Toronto-based composer/sound designer/actor/writer Matthew Reid has been composing on the piano, and playing around with mathematics and Schönberg's early atonal works "just out of curiosity" as he says. He uses mathematics to create random pitches, which are then quantized digitally and turned into modal scales.
composer/sound designer/actor/writer Matthew Reid, photo by Lisa Mark
It sounds impossibly complicated. You can check out the results in the video at the bottom.
His recent piano work, collected in the EP Sounds in a Box, have become enormously popular on streaming services. He's the former music director of Second City, and composer of The Second City Guide to the Symphony & Mass Hysterical.
I asked Matthew a few questions about his work and career.
How/when did you first get into music - did you come from a musical family?
Very musical family. Music teachers and performers abound! My mom still directs choirs from the piano,well into retirement! My uncle was also the Music Director of Second City way back in the late 70s/early 80s so it’s cool to have that “family dynasty” there.
I think I started later than most. I think I was ten and I suddenly got really interested in the idea of writing music, so I figured I should learn to play the piano or guitar or something. That first piece I wrote did not sound as much as Tchaikovsky as I’d hoped. My mom taught piano, so we had plenty of classical sheet music on hand. I had an old graded book from the 30s that I wanted to bash through from page one to the end. Für Elise was considered a grade three piece back then! Soon after, my friends and I were forming little rock bands. We did covers and originals! It wasn’t until I heard the Well Tempered Clavier for the first time when I was 14 or 15 that I decided I wanted to be a composer. I thought fugues were the most fascinating things I’d ever heard! I spent the next five years exclusively focusing on trying to write them. It would be unlocking a secret to the universe!
In 2017, he composed the score for the multi-award winning short Green Lake
How did comedy and music come together for you?
Well, here’s the thing - I thought of them separately and tried to keep them apart, (tried!) but they tricked me into combining them. In my music, I intended to convey seriousness, on the other hand, in comedy, I intended to convey… well let’s face it, still my seriousness only with a ridiculous flavour
So really, it was a matter of circumstance. When I was a kid, I took comedy classes with Rob Salem, who was a prominent entertainment columnist at the time. For some unknown reason, I began incorporating parody songs into my performances, even though I had no knowledge of Weird Al Yankovic in '82! But for a long stretch after that - nothing! I continued to keep music and comedy separate, like warring, Shakespearean families. Or cats and dogs - also Shakespearian. It wasn't until I reengaged in sketch comedy in my late 20s, specifically with my comedy partner Sean Browning, that I started writing funny songs again, perhaps hoping that people would discover my serious musical work as a result. In my early 30s, I started working at Second City as a music director - I thought it would just be a temporary gig! I had no idea I’d end up with the company for almost 20 years.
You created the Second City Guide To The Symphony in 2014 - do you think the classical music world lends itself to comedy in some ways?
Well, parody and satire are often associated with larger-than-life personalities. But we all know the world of classical music doesn’t have any egos or eccentrics. So, abso-LUTE-ly not! Seriously, though, seriously. The Guide to the Symphony project was a real joy to create. Carly Heffernan and Scott Montgomery did the majority of the writing. There were so many things the humour could target. The fact that classical music is associated with such seriousness made it easy to find comedy not just from, say putting iconic composers in goofy or anachronistic situations, put you could touch on things like performance anxiety, audience habits, and don’t forget that marketing department that desperately needs to get the hip kids in those seats! In a way, it was no different than making a show about doctors. “Do you think the world of medicine lends itself to comedy in some ways?” It’s supposed to be serious, so anything that pokes even the slightest hole in it, or puts the “we’re only human” context into it can be funny. Also, from a strictly compositional POV, I really enjoy “playing it straight” with the music. I wanted the music to colour the funny lyrics, but not over explain them. I find it far more effective than music that beats you over the head with, "This is funny! Hear those wah-wah trombones and kazoos? Why aren’t you laughing??"
Your biography describes you as a "classical music provocateur" - is that part of what drives you to create in innovative ways?
Ha ha. Really, I’ve only really “provoked” a few times. Some years ago I “autotuned” John Cage’s 4’33” to a C major chord progression. Recently, as you saw, I pitch-quantized some of Schonberg’s early atonal works to make them sound like Debussy. I was also going to pitch quantize a Boulez piece with a dance club beat under it: Le Marteau, Remastered. Didn’t get around to it yet. There’s obviously a lot of fun to be had with the world of modern music, but little of it came from the inside. But these little teases, I hoped to be musically interesting in their own rights. “You autotuned air??” So, in these cases, it was jokes for a very niche audience that inspired innovation.
Apart from this, innovation in my work comes from trying to avoid my own clichés and find new ways to surprise myself. There is also a degree of logic puzzle in some of my more recent works. Ultimately, it’s to discover new things that I like. Pretty boring, actually, but it seems to have kept my hair from falling out and going grey! Solving problems and making discoveries, while creating little things that you like to listen to is a pretty nice way to spend your free time. Although it still doesn’t sound like Tchaikovsky.
Your recent releases (non-comedic!) have become quite popular on streaming platforms. I'd say your style as a composer is quite atmospheric, and not surprisingly cinematic in scope. How would you describe your musical style? Is there something in particular you are looking to leave with your listeners?
Ha. What I have on streaming platforms is kind of a dog’s breakfast! It’s really eclectic. Under my own name, I have not only, my early and contemporary “serious” works, but jazz, pop and a ton of background production music that’s been dumped on there by some music libraries I’ve worked with. Curiously, the biggest classical hit I’ve had under my own name was a piece that I composed in second year composition school - that was a big surprise. And I re-arranged some of the pieces I created for my 3rd year medieval composition program which now are popular as background music for people playing Dungeons & Dragons.
I have music under a couple of “artist names” that have (surprisingly!) taken off. Sounds from a Box, is one, but Closed Lids is interesting in that I applied one of my very experimental composition methods to create pieces that will ultimately be used as background music. I’m fascinated that something like that can go “mainstream”. I try to put craftsmanship into everything I create - really, I don’t like creating anything that I, personally, find boring. That’s even the stuff where the audience is a priority, i.e., music for a relaxation playlist, a film score, etc. When I have the luxury to create a piece of music for music’s sake, something that I might attach an opus number to, I’m really not thinking so much about listeners but I do hope to create things that I, personally, enjoy listening to. When I first started composing, it was a reaction to a very physical, euphoric sensation that came from some pieces of music. I wanted to learn how to make such a thing! It would be like discovering one of the universe’s secrets. Or, at the very least, like chasing the dragon. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not out to write music out of some contempt for an audience. I do hope that there are people who discover and enjoy this musical side of me, it’s definitely not written to intentionally turn people off. I hope people can listen to it out of enjoyment first! And then the enjoyment might make them wonder how the pieces were made. I never would have been interested in “how to compose” if the “what was composed” didn’t hold some kind of magic. Okay, so I lied, I want to leave my listeners with magic. Magic for all!
Are there any other new or ongoing projects you'd like to mention?
I’ve been collaborating with my old friend, Angola Murdoch, on a piece of circus theatre that I’m really enjoying. We’re very close to taking it on tour. I’m making music that uses some of my “serious” compositional methods as a backbone to atmospheric improvisation. Which is appropriate because it’s literally a piece about Angola’s backbone - cliffhanger!
I’ve also been having some fun collaborating with composer/polymath Stuart Diamond & computer engineer/music enthusiast Chuck Heaton. I can’t get too much into it yet, but it’s involving making music with math, and we’re going to unlock the secrets of the universe. I think. So people had better start sucking up to us now.
"I've been playing with pitch quantization of music created by mathematics - more about that another time - with interesting results. It made me curious what would happen if I applied this quantization to the work of a well-known atonal composer. Enjoy! ...Or hate. It's done in the spirit of curiosity & humour."
Arnold Schönberg, Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11 No. 1 (reconceptualized by Matthew Reid)
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