be a perfect choice. Obviously, she has a great command of the electric guitar and its sonic possibilities. I hoped adding the other string instruments to the palette would be fun for her.

With Zoe Keating, my wife actually introduced me to her music. I think it was that played it for her. She sent me a text right away after hearing one of Zoe’s pieces asking if I’d heard that music. I hadn’t. She said Zoe’s music sounded kind of like Low End String Quartet, but better. I can’t argue with that. I looked her up for myself and that was a no-brainer. Luckily, Zoe was interested in writing for an ensemble, so she was open to working with us.

What was the process like — was there any back and forth, or were the pieces delivered to you whole and final?

We didn’t have much back and forth during the composing. They both wrote the pieces on their own. We had some conversations at the beginning about the quartet, and about the specific performers so they could be aware of our individual strengths and weaknesses. But they basically did their own thing and sent us a finished product.

For Zoe’s piece, she delivered audio files that we transcribed. Neither Zoe or Sarah typically work with notes on paper. Sarah also gave us a recording, but did make a written score. In both cases we worked with them during rehearsals, but after the pieces were composed.

Did Zoe or Sarah have any input into the performances?

Yes, happily they did. As we rehearsed the pieces, I made recordings that we sent to them for comments. Sarah’s piece required fairly specific guitar sounds so I was able to send her audio files and she could make sure I was getting the right sounds.We weren’t all in the same location until the day of the show, but we did get to spend an hour or so that morning with each composer working on their piece. That rehearsal time made a huge difference, for both pieces. And working with Zoe and Sarah was lots of fun. They were able to zero in on particular things right away and they helped us a lot. I suspect because they are performers themselves, they knew exactly how they wanted to hear it played, and they knew how to explain that clearly.

Zoe didn’t waste any time. She picked up the cello and showed us parts that she bowed a certain way, or articulated certain phrases differently from how we’d learned them. It was easy to take those kinds of pointers and it made the piece sound so much better.

Sarah made some nice adjustments to the guitar effects, and gave me some tips on bowing. I hadn’t played the guitar with a bow before, so that was something I had to learn for her piece. The other players in the quartet gave me a crash-course in bow technique, but Sarah had some guitar-specific tips that she’s figured out over the years.

After hearing the piece, Zoe told us she wants to make some revisions. Her typical process involves playing pieces many times, and they evolve over time. I’m not sure yet how the process will work for us, but I’m eager to find out what kinds of changes she wants to make. There might be some sections that get expanded. Hopefully we’ll get to work on it some with her before too much time passes and it’s still fresh in our ears. She’s so busy, we’ll have to see what’s possible.

Sarah’s piece is pretty much finished. We’re going to take a stab at recording it soon.

Where do you think the audience for new music is coming from?  How are you finding an audience?

I wish I knew the answer to these questions. The whole world of music is so up in the air right now, and changing so fast. It’s the best of times and the worst of times. Maybe not the worst, actually. There’s so much great music going on all over the place now, and I think people are listening to so much different music. In some ways, people’s ears are more open now than ever, but it’s also so hard to be heard with so much music everywhere. I don’t honestly know how to find “our” audience, since I’m not sure what that really means. Who is our demographic? I have no idea.

I’m curious about where the “new music” (i.e. “post – classical”) audience is coming from, in as much as there is such a thing. I don’t have a lot of faith in new music as a sub-genre of classical music. I don’t think it really works that way as far as audience demographics, but I don’t really know. That’s just my hunch. I think the “new music” audience is made up of people interested in hearing new things, not necessarily a specific genre. Thinking of the big picture, I think the audience for instrumental music of any kind is already such a tiny slice of music audiences overall, I’m not sure how we zoom in within that little piece. Who are audiences for new / modern jazz? Who are the audiences for experimental, instrumental rock bands? I suspect those audiences overlap more with “new music” audience than broader classical music audiences. Nevermind the problems in the classical music business in terms of shrinking audiences over there…

Ultimately, I think it’s probably better to leave the demographics questions to the marketing people. I don’t understand it well enough. It seems to me that, in general, awesome music finds an audience eventually. In some cases that happens quickly, and in some cases it takes a long time, but good music will find appreciative listeners eventually.

Any thoughts on the “business” of music? How can performers sustain themselves under the current conditions?

I wish I understood the “business” better. I don’t think the Low End String Quartet has really figured out a business model yet. My background is on the nonprofit side of the performing arts world, so that’s what I’m more familiar with.

I spent a few years writing grant proposals and trying to keep the group running that way. We had some success with it; our first (and only, so far) studio recording, “Blunt Objects,” was funded mostly by grant money. Support like that, for commissioning new work, and making recordings, is quite difficult to come by. And it’s getting harder.

After the record was done, the only grant funding I could find was for educational programs. So, we put together a pilot program to figure out how to do in-school programming. That project didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. We raised some money, and put together an in-school concert program. My impression now is that to really succeed at educational programming, you need to specialize in it. Since that’s not where my heart is, especially with this group, I’ve set that initiative aside for now. I want this group to stay focused on developing new music, playing shows, and recording.

Since 2008, we’ve had much more trouble finding funding using the nonprofit model. From where I’m sitting, it sure looks like arts funding dried up real fast once the recession started. I don’t know if that’s actually true, more broadly, but it was my personal experience.

For this project, we did a big online fundraising campaign in collaboration with Sarah, and that worked quite well. We qualified for some matching funds and also had a great response from our friends and fans. I guess this move toward “crowd-sourcing” is promising, although that presents its own challenges.

There’s no easy solution to the money thing. Hopefully we can find other opportunities to commission more new music – and hopefully the results will be as good as these two! I think we’re spoiled now, since Zoe and Sarah did such great work for us. In the end, I think we need to stay focused on the music. If we can deliver awesome performances, then we should be able to keep moving forward.

MMT asked Sarah Lipstate about the process of composing her piece for LESQ:


I wrote a lot of the melodies for the piece on piano and then arranged it for violin, cello, and bass.  Most of the guitar parts I wrote on the guitar, though a few were done on the piano and then I had to figure out how to play it on guitar.  I had to create a pretty strange guitar tuning to accommodate those melodies!  I used midi instruments to record the string instruments and to do a reference recording of the piece for the musicians to listen to along with the score.  I did a lot of revision at home and let a few close friends hear the recording and give advice, but I only delivered the final version to the LESQ musicians.

~ Sarah Lipstate (Noveller)