To Dance with Sound: Two Musicians Follow Strikingly Different Artistic Paths

Two musicians, each passionate about the dance between performer and instrument, the intimate relationship between the one coaxing out sound and the one whose carefully-crafted body is brought to sounding. Individually, each artist fascinates. Yet the two approach their musicianship in distinctly different ways.

Julie Albers:

Julie Albers, cellist. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Julie Albers, cellist. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

A classically trained cellist who began studying violin at age two, cello at age four, Albers made her major orchestral debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1998, and thereafter has performed in recital and with orchestras in the U.S., Europe, Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand.

Albers won Second Prize in Munich’s Internationalen Musikwettbewerbes der ARD, and was also awarded the Wilhelm-Weichsler-Musikpreis der Stadt Osnabruch. While in Germany, Albers recorded solo and chamber music of Kodaly for the Bavarian Radio, performances that have been heard throughout Europe.

In November, 2003, Albers was named the first Gold Medal Laureate of South Korea’s Gyeongnam International Music Competition, winning the $25,000 Grand Prize.

Miss Albers’ debut album, Julie Albers, Cello, on the Artek label includes works by Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Schumann, Massenet, and Piatagorsky.

“Backstage Pass”

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What is it about the cello that so deeply connects with soul, heart, and spirit? Something so primal that vibrates and resonates throughout the body?

Julie Albers: The cello is very close to the human voice in terms of range and timbre, which is what causes the deep human connection. There are very few instruments that have as diverse of a range of color as the cello; so somehow, no matter what voice you are looking for with the instrument, you are able to find it.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What do you imagine as your play a piece? Do you picture a story? Recall a feeling, an emotional event or relationship? Are you paying all your attention to the mastery of it or is the focus on something that cannot be put into words–requiring almost an exit out of the mind into a different aspect of being and feeling and experiencing?

[Watch: A day trip to Julian, California.]

Julie Albers: I feel that when I’m completely “in the zone” performing, I need to exit the thoughts of the mind and go into a different place of listening, feeling and reacting. This is the state where I feel like I am an instrument for the music to speak through instead of having to “make the music.” There is definitely a process for getting to that place though. First, I feel it is important to find out exactly what I want to say with a certain piece or section of a piece, and this is done through many methods, some technical and some musical, but always focusing on emotion and feeling to create the guide to the story that I would like to tell. I find that in developing a definite vision for each piece, I actually get myself to the point of allowing spontaneity and freedom to come into the music-making process. My goal is to try to find something different in a piece with each playing, never just settling into the original vision as the only way.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What drives you to play and to create? Free improvisational jazz guitarist, Jaakko Savolainen, who records under the name, alvari lume, [read: Combustus interview with J. Savolainen] once explained it to me as a desire to find answers to questions. Is it that way with you as well? Is music for you first and foremost about exploration?

Julie Albers: I feel that being a musician is very much about exploration; there is also something very liberating about being able to create something that is uniquely your own. Some musicians find this through their own composition and some of us find it through going back to the works of the great masters. Being a musician is having the ability to communicate with anybody on a much deeper level than words are able to reach. I love not having to use words!

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Favorite composer? Musician? Someone you’d like to one day collaborate with?

Julie Albers: Changes on a daily basis. I could confidently say that Brahms is my favorite composer though.

[Watch: Julie Albers on Elgar]

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You began playing at such an incredibly young age. The sheer size of the instrument didn’t intimidate you? I can imagine your first time playing must have been very thrilling for you! Can you recall any of those early days?

Julie Albers: I remember being very excited about playing the cello, because my mom had taken me to many cello recitals and played many recordings all the while talking about what an incredible instrument it was. I had a very small cello to start with. I liked being able to sit down while playing.

English: A close-up of the bridge area on a ce...

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: While still in high school, you were awarded the Grand Prize at the XIII International Competition for Young Musicians in Douai, France, and as a result toured France as soloist with Orchestre Symphonique de Douai. What was that like to experience such an honor and success at this remarkably young age? Any moment in particular that stands out for you even now?

Julie Albers: This was a very exciting competition for me because it was the first time I had done any playing outside of the country. It was also one of the first competitions I did that was specifically for cello. There was something very inspiring about being around so many other wonderful cellists around my age who all shared my passion. Unfortunately  one of my strongest memories from this time was getting quite sick after the 2nd round of the competition and having a 103 degree fever for the final round. In a way, I think this actually helped me to win because all of the energy I had was being focused on the music and making it through the performance instead of worrying about winning or being nervous. This competition was also run in an incredibly nice way where we all stayed with host families. I lucked out in being placed with a wonderful family with three little girls whom I’m actually still in touch with and just saw in Rome last month.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You perform on a N.F. Vuillaume cello made in 1872. Any words to describe this?

Julie Albers: In the beginning I wasn’t sure that it was the voice I was looking for in an instrument, but quickly realized that I just needed to learn how to play it. It’s a very healthy instrument, which is nice for traveling because some instruments can be very finicky with temperature and humidity change on a regular basis. This one always sounds close to it’s best! I’ve grown to truly love this cello.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Advice you would give a young child on how to approach music? Are there ways parents and educators can better connect young people with classical music?

Julie Albers: This is a tricky question because there is so much to being a musician that is not about the actual music. There is an enormous amount of discipline that needs to be there when a child is young that really needs to be enforced by the parent. It’s hard to find the right balance of letting the child do it purely because they feel inspired by it versus knowing that practicing isn’t always fun yet needs to be done regularly regardless. The best advice I could give a young musician is to practice every day. It matters far less how much you practice than how frequently you do so. It’s important to have a regular schedule so that practicing is just a part of the day, not something that happens based on inspiration. By having this discipline early on, you will set yourself up to be able to be a musician because you love it later in life.

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Approaching musicianship from a decidedly different direction is visual artist and teacher, Wilhelm Matthies, at present focusing on making music with the kokeka, an instrument he himself invented.

The kokeka, an instrument visual artist Wilhelm Matthies invented himself.

The kokeka, an instrument visual artist Wilhelm Matthies invented himself.

Matthies, who also collaborates with other musicians and artists, including independent Hollywood filmmaker, Matteo Marchisano-Adamo,  [see Matteo Marchisano-Adamo profiled in Combustus] recently talked with me about what drives his outside-of-the-box musical investigations:

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What led you to design your own instrument? Where did you get the idea? Was there something you wanted to find out? Were hoping to discover?

Wilhelm Matthies: There is a great story on how I started using and designing instruments. It started when I was in graduate school at the Univerisity of Illinois-Champaign. I went to hear a new music performance by trombonist Jim Staley. Spread across the floor was a large canvas rolled out with squares painted on it. I saw Jim looking down at it, following the shapes as he was playing. I said to myself, “I can do that!”

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: So the painted squares: This was written music for your friend? The visual representation of the structure he wanted to follow?

Wilhelm Matthies: Yes. Jim Staley (by the way, still a performing artist), looked at that sequence of squares, and translated that into a direction for himself. Each square represented a tone and how it was sequenced in his mind determined which next pitch to go to.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I love this!

Wilhelm Matthies: I was in the MFA program as a painter, so I stuck a few brushes under and between my acoustic guitar strings. My grandmother had just given me some money, and I bought a boombox with a microphone. (This was forty years ago.) I used the boombox to record music with two friends using this “prepared guitar.”

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And so what led you to insert your paint brushes in with the strings?

Wilhelm Matthies: I had never seen anything like that done before, so it was at once annoying but also challenging!

After playing with prepared guitars, and later prepared mandolin, I realized that perhaps I could create an instrument that would suit what and how I wanted to play. An opportunity to spend time designing an instrument came up when I returned to school for an art education degree. I took a sculpture class and the professor was open to the idea that designing an instrument was a sculptural process. Some of the basic ideas that I developed from that project still hold. A main concept was that there would be a support bar onto which things could be mounted and moved. Another important idea was to have a resonator on each end of the instrument to not only amplify the sound, but if slightly different on each end, would allow for different tone qualities.

"Mosesa 2" Design: Wilhelm Matthies.

“Mosesa 2” Design: Wilhelm Matthies. Instrument Matthies used to record with filmmaker, Matte Marchisano-Adamo.

I checked out books (no internet at the time) and studied instrument forms. I looked at the ancient Chinese instrument some call Chi (seven-stringed instrument with no neck).

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: So part of what drives you is the challenge of discovering something new?

Wilhelm Matthies: Yes, for sure.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And where does that come from? A dissatisfaction with what is presently out there? Or enthusiasm to go even deeper?

Wilhelm Matthies: A bit of both. I am able to imagine forms and sounds that do not exist, but known things need to be the starting point. I want to go into things deeper so that things I imagine can be heard and seen.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Mmmm…yes! And where do you get your ideas from?

Wilhelm Matthies: I get ideas from many things. When I took the course to design an instrument, the given things I studied were photos of historical instruments from everywhere in the world.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You must have been very excited! You felt a sense of connection with musicians of the past, yes? That you were continuing on with something meaningful and important to humanity?

Wilhelm Matthies: I was very excited. I tried to imagine how the instruments were played and how sound travels through the body and out. I tried to blend instruments, that is, take ideas from some and merge them with others. I felt connected with past musicians, but I also wanted to make something new.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And so what sort of sound, tone, effect were you seeking? Did it have an emotional flavor to it? An energy?

Wilhelm Matthies: I find that I consistently look for a sound which allows for tone changes and bends, that means the quality of the sound and the pitch level can change while playing. It does have an emotional flavor, although not necessarily nameable. The only nameable quality is that it is the sound of uncertainty…

Music made using the kokeka: a solo album using multiple tracking of the kokeka, along with time-stretching (raising or lowering the pitch).

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Something very organic? Primal? Real?

Wilhelm Matthies: Yes, very organic and primal, exactly! Uncertainty means the sound does not have a fixed pitch level, nor a fixed sound color, so when you play with such shifts, it has a sense of uncertainty.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And how does creating and hearing this sound make you feel? Energized? Soothed?

Wilhelm Matthies: When playing, the focus is certainly on the process. When hearing, I hope the listener feels it but also hears the process. It is very exciting to make the sounds. I get extremely focused. I cannot name a particular energy, as each piece is different. Also, parts are meant to be more soothing and parts more excited; it depends on where you are in the piece and what the sequence has been.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: So “Time Stretched Violin Bowing.” That is about exploring the change in tone? Getting inside the process of music or tone-making?

Wilhelm Matthies on SoundCoud

Wilhelm Matthies: The name itself does call attention to the process of tone making.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What brought you and independent Hollywood filmmaker, Matteo Marchisano-Adamo together?

Wilhelm Matthies: I heard music of his last year on Soundcloud, [MarchisanoAdamo] and I emailed him. We had some exchanges and I proposed making some music together using a compositional process that I was developing. He was too busy last year, I believe starting his film series, The Unadventurous Life of Ai. This May, I read a statement he made, hinting he would love to make some new music, so I contacted him again. So far I have recorded music, and he has responded. I try to make it so that it is very fun for him to play. It gives him a creative release, I believe, while he is campaigning for his film series. The long and short of it is that his work is very impressive, musically, especially as a keyboardist. I wanted to see what we could do together!

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You enjoy the collaborative process? That brings in yet another lovely unknown?

Wilhelm Matthies: Yes, I love the collaborative process!

“Borders On Reality”: film by video artist, Jaime Rodriguez Lopez,  interpreting Matthies’ “RiverFoot-RealityRubs” into metaphoric soundscapes.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And what were you like as a child? Always inquisitive?

Wilhelm Matthies: My musical interests as a child were a bit annoying to my father sometimes. When I practiced piano, I did enjoy it; but what I really wanted to do was make up my own music. That was annoying to my father, but fortunately, my mother was supportive.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You father felt like you were just fooling around? But you have a classical training? A classical background?

Wilhelm Matthies: Yes, I was learning classical piano literature, Mozart, Bach, Handel… My father did not believe that you could just sit down and make up some music, doing that [in his eyes] was just fooling around.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What advice would you give a parent who wants to encourage musical exploration in their child?

Wilhelm Matthies: I would advise a parent to allow the child to follow their musical interest and support it. You never know where an interest can lead to; but if the child is engaged, and self motivated, what better can you do than just support that energy? I would give similar advice to a young composer. Everyone has their own starting point. Some people would only go by strict composition, some would only want to compose while they are playing, some would want some composition and some improvisation mixed. It is best, in my view, to support the direction a person feels is best suited for them.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And my last question: Is there such a thing as “good” or “bad” music?

Wilhelm Matthies: “Good” music means you want to hear the sounds, “Bad” means you do not want to hear them.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And is it enough if you play for your ears only? Must a musician have an audience to be a true musician? Is that the goal? An integral part of the equation? Or is the exploration more personal and if someone else enjoys it, so much the better?

Wilhelm Matthies: I think it can be enough if you truly hear what you are doing, as that can transform you to a new place. But I think a musician wants to connect with others through the medium, and so an audience is needed. How large should the audience be? That depends on the kind of music. It is important to have an audience so that the music resonates with others. Ideally, you wish that others can feel what you are doing with the music.

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Further notes:

For more on Julie Albers, visit her website at: Cellist Julie

To hear Wilhelm Matthies perform along with other musical inventors: