Name: Matt Robidoux
Occupation: Composer, improviser, producer, sound artist
Nationality: American
Current release: Matt Robidoux's At Dust is out via Already Dead Tapes.  
Organic Music Societies book on Blank Forms
Roscoe Mitchell — The Maze, L-R-G, S II Examples
Ka Baird & Pekka Airaksinen — Hungry Shells
Beatrice Dillon — Workaround

If you enjoyed this interview with Matt Robidoux, visit his personal homepage for a deeper look into his background and oeuvre. He is also on Instagram, and Facebook.

Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?  

I’ve been exploring the possibilities of touch control using a “West Coast” eurorack synthesizer setup in solo improvisation contexts. The original Buchla 100 from the San Francisco Tape Music center lives at Mills college, which I explored in a cursory way while I was a graduate student there. Now I use a replica of that same tone generator in my system.

My relationship with this process is one of constant discovery, and I tend towards patching configurations that lend themselves to lots of randomness but with direct connection to touch and pressure.  

Lately I’ve wired the system to two cast aluminum corn sculptures I made at ACRE residency in Steuben, WI this past August, so I’m playing ears of corn to create the bulk of my electronic sounds live.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

When I’m composing I’m committing to a musical idea and planning for how to enact it in advance, at least partially. Through improvisation all of these decisions can be made in the moment, tuning to the “fundamental frequency”. Both modes demand all of my listening and intention.

In my solo set I work with through-composed open frameworks. With the process for “at dust” I worked with preset sections of samples or complete fixed media tracks in Ableton to envelop expanded instrumentation, leaving them with ample potential as jumping off points for something else to layer on top of live. Many of these composed frameworks were developed from improvisations, so the two processes are deeply enmeshed.

I keep an archive of field recordings that currently spans 5 years and draw from it frequently in building textures for fixed media and live sets. Sometimes these can show up as MIDI interpolations that drive other instruments that I control in real time. This is also something that feels situated between improvisation and composition.

Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned out to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?

The materiality of movement and sound are infinitely transformable and have infinitely transformative qualities. In his Improvisation book, Bailey also said about improvisation

“diversity is its most consistent characteristic … established only by the sonic musical identity of the person or persons playing it.”

Outside of my solo project, a big part of my practice is facilitating improvising groups with the disability community. I feel motivated to create environments where people can meet inclusively in and through music via shared time, space and sound.

With touch based microcontrollers getting so popular recently, I see more and more people I’m working with engaging with musical practices with fewer barriers. This has to do with being able to directly translate gesture into flow and movement––the transcendent qualities of sound.

Engaging with dance/movement in my solo sets has also turned out to be a source of propulsion and inspiration, making a direct connection between body gestures and the causality of improvised sound.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a  group compare to a solo situation?

Solo and collaborative practice are two distinct working modes based on similar ideas, and both have the potential for transcendence.

My original plan for recording my recent record was to gather in a studio with 2 or 3 groups of contrasting instrumentation, but all of this had to happen over email instead due to the pandemic. The way I approached my 10 collaborators in the project was usually 1 of 2 ways: I’d ask them to record 3-5 takes of an improvisation responding to the material I sent, or I’d send a score. Sometimes I’d rebuild the track from scratch around what I was sent back by a collaborator. What I realized through this album process is that working solo and creating community in collaboration are very interlinked for me.

I’m interested in aspects of the original ethos of free improvisation, which purportedly aimed to create non-hierarchical spaces centered on individual stylistic idiosyncrasies. I’m interested in how collaborative “musicking” builds community through individuals sounding together, even if separated by space and time.  

Another project I did a lot of work on during the pandemic is called “The Prepared Guitar Ensemble”, a collaboration with Creativity Explored, a visual art studio partnering with San Francisco artists with disabilities. With major contributions from our project partner, instrument builder Sudhu Tewari, Creativity Explored artists remotely designed their own prepared / modified electric guitars, and through collective process developed a vocabulary on them for zoom improvisation sessions.

Eventually we will hold in person sessions, and when we do I don’t see Steven’s rules applying to us, as a neurodivergent improvising ensemble that does not privilege formal musical training. Those who are participating in the group have chosen to contribute to a collective vocabulary using their own idiosyncratic specifically designed instruments in an inclusive environment.

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 for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

An organized studio and unstructured time are my ideal state for being creative, and having a recording or concert on the horizon are other markers of time I find helpful. The way that recording in a studio necessitates getting my ideas together and making lists is something I also find helpful to open up the solo process, like at the Vintage Synth Museum where I tracked a lot of this record.

I don’t think of being creative as mutually exclusive to music and always try to maintain a sense of openness and play as I go through life. I work full-time teaching K-12 music and sometimes the ideal state and the creative thing are just taking a few deep breaths between classes. I remind myself that music has unlimited potential to transform condition and orientation into flow and movement and that I can access that whenever I want.

This summer I participated in my first ever artist residencies, at JOYA: AiR in Spain and at ACRE in Wisconsin. I had to pinch myself a bit when I realized that all I had to do was make art all day every day, and would say that’s an ideal state for being creative!

Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting? How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?

Interacting with the unique qualities of a space and tuning to the fundamental frequency of the room (to cite Milford Graves) are important to me in a live setting. I think of the things I prepare in advance of a performance as compositional frames that are completed in the moment by improvising.

When performing solo I use Ableton Live and play bass, eurorack and sing. Working with fixed media tracks is kind of the opposite of improvisation, so I process my preset materials in different ways per performance, or forgo them entirely for different arrangements. I usually sit in a chair and play guitar when I’m doing a collaborative improvisation set, so I like for my solo sets to be very physical.

Recently, I played in an industrial warehouse in Chicago and responded to that space by wearing a high visibility outfit / dancing in a way that took up a lot of space and was very physical for my first piece, using this large loading dock and set of stairs. There was also a murky water tank that had incredible resonance, so I put a mic inside to use it as a dual bass drum / reverb tank. It’s my goal in approaching performance to engage with others in the room in a way that deconstructs traditional audience / performer expectations. Sometimes this happens by taking what looks like just a random object habituated to that space and sonically activating it, upending expectations, with the possibility that it or anything could be used to make sound.

Another really unique space I visited this summer (and would love to record an album in) is Cera 13, a then under-construction gallery in Barcelona. There was no roof, so all of the sounds made there reverberated back into the vibrant Raval neighborhood and the soundmarks of the neighborhood poured back in. There was a narrow spiral staircase built into the wall as if it was to heaven, and I opened up my performance a lot to engage with these magic qualities, traversing the space vertically via the stairs, as the sound reverberated upwards as well.

How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?

I am always recording, at my home studio, outdoors, and while travelling. I incorporate those recordings on stage, and like to make different mixes and collections of sample fragments, to use elements of fixed media in consistently evolving contexts. The studio, the field, and the performance feel a lot more blurred into each other since the process for “at dust”.

I have a release show upcoming here in San Francisco (November 7, 2021 at The Knockout, 5PM) and my friend Jake Parker-Scott and I are putting a collaborative expanded cinema piece together to be realized as a woodwind and percussion quintet. We’ll be recontextualizing a lot of the pieces from the record, and playing new arrangements of pieces that have only been performed solo with fixed media frameworks.

Each performance is an opportunity for these pieces to continue to evolve, and for me the live setting is a space to try to explore new iterations of the work that sometimes get incorporated long term.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

Founding the Adaptive Instrument Ensemble (AIE), a neurodivergent improvising ensemble when I moved to Oakland in 2017 to attend Mills College, and working with them until the present day has been very impactful. The ensemble uses a range of adaptive and traditional instruments with a focus on Deep Listening Institute's Adaptive Use Musical Instrument (AUMI), a software interface that enables the user to play sounds and musical phrases through movement and gestures, mapping to a device’s camera. This was one of Pauline Oliveros’ last projects, and its possibilities are a big reason why I decided to attend Mills.

[Read our Pauline Oliveros interview]

The group has been host to a rotating group of improvisers, as far ranging as Stuart Dempster and Cola Boyy. I contributed a chapter to a forthcoming book documenting this and many other projects called “Improvising Across Abilities: Pauline Oliveros and the Adaptive Use Musical Instrument”.

The Adaptive Instrument Ensemble’s performance at Signal Flow 2019 (Mills College CCM’s annual festival) felt like a culmination of our work from the previous 2 years, and included members who were with us every week, personal care assistants who also improvised with us, and guest improvisers from the community who were connected to the work of Pauline Oliveros.

Our group activities led to my partnering with Creativity Explored and the San Francisco Arts Commission for The Prepared Guitar Ensemble, which feels like a significant step in my eventual plan to start a studio based music program that partners with the disability community.

In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

I feel most comfortable communicating and expressing myself within sound, which is why I’ve chosen a life in music. Every living thing is connected through vibrational wavelengths  and resonance, connecting to past, present and future. This stream is what music is to me. I am interested in the communicative capacities of music, and have engaged in that firsthand making music with nonverbal people.

Music transcends all barriers to communication. I immediately feel my gratitude to the elders, like Roscoe Mitchell, my mentor at Mills College, who have given so much to the musical world. I also think of infant joy and exploration, which is the unattainable state for approaching creativity.