Part 1

Name: Matangi Quartet
Members: Maria Paula Majoor, Arno van der Vuurst, Daniel Torrico Menacho, Karsten Kleijer
Interviewee: Karsten Kleijer
Nationality: Dutch
Current Release: Markus Reuter: Heartland on Solaire Records
Recommendations: ‘Ayre’ by composer Osvaldo Golijov … the best performances of this piece are live, and if you are lucky, then Nora Fischer will be the singer. I was blown away when I heard the piece and when I heard what Nora did with it.
But if that doesn’t work … try the CD HUSH by Nora Fischer and Marnix van Dorrestein, two voices and electric guitar … old songs, but with respect for the original composition, nothing corny.

If you enjoyed this interview with the the Matangi Quartet, they have an excellent website which offers plenty of background information, a new archive and current tour dates.

When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I started to play the violin at the age of 5. In fact there were two reasons. Firstly, a girl in my class played the violin (now my sister in law). And the second and maybe most important … I didn’t have to take recorder classes. The viola came into my life just a few months prior to the start of the Matangi Quartet (1999).

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?

I think that listening to recordings is fine, is good, just to see what colours you could use for your painting. But after that you have to mix your own colours, pick your own brushes and create something that is you(rs).

What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?

Being an artist is (about) an ongoing struggle I think. On a personal level, my technical skills are often a challenge. On the level of the quartet, there are a lot of things which you have to learn just by doing and going through certain stages of being a quartet. Your musicality has to fit in this 4 character ensemble. This means that you sometimes have to speak up and other times just have to listen. Rehearsal wise and talking wise. That’s not something you can learn at the conservatory, it has to do with willingness and determination for playing in a string quartet.

Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?

I think most important for me is to have a place where there is not too much going on, no distraction. We have such a place, it is the rehearsal space of the quartet. If I really need to focus, that’s my place to be. It’s not looking nice, it’s not inspiring. But if my colleagues are in the room, they will take care of that part. Good lightning is also crucial. And mood wise, I would say … studying while stressed out might not be the best idea …

Tell me about your instrument, please. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one? How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?

Although my instrument is someone who's normally in a good mood, he (I think it’s a he, but with a feminine side … but then again, it might be a female with a male side) never really lets me down. It’s a very rare instrument as it is the only viola ever found by this particular Dutch maker Jan Heefke. He is not one of the famous Dutch makers of his time, but the instrument is outstanding. It matches our second violin (by the Dutch builder Rombouts) in an incredible way. The viola is a bit small but is quite high and has a warm but bright sound.

Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

This is one of my struggles …Having 3 children … with Maria-Paula, the first violin player of the quartet. Of course, Maria (as I call her) and I speak a lot about the quartet, but sometimes we have to try to shift our focus. We don’t have a fixed schedule, some concerts/projects need more rehearsal time than others. We used to sacrifice all our available time to the quartet. But with every member of the quartet having a family now, that no longer possible.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?

Ideas for a CD mostly pup op during an international tour. Those are the times that you are together as a quartet but not always in a rush to run home to go to piano lessons with your daughter or to breakdance class with your son. It happened twice in a kitchen of a castle in France where we stayed. With a glass of wine …
When everyone feels the same excitement about the idea, the rest will follow easily.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

I think rehearsals are often about finding out how to make the painting, and concerts are about actually making the painting. Acoustics and ambiance will definitely influence our state of mind. And trust: trust in the people with whom you are performing, and trust in yourself … which is not always easy to evoke.

How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?

Sometimes we use microphones or Ipads, but I think that’s about it. Amplification might sometimes give you a little bit of freedom (sound wise).

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through playing together or just talking about ideas?

Playing is the best! Talking can also help, but playing and learning from each other is the absolute best.

How is preparing music, playing it live and recording it for an album connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?

Improvisation is not that easy with a quartet, especially because we were not educated to do that. We won’t be able to make an impro  on command, but we can improvise in terms of our ways of playing. Creating soundscapes, you might call them. You have to be in the right mood to do so, if not, you could ruin a piece by it. It’s a delicate matter and easy to take the wrong turn or make the wrong decisions.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' and 'performance' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre?

Some compositions are more inviting to experiment with sounds then others. Certain pieces will not reveal their secrets immediately, and for that reason it takes you some time to see what possibilities the piece will give to you.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?

Fragrances can take you back 40 years in a split second, and so can music. Everyone know this song from his/her adolescence. If the radio plays that song, it can hit you the same way it did years ago. Magic …pure magic.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

In the last decade, being an artist has been degraded. Politicians talking about art as a ‘left wing hobby’, as an elite thing, or just a luxurious form of entertainment. My belief is that art is much more essential. It can upset you, make you feel in love, make you fall in love, sad, hopeful, hopeless and so on. It’s a key element of civilisation to acknowledge the value of art. In my humble opinion, art plays a key role in society. It must be a sign that regimes fear composers, painters, writers and other artists and try to make it impossible for them to work (Shostakovitch, Prokofiev but also nowadays with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for example)

It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music and performance still intact. Do you have a vision of music and performance, an idea of what they could be beyond their current form?

The classical music scene is a conservative scene, so changing things takes time. But my feeling is that in the last 10 years, things are slowly shifting. Alternative concert forms  are beginning to pop up more and more. Starting time and duration are not a solid truth anymore. Art forms are more and more combined and maybe most importantly, the artist who try these new forms are taken seriously more and more. Because of this, other ‘serious’ classical stars dare to walk on this path as well and so this relatively new genre is accepted step by step.