When nationally renowned viola da gambist Jenny Eriksson formed Australia’s first electric viola da gamba band, Elysian Fields, she had one pianist in mind: Matt McMahon. Jenny and Matt developed their friendship over several years of performing together at jazz gigs. In 2014 she finally invited him to write for, and appear with, her chamber music ensemble, The Marais Project. Matt wrote and arranged several new works for electric viola da gamba for that initial collaboration that have now entered Elysian Field’s set list.
In this interview with Philip Pogson, Matt McMahon talks about his collaboration with Jenny Eriksson.
Philip Pogson: Matt, you always seem to “turn up” in interesting musical situations, whether it be working with oud player Joseph Tawadros, creating a jazz homage to Peter Sculthorpe or any number of inspired collaborations. How did you come to work with Jenny Eriksson?
Matt McMahon: I’ve known Jenny as a jazz fan as well (as a wonderful musician in her own field) and seen her at various jazz gigs I’ve done – with Steve Hunter or Vince Jones for example. Jenny asked if I would be interested in composing for the electric viola da gamba and I thought it would be a great challenge.
Philip: You and Jenny have been exploring the very new tone world of the electric viola da gamba. How would you describe the music you have written for her?
Matt: I’ve brought my influences and history to this project. I grew up with a love of traditional Irish music in my family and this reveals itself sometimes in my composing. I have my background in jazz of course too. Composing for the electric viola da gamba opens possibilities for the use of piano rather than theorbo (bass lute) or harpsichord because of the gamba’s extra projection. This allows for some pieces that take the gamba out of its more expected setting. I’ve really tried to compose music that makes use of the natural qualities of the instrument but with a different sound world as its frame.
Philip: You’ve also arranged some tracks from one of your previous CDs and a gorgeous ballad by legendary Australian bass guitarist, Steve Hunter, who you also play with. Can you give a brief overview of your arrangements?
Matt: Guy Strazz’s piece “Zawi” is a tribute to keyboardist Joe Zawinul. It is a lyrical reflective piece – perfect for the gamba I’ve really tried to showcase the melody and let it be the focus with a little shading here and there. Steve Hunter’s piece contains a lot of rich jazz harmony and I’ve tried to accentuate the harmony in this piece – creating a sound that is quite new for the gamba I think. I have to say though these processes are intuitive and I don’t really have an agenda beyond making music that appeals to me from moment to moment: an improviser’s approach I guess.
Philip: As with a number of Australian jazz musicians, you’ve formally studied composition. In your case, with no less than Peter Sculthorpe. How does the interplay work between classical music, which is almost always fully notated and jazz, which tends to be far less written down?
Matt: The improvised part of jazz performance has important throughout its history but there have always been composers who wrote fully or mostly notated music while still trying to capture a “spontaneous quality” as Bill Evans calls it. When I’m composing I try to start from a position of no rules or stylistic boundaries and just create something that appeals to me and utilises the sonic options in front of me. Each piece becomes like a mini-genre that has its own parameters – ones that reveal themselves as the work takes shape. I try to leave the work alone without imposing expectations on what it might be.
Philip: What do you hope audiences will take away from Elysian Fields?
Matt: I hope they hear the sound of the viola da gamba presented in a fresh way, with a unique instrumentation, but one which is natural. The use of the electric gamba opens up some possibilities which I’ve exploited in these works. I’ve tried to compose and arrange music which is direct and to the point and clear. I’ve enjoyed composing melodic lines for the gamba and I feel personally close to these pieces. I find myself humming them around the house and I hope other people enjoy these quite intimate works.