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Composer Spotlight: Phillip Matty

Interview conducted by Jakub Watrobski, 18th June 2021. In conjunction with Pride Month, last month we sat down with Phillip Matty to talk about his work and his change of focus from Mathematics to composing.

Phillip Matty is a composer, oboist and singer. He is currently in his 4th year of a Masters of Mathematics (MMath) at the University of York. Phillip has undertaken many music-oriented roles while studying at York. The most recent of these was directing for a production of ‘A Dinner Engagement' and holding the position of Treasurer for the Music society. He has been developing as a composer over the last year with recent projects of his including work for the Welsh National Opera and an inner-city Birmingham primary school working with children to explore the idea of schooling during the first Covid-19 lockdown. Phillip is also enthusiastic about the exploration of electronics and modular synthesis. His most recent work was performed by members of the Chimera Ensemble and UoY Opera Society in a concert of Edward Lear nonsense opera shorts. He is looking forward to attending the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire to study an MMus in composition in September.

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview Phillip. Please could you tell us a bit about yourself and your music? What do you do?

Yes, so I’m actually a Maths student at (The University of) York at the moment, just finishing up my masters in Mathematics but I am off to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire to study composition in September. I’ve been composing and doing music things throughout my time at York, but only in the last year have I really focused on composition as what I want to do in the world. It really all started around this time last year when there was an advert that came up for a summer course at Guildhall in composition. My housemate at the time, she really encouraged me to go for it! I got onto that, and it was a nice week spent just composing with other young musicians and workshopping our music. From that I really worked out that yes, this is what I want to do, I want to go on and do some composition. So I reached out to a few different people, had a few different taster sessions, applied and got accepted which was very nice!

Congratulations on Royal Birmingham! So you said that you decided to become a composer about a year ago - when did you decide to become a musician?

I had piano lessons when I was little and then I started singing. I was in a stage-theatre group as one of the youth actors and I did a lot of Olivers, Billy Elliots, Joseph that kind of stuff. At that point I was like ‘Oh, I want to be a singer’ more than anything. When I went to secondary school I kept singing, I became head chorister since it was an Anglican school. And then just before university I thought ‘Hmm, it might be useful for me to have a second instrument’ and that’s when I picked up the oboe! The helpful thing is that my singing teacher was also my oboe teacher so I already knew that it was going to work at that point.

Could you name some musicians that have influenced your development as a musician and as a composer?

I was such a purist when I came to York. I was like ‘York’s great for Baroque!’. And I came and I was in love with Bach and Handel and loads of old masters and I was like ‘Ah amazing!’. And then you come to York and you're thrown in with Xenakis and Cage and all these great composers. Actually, at school I did a project, one of those EPQ projects, on algorithmic composition. That was when I thought music is something I still want to be doing. I did a lot of work on Xenakis in that. Through that I really found fascination with minimalism and the world of patterns which I think satisfied my maths brain as much as it did my music brain.

So rather than specific composers and musicians it is more styles that have influenced you?

It changes, that’s the whole thing. At the moment because I’m still on the learning journey every few months I’ll find a new composer whose work I’m fascinated with. The other month I was really fascinated with the operas of David Lang and loved the textures that he got out in Prisoner of the State. There are these textures with the singers - quite a lot of the works I conceive are vocal. At the moment I’m in love with the piano music of Kapustin - they are all so great and how it’s all so beautifully notated on the page and all the performers manage to get these amazing, almost improvised feeling jazz performances. It’s great. So it changes a lot, but there’s no one person I would say ‘they’ve inspired me’. One of the main draws when

I was applying to Birmingham was Howard Skempton. A lot of his work doesn’t sound like itself, which is what I like at the moment - to not always sound like me but to sound like many different versions of me.

Phillip Matty - Because I Liked You (2020)

Since you are just trying everything out to find your voice, your form of expression.

Yeah, but I think it’s okay to have multiple voices as a composer as well. My voice when I am writing vocal music is very different to my voice when I write orchestral music at the moment. I think I’d like that separation to continue and have different worlds where I dip my toes.

You mentioned earlier about algorithmic composition and patterns. Do any of your compositions rely on complex mathematical structures, especially in terms of rhythm? I’m thinking about the one I conducted with big changes between simple and complex rhythms.

Now you mention it, probably yes. I write some pieces that have very simple rhythms but quite a lot of the pieces I prefer of my own work do have those more complicated, interlocking rhythmic ideas that rely more on the performers than on the piece itself which is not always fair but kind of good!

Yeah. Going back to that piece of yours, Because I Liked You Better, one of the sections in it was just entirely in septuplets if I remember correctly. When you write something like that do you expect the performers to be completely in time with each other and the music or do you write it wanting it to be slightly more free?

I think because I’ve had a lot of experiences with (The) Chimera (Ensemble), I’m not jaded by the expectation of perfect performance. So when I write pieces like that I’m not expecting a perfect performance. It’s always more the feeling of that that I want rather than the perfection of it.

Is there anything in particular that you are trying to achieve through your compositions, particularly as a member of the LGBTQ+ community?

Quite a lot. The piece you conducted, Because I Like You Better, and the piece I had

performed last term both had poems written by gay men. I feel like gay men have a disproportionately large voice in the classical world anyway, I would personally say. Larger than some of the communities that there are. Gay men are a group that, especially in the 20th century, found centre stage. Not all. There are a lot of straight white men, but there were a lot of gay white men that were big composers. So I feel like when I write my music, it is always a factor, in the back of my head, but I’m not always writing as a gay composer. I’m more thinking this is something I like, this poem I like because it’s of a time when that was less acceptable and it’s more acceptable now. And I can write this music that portrays it in such a way where audiences can hear some of the struggles in those poems, even if they aren’t lived experiences today. Although, it is still a lived experience today, unfortunately for many gay men where they are not accepted in the wider world, as well as the local community.

Well that leads into my next question. You mentioned the prominence of certain gay composers in the 20th century, and indeed today, but do you still feel that with so much awareness of exclusion and inequality, opportunities for LGBTQ+ composers are limited more so than for straight composers?

I don’t think they are more limited. I think there should be more availability for, not necessarily gay composers but for lesbian, trans composers and especially for composers of

non-white ethnicities. There are definitely more groups that should be seen more than gay, white composers. I feel like the gay, white composer community is not as supressed as some of the other communities are and yes, there should be more funds/scholarships as always for LGBTQ+ composers, but if that money wasn’t directly focused towards gay men, I wouldn’t be mad about that.

That is a really inspiring answer. To move on towards the future, what elements of composition do you wish to explore more? Where do you see yourself taking your compositions?

The plans in my mind are heading towards the opera world, but that is mostly because I just enjoy working with singers. I feel like an opera is still seen by many, in the same way the concert hall, as the preserve of the upper and middle classes. I would really like to work with communities or children to work on operas that work with people that don’t experience that. I feel like opera’s an easier world to get into. It’s so dramatic, it’s a soap playing out on stage. I feel like some orchestral pieces are nice to sit back and listen to, but you are not as engaged with an opera. It’s vivid and there.

University of York Music Society Lunchtime Concert by the Opera Society featuring works by Phillip Matty (2021)

Would you say so? Many people perceive opera as a very distant art form associated with upper-classes, funny glasses and someone shouting vowels that you can’t understand.

(laughs) Yes that is the perception, but it is very different to that in the world today. Tête à Tête opera is doing great things where it’s completely different to that. It’s a world apart from operas where it is people far away on a stage in languages you can’t understand. No, opera nowadays is much more like theatre to me and I feel like theatre is much more accessible and that opera could be that. It’s such a broad range of artforms. It does bring the dramatic, and dance, and music. It brings all these together and it could be, no it should be, a place that brings all of them together and to everyone. I do think it can be that, but I agree that people have the view that it’s not at the moment. But that was the same with the symphony. People used to go and get dressed up, and nowadays I track along in my jeans and a hoodie. Quite a lot of opera houses are doing good work to get engagement, but there’s always more to be done.

Moving back towards your compositions, do you have a work that you are particularly proud of?

Yes, and it is one that I really want to get performed. It’s not very complicated, it’s not been performed yet and it’s just pretty. It’s written for eight solo singers and a string quartet. It’s Yeats’ Four Ages of Man, and it’s telling this nice story that we start off, we grow old, we die.

The story that we all live. It’s just very nice. It was my first foray into writing for string quartet, and I’ve since written much longer pieces for string quartet exploring much more, but the piece to me still has an innocence of youth to it. There were no thoughts in my head saying ‘I should write like this’ - it was just me writing what I wanted to write. I feel like once you start on the education pathway it all gets a bit muddled down with other voices that aren’t necessarily yours and you have to find your way to your own pure voice again.

That is a really nice, pure answer! So could you tell us a bit about your involvement in The Arc Project?

I have participated in the Digital Ensembles Edition as both a performer and a composer, so I’ve kind of seen it from both worlds. It is so nice to just be given two performers and be told ‘Okay, go away, write something, you’ve got this amount of time’. You’re not given any

constraints whatsoever, which is a bit daunting. For the first month I sat there being like ‘What am I going to write?’. But really working with the performers and saying ‘Okay that’s what you like, that’s what you like, I think we can go either of those ways and do something that we are all going to enjoy!’. Because it was digital there weren’t the constraints of a

concert. I feel like the concert hall not just constrains the composer but also the performers to what is possible. So in my piece I really made use of my two performers being at home, so I could turn these two performers into six performers, or eight performers. I could really make an orchestra of two people and put them in weird places and get a very different sound world than is possible on-stage. My piece was States of Matter, so I did the first three states of matter that everyone is familiar with (solid, liquid, gas). Plasma and the others are down the line! These are monoliths of ideas that you might learn about in primary school, really simple things that can be interpreted ten trillion ways. It is very abstract, it doesn’t need to be anything in particular. If this was to be performed on-stage, you can only have two players and they can only play their instrument one at a time. So there would have to be some recordings played alongside and I personally don’t think that always produces the best results when it’s the performers own instruments.

I just have one more question. Do you have anything exciting coming up and do you have anyone you want to collaborate with in the future?

So on Tuesday the 22nd of June there is a concert with the Opera Society at York and The Chimera Ensemble of six new opera shorts for solo instruments and solo voice using Edward Lear’s Nonsense Poems. All these limericks that are so silly! Four of those are mine. I’ve got rehearsals going on this week and they are great! Of course I’m looking forward to people listening to The Arc Project piece States of Matter. I’d love to work with the Welsh National Opera again, that would be really fun. Or any opera company really who wants to work in schools with children. I’m currently writing a lot because my degree is over, so I can. I’m in a rut writing for singers at the moment so I think over summer I’ll get back to writing for instruments which will be nice.

Read more about Phillip here

Phillip is one of the composers and performers on our project, Digital Ensembles Edition. The pieces are currently being released over on our YouTube channel. Keep an eye out for Phillip's releases here

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