An interview with Matt McMahon and Philip Pogson for Jazz Australia, courtesy of Marais Website
On May 11 Elysian Fields premiered a new song cycle for electric viola da gamba ensemble composed by renowned pianist, composer and Elysian Fields member, Matt McMahon, at Foundry616. Drawing on a love for the poems of Thomas Wyatt that was kindled as a University undergraduate, McMahon has created a piece that explores and synthesises multiple threads in his and the band’s influences.
Sydney Morning Herald jazz reviewer, John Shand, who attended the premiere, wrote: “Here was a head-spinning dialogue between half a millennium ago and now, and a sound as foreign as dreaming someone else’s dreams. It emanated from Jenny Eriksson’s electric viola da gamba, the only example in Australia”, and “McMahon has preserved Wyatt’s prevailing mood of courtly gentleness, but spiced it harmonically and texturally, most notably with sudden squalls of anguished tenor saxophone from Matt Keegan.”
PP: Matt, this new song cycle for Jenny Eriksson and Elysian Fields – the 6-piece electric viola da gamba band you and she are both members of – consists of a setting of poems by Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 1542). Who was Thomas Wyatt and how would you summarise his life and poetry?
MM: Thomas Wyatt was a diplomat in the court of Henry VIII. He was involved in intrigue in the court and spent time in the Tower of London accused of an affair with Ann Boleyn. He must have feared for his life as five other men at this time were executed for this same reason. He was released because of his good connections. Years later he was accused of treason again and he was spared this time by the intervention of Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife: Catherine herself was executed after Wyatt’s release and pardon. None of his poems were published during his lifetime but he has come to be seen as one of the most important figures in English poetry. He imported ideas from Petrarch into English, including the form of the sonnet, and experimented with innovative forms and expression. He wanted to bring new energy and brilliance to English verse.
PP: As an artist, what attracts you to his poetry?
MM: On the first day of my arts degree in 1989 in my initial English lecture we looked at Wyatt’s poetry and it struck me immediately. I love his control of language and metaphor and his playful tone. His poetry also gives us a window into the court of Henry VIII – the world of powerful men jostling for more power and clandestine trysts. He was not a detached observer of human affairs, or a struggling artist on the fringe of society. He was a participant whose insights into love and power still have relevance five hundred years later. It is also important to resist the simple identification of Wyatt himself with the narrative voice of the poems as he imitates and plays with the tropes of classical, Italian and English forms.
PP: Wyatt lived before the time of Shakespeare and prior to the great English song-writer and lutenist, John Dowland whose music many readers will be familiar with. Was it challenging to set Wyatt’s old English in a modern, jazz/improvised music context?
MM: There are some challenges. For example, some unfamiliar words to a twenty-first century ear and Wyatt’s unique use of rhythm and turn of phrase. But the poems are so musical. Some have verse forms suited to songs, others, including the sonnets, lend themselves to the creation of free-flowing lines. I try not to think about the genre too much, I just write what seems to suit the poetry and construct an environment around the words. I’m not consciously referencing music of the sixteenth century or consciously trying to juxtapose forms.
PP: This isn’t the first time you’ve written for strings in general or Jenny Eriksson’s viola da gamba in particular, but string instruments are still relatively rare in jazz. Do you have a particular approach or philosophy in composing for strings or do you tend to be intuitive?
MM: The viola da gamba is an instrument capable of fulfilling a bass role, performing rich melodies, or contributing to the texture. I do try to be conscious of certain keys and open strings etc.for the gamba too. My approach, however, is ultimately intuitive. I compose not just for the instrument but for the individual player(s). Having performed and composed for the Elysian Fields ensemble, I can imagine the sound-world of the ensemble when I’m conceptualising the music. Strings can add so much richness to the sonic world. I try to allow the gamba to speak in ways that are not necessarily typical without losing the instruments many strengths.
PP: The line-up of Elysian Fields is quite unique sonically: Matt Keegan on tenor, baritone or soprano saxophone, electric viola da gamba, keyboards, bass and drums along with vocalist Susie Bishop who is also a fine violinist. I imagine it was quite stimulating working with the sound palette available to you.
MM: It is stimulating. I find it particularly interesting when there is a range of different traditions and experiences too. Jazz music has always drawn from classical music or folk traditions of various kinds. I feel like a cook with an array of flavours to utilise – rhythms, harmonies etc. I don’t really think about genre. I just want to make my ideas clear.
PP: Finally Matt, what are you hoping listeners take away from the piece?
MM: I hope listeners enjoy the beautiful sound world of Wyatt’s poems and can get a sense of his wonderful use language and metaphor. Some of his word choice and syntax may be unfamiliar but I hope listeners who are not familiar with his poems seek them out. These poems reveal more on each hearing/reading and they also allow us to experience and imagine the precarious but exciting world of Henry VIII’s court from a highly intelligent man who was part of it.
I hope the music naturally expresses the sentiment of the words and the time and place of its origin. Most of all I hope the music locates Wyatt’s poems as being of timeless interest since they feel as fresh, relevant and immediate as if they were written yesterday.
Matt Keegan – saxophones
Jenny Eriksson – electric viola da gamba
Susie Bishop – voice and violin
Matt McMahon – piano
Siebe Pogson – electric bass
Finn Ryan – drums