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Portraying Persona

For a long time, I can’t be specific, Mat Maneri’s playing has fascinated me. I have sought the door to open to reach Mat for an interview. The door finally opened and I walked through.

We arranged to speak over the phone on a Sunday around noon. Nervousness abounded, butterflies rose and fell inside of me and I made the call. From about 12:30 to 7:30 that night, a rally of phone messages occurred because we kept missing each other. The first time we actually began to converse, we had problems with phone reception and background noise and decided to continue later on in the day. Two messages followed...and we finally made a full-fledged connection. We plunged into the interview. The whole experience, the stopping and going over those several hours, simulated two musicians jostling in an improvisatory overture eventually to settle into the main event.

What is alluring to me is Mat’s no frills approach to playing his instrument which is the viola. The viola speaks a tonality that is in the gray area, the warm gray area. Mat exceeds all prospects of the gray becoming dull because he examines, searches for, and tests the limits to which he can push the instrument into zones of black and white, low-pitched and high-pitched, of the continuous-- replete with tremolo, vibrato and fast changing direction and fingering-- of dark and light, of pizzicatos but no glissandos. The ornamentation seems to dominate but only because the listening is not acute. Mat plays with an undeniable clarity of tone from which emanates a true musical form, not in the minimal sense, but in the sense that every note is perceptible and has absolute meaning. Magnetic and inimitably attractive is the utter passion which he displays, the passion that is inherent and is transmitted with ease.

The question I started with pertained to talking about music and how that affects him. What I really meant was how did talking, for instance, in the situation of being interviewed, affect him. But Mat took his answer in another direction. I let him go because I was asking Mat questions so that I could do the listening. It is so satisfying to hear Mat speak. He speaks as if his voice were an instrument. His articulation changes the dynamic of his voice...which is like velvet, dark burgundy velvet all curled up as in a still life so that when light hits the material, the resultant shadows are almost black.

To reply to my question, Mat used as an example conversations in the past that he, his father and drummer Randy Peterson used to have before playing together. These conversations encompassed the subject of "what they were going for"--the "ideals" that they would try to approach. At this point, Mat explained a quote from Beethoven about how musicians make an attempt to reach an "unattainable" goal. Where newness is addressed with the sense of creating nothing out of something...Where is necessary "re-positioning yourself, taking yourself further than you know why-- where all the magic is".

As for crediting influences on the shaping of his music, Mat, as any conscious artist would say, said that it was "hard to say". Well, of course, it is. "It doesn’t matter, because no one can hear connections anyway...and whatever influences, either soulful or technical, come out in the spirit of the playing..." For instance, Mat tells his students within the context of creating something out of nothing, that "everything is out there in front of you. What you take away, edit, back away from is what creates the tension ", the excitement, the unpredictable. Mat teaches mostly technique because the idea of improvisation is too abstract for his students to grasp at this point in their development. However, he stresses to them that "they ask themselves questions to find what brings meaning to them"...."to play over what their hands can do" and not rely completely on the physicality of their instruments, which is often what happens, especially when written music is played.

Now we were moving into the good stuff. I was looking forward to how Mat would continue and the revelations that were to come forth.

I was determined to find out how Mat makes his creative decisions. I felt in my bones that he could tell me. I wanted to steer the comments he made to both group situations and the times when he plays solo.

In his participation in groups, when Mat is not the leader, he is, to my mind, extremely generous. Depending on the group, he could grant himself the freedom to express himself on his own terms, but if the group has a distinct style, he "certainly is not going to ruin it". He confesses that he has to give up a lot of himself to bend to the wishes of the band, but that that activity benefits him because he can "let go of himself to get under the leader’s skin to find out about him or her." He believes that performing in a group, no matter how large, is a "celebration of the collaboration". And an education.

In the case where Mat leads a group, he initially designs the group based on the strengths of the musicians he picks and what each will do. And he writes the primary tune. This tune is a lifting off point for the band. It is the place from which they launch themselves into improvisation and discover where they can go without being able to predict how they found those connections. If the music is meant for recording, Mat says, the group listens to the take and talks about what they hear...where those unanticipated, unintentional moments are, all the while asking the question "did it go well?" Later, it becomes a challenge to hone down hours of recorded music into an hour, to "look for consistency" and select the music that "sounds like it is meant to is all about time". He contrasts recorded playing being "introverted" with that which is played for an audience, where the group gets a vibe and response. After repeated experiences with both studio sessions and live recorded ones, Mat knows what is meant to become a recording and what is not: the music has to fit together and "create a lasting effect".

Now we were moving into even better was going to be all about Mat.

I wanted to know about the structure of his improvisations and his thoughts in regards to note and phrase juxtaposition and dynamic.

"Hmmmm", he said, "I have to think about that a minute."

Here it comes:

"The first note...that is how the rhythm is derived."

That one note has associated with it "gravity and how the harmonics are decided".

That one note suggests a time field, however long it will be played, the extent of the piece, "the distance to run"....

That one note is like "a first breath".....

That one note determines the "mood" and how the manipulation of all the notes and phrases to follow will determine will the dynamics.

That one note permits the limits that follow to set themselves.

A painter, Mat went on, can reflect on what has been painted and can change it in accordance with an internal sense of what is seen or not. But for an improviser, "an improviser does not have that luxury...the luxury to step back and look. Imagine the portion of the brain, as in chess, where 1500 moves are in the head all at once...the subject is always moving...." In order to proceed and see the possibilities simultaneously, Mat has " to caress the first few notes". If he makes mistakes as the process unfolds, or he does not meet his immediate intentions, he will deal with the mistakes and fold them into the whole. Mat feels that his music contains both linearity, given the melody, and density, where "gravity, quantum mechanics, time shifts" have a constant impact. What may seem frivolous to him at first will bear great density depending on how he chooses to accent the notes and very basically, on how he feels deep inside. It is as if, and this was my understanding, he was presented with many contemporaneous layers and it was his decision to pick and choose from those layers of givens to produce the music.

So what is the difference between what he imagines the music can be in his mind and what comes out as its expression? To Mat, the mind has complete control of the imagined music, but once relinquished to the physicality of the music, the imagination of the music may not be fulfilled. That is the point where "the improviser finds his strength"...when (the improviser) has "to go the extra distance" to make the music work as is intended.

Mat’s most compelling purpose when he plays is to find that moment that is "unspeakable". That moment when all the emotions of both player and listener are captured in an innocent, breathtaking, all-encompassing place whose bounds are within itself. He has to build his music to land there...he has to select the pitches, choose the strokes of the bow, guide the time he spends in any one gesture involving any one note or phrase, which when mixed with the viscerality of his breathing, approaches and consequently touches that tenuous, fleeting, life-sustaining moment. Perhaps he conjures up in the listener a feeling of human frailty, joy or sadness, when he plays a note that is continuous and high pitched and crystalline or one that is deep and long and enveloping.

However characteristically Mat opens, peels away and closes through the expression of his music, he has kissed you.

He has kissed you and the words that I have written will never approximate the beauty and the grace of that kiss.

Mat Maneri, the viola, the kiss.

The viola.

The kiss.


Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Mat Maneri
  • Interview Date: 12/1/2004
  • Subtitle: An Interview with Mat Maneri
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