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Catch a Tiger: An Interview with Matthew Welch

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Dusted's Adam Strohm interviews genre-pushing bagpiper and composer Matthew Welch.

Catch a Tiger: An Interview with Matthew Welch

It's for his inclusion of bagpipes into the realm of modern composition that Matthew Welch is best known, but the release last year of Dream Tigers on Tzadik proved that Welch's talents exist on a broader scale, and that he doesn't need the pipes to make music that stands out as creative and exciting. Welch, who studied and

played with Alvin Lucier and Anthony Braxton, finds influences far and wide, and, no matter how disparate, is able to bring them together to make a cohesive whole. His integration of the bagpipes and gamelan into the compositional aresenal are not for novelty or curiosity's sake, as they might in the hands and mind of other composers, and more important than the variety of forms that Welch's music takes is the seamless manner in which it is created and performed. The aforementioned Dream Tigers shows three distinctly different sides of Welch, but they're all equally compelling, proving that Welch, no matter what direction he takes, is a young composer worth hearing.

Why the bagpipes? What led you to learn the instrument, and what inspired you to fuse it with modern compositional forms?

My first instrument was accordion, and soon felt upon hearing the pipes, I felt, no, wait, this was the instrument I was looking to play. I had heritage, but was driven mostly by the sound of the instrument and the structure of its music. I felt very compelled to

understand bagpipe music and so began to compose it. Upon undertaking the composition of piping's highest form of piobaireachd, I was interested in being inventive, as this classical form was most open to creative decisions as a performer and composer. I simultaneously honed my skills as a piper and bagpipe composer, and during the most crucial years of this I was also studying experimental music composition and writing chamber and electronic works. I found in the world of the avant-garde a home for my music in that I was experimenting and extending, though with identifiable utilization of bagpipe concepts or materials. The taking up of gamelan some 10 years ago, also shaped ideas of instrumental relationships that pipe music didn't have, yet that could come so easily out of it, expressed in my recent orchestral and chamber settings. The music I make today essentially is an accumulation of over fifteen years of work. Whatever stage I was at, I was always interested in extending conceptually whatever music I was involved with.

Do you feel there exists a great untapped potential in the utilization of the bagpipes in non-traditional forms? Have you come into contact with anyone else working in this particular vein, or do most other pipers seem more at odds with your recontextualization of the instrument and its traditional role in music?

There is equally as great an untapped potential in the utilization of bagpipes in non-traditional forms as there is in extensions and extrapolations of traditional forms. The territory is largely unexplored, save a mere handful of innovators that I have come to be acquainted with. Canada's Michael O'Neill, England's Paul Dunmall, and New Zealand/New York's David Watson and Scotland's Martyn Bennett all have done remarkable work with the bagpipe outside of its original context, all of them in unique directions. These all are more likely to find open ears in the general listening community, whereas, most traditional players would criticize it.

What, do you feel, holds the bagpipes back? Why are there so few innovators using the instrument? Do you see it as too difficult a challenge for many performers and composers to integrate the bagpipes into the realm of modern composition or improvisation?

Primarily the pressure to conform in piping as it has become a classical music and largely a competitive tradition outside of its martial context, combined with a real lack of concert format vehicles for its music may have suppressed extended formal creativity. Individualism is sometimes allowed, though rarely encouraged explicitly. The bagpipe's one time possibility of extinction set forth a preservationist attitude as early as the latter half of the 18th century. The instrument has changed little in the ways other western wind instruments have developed since their inception into an orchestral situation; the pipe makers have essentially been perfecting the same design for three hundred years. Here, particular problems arise in integrating the pipes with modern western instruments, most notably those of pitch. The tuning systems are not the same, and of course the pipes have almost none of the dynamic and articulation techniques that has come be commonplace in western ears. It is not too difficult to conceive of this merge in aesthetic, though I think also, perhaps more importantly, it is the development of a proper cultural context, such as this current time period, where diasporic developments and global access conveniences can help cultivate these mutational sidebands. Perhaps just now, it is the bagpipe\'s turn.

How did your interest in gamelan arise? Do you see its inclusion in your repertoire as another example of the global convenience and access that you mentioned? Do you see yourself, and younger composers as a whole, products of this shift in cultural dynamics, knowingly or un-?

As another example of this global access, I was able to study Gamelan at both my undergraduate and graduate universities. I felt an affinity for it instantly, and saw its uncanny connection to pipe music from the start, though this came to be more important to my

recent musical direction. Not only this, but traveling to Bali and composing and collaborating in Indonesia would not have happened 100 years ago. I would agree that my generation of composers on the whole has been changed or challenged in some way by this increased cultural transparency; the bubble of strictly Western values and art forms had already burst.

Does it ever bother you that you're primarily known for your use of the bagpipes? Do you think the variety of Dream Tigers an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to exhibit some of your other musical achievements outside the realm of the pipes?

Well, it doesn't bother me too much that I am known for my use of the pipes, though it is sometimes disappointing that it is as far as people are willing to dig into someone's music. Despite the fact that the bagpipe and its music are integral to my musical conditioning and temperament, it erroneously or inadequately represents me. I have done much work to extend the use of the pipes in an avant-garde context whilst additionally evolving traditional idioms, but this has come primarily through my activities and aesthetic leanings as a composer and overall musicianship; in this case, bagpipe virtuosity has become just as harmful to my music as it has helped it. As a composer, I have written just as many if not more pieces that do NOT include the pipes within the instrumentation. I feel that my most worthy thoughts towards music are embodied in my compositions, not in what in what extended techniques I have discovered for the pipes nor who in the avant-garde I have played pipes with. Dream Tigers is not an attempt to exhibit my other modes of working, it is precisely an exposure of what I feel are my most original and personal musical procedures. After all, it is on the "Composer Series," to which I owe Zorn much appreciation for his guidance in not saturating the album with me as a performer. Although my first two albums that feature me as a composer (Ceol Nua and Hag at the Churn) involve me as a performer more than Dream Tigers, there are clear compositional elements that perhaps are obfuscated by the novelty of the bagpipe, undoubtedly easy victims of surface-level listening. Any instrument is a vehicle. The public has already permitted performers of western instruments and creative improvisers to reach outward, yet somehow the public cannot deal with someone from another sphere reaching elsewhere without pigeon-holing their music. Are people aware of Ravi Shankar\'s beautiful concerto for Sitar and Orchestra and his work as a composer as much as his Sitar playing? Not really. Though a musician like Don Cherry is praised for his expansion of musicality...I feel that we culturally take for granted what seem to be pedestrian items, for there commonplace position allows reading past the surface, while others forever remain obscure.

It's obvious that you've been influenced by gamelan and your Scottish heritage, but do you that being an American composer has had an effect on your work? I think I hear what seem to be some distinctly American strains in "Siubhal Turnlar." What important, if perhaps less obvious, ways do you think the American tradition of modern composition has molded the way you work?

This is a very important third part of my work, a context that allows my music to take place in. The history of American music from immigrant transformations of folk music to American neo-classical references to folk music, the musics of mavericks like Cage, Harrison, Partch, Feldman, Glass, Reich, Young, Riley, Braxton, Zorn, improvisation traditions, jazz, anything is possible---American Modern Music is an embrace of alternative methods to those of the trajectories of the European avant-garde, where presence of gamelan, Asian methods, micro-tonality, just-intonation, rhythmic devices and pulse driven tonal, or modal music can be expressed in a serious idiom. Achievements in form, materials and systematic idiosyncrasies within American composition have been important to my understanding of what it is to compose.

Do you see yourself continuing to explore and discover new territory in your own development as a composer, or do you think you\'ll be more of the type who finds their niche and explores/exhausts the options within said niche? Are there any new directions your most recent work has been taking, or any influences that you see shaping what you do in the near (or distant) future?

As I continue to grow as a composer, the turnover in my areas of musical inquiry will continue (despite their depth), for I see myself essentially as an explorer, but a thorough one at that. Though these areas may change over the years, no matter what the current prominent focus may be, all previous compositional procedures of mine usually get absorbed into an ever growing personal approach and surprisingly resurface in a breakthrough coupling of crafts I wouldn\'t suspect converge in the way they do and with such uncanny symbiotic benefits. There is something beneath the surface of what I do that I somehow recognize as a unity in light of the diversity of styles and methods I entertain. For future or current departures from my documented work, I am looking into some new areas for composing, in terms of formal procedures and genre. Currently working on a chamber opera, approaching text to a significantly greater degree than before, and also looking at the piano again after quite some time with a piece that takes my most recent techniques and extends those concepts in a more rigorously abstract way than before. I also enjoy the refining of my ensemble Blarvuster, its repertoire and the engagement of myself into performing more...and perhaps at some point return to Bali again with new project.

By Adam Strohm

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