Name: Matthew Duvall
Occupation: Percussionist / Co-founder of Eighth Blackbird
Current Release: Olagón: A Cantata in Doublespeak on Cedille Records
Recommendations: The first is the dome for Santa Maria del Fiore. Here was a problem that no one could fix, for years, and Brunelleschi walks in with such a simple solution and he makes it happen. Someone seeing a problem, relishing in it, and completely owning it. I love that. It’s always been one of my favorite stories, and destinations, and works of art / The other work is the script for Red by John Logan. I’m reminded of Red because of what I was writing earlier about ways of "seeing" art . This play is often assumed to be a lecture on art criticism, but it’s really a meta-conversation about how artists look at the art they are creating. Mark Rothko serves as the conduit and I consider it an absolutely inspired read.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview, read more and keep up to date via the Eighth Blackbird website www.eighthblackbird.org
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about the music or the sound that drew you to it?
My primary instrument is percussion. In third grade, when asked to choose an instrument to play in the elementary band, it was the obvious answer, as if none of the other instruments even existed. I don’t remember any particular influence prior to starting percussion lessons which explains why that path seemed so clear to me, but I do remember (like it was yesterday) my parents taking me to a Buddy Rich concert, not long after I’d started taking lessons. That night changed everything about my understanding of the drums as an instrument; it was life changing. Another crucial aspect is that the tactile sensation has always been a huge part my experience of playing, and while I don’t remember in a verbal way, I do believe that I was drawn instinctively to the manner of execution as much as the actual sound. The weight of the stick working with the weight of the arm, combined with the density of the impact surface. It’s always been clear to me that an enormous amount of the information about a sound comes from how the attack feels in my body as much as by the sound itself.
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?
Midway through my first year of college, Michael Rosen (my undergraduate teacher) arranged for me to spend some time studying privately with Joe Morello. Before leaving, I very innocently asked what I should say if I was asked to do things in a way that were different from what I was learning from Mr. Rosen. This was an important “there’s no such thing as a dumb question” moment, because the conversation that followed was crucial. Mr. Rosen said to take the lessons and practice what Mr. Morello instructed as diligently as possible, and that the only thing I needed to say was “Thank you very much.” You take that experience, you add it to the other things you know. Later, you begin to make choices, and to develop preferences and opinions. This is the process that eventually results in you becoming your own musician. This is the moment when I realized that learning music isn’t simply doing what you’re told. Learning is really gathering information. This has been the way I think about studying and observing ever since. Another influential teacher was Gordon Gottlieb who taught almost completely by way of demonstration. Observe, learn by doing, and make choices.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out and in which way have they changed over the years?
Eighth Blackbird began when we were undergraduates, but our assumption of professional responsibilities began when we transitioned from undergraduate work to an Artist Diploma degree at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. To be invited directly into an AD program, prior to doing Masters’ degree work, was unusual. Suddenly we assumed complete administrative and artistic responsibility for starting a business. Needless to say, there was no manual for this. As a player, I found myself, by myself, in the old black box theater we were provided to use for a studio (it was amazing), trying to figure out how to play the parts for the ensemble pieces we were trying to learn. It was a desert island, and I just had to figure it out. So, I tried things one way and then another, and I learned what sorts of things work and probably more about what sorts of things don’t work. Hours of trial and error. But this is also how I was forced to develop an individual playing style, and many unorthodox methods. Some I’ve continued to use over the years, and others I’ve come to realize were reinventing the wheel (not in a good way). Another thing this taught me was the value of tuning out distractions, which is always difficult. I still do my best work when I’m holed up in my studio for long periods of time, slowly and inwardly experimenting.
Tell us about your studio/work space. 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?
Percussionists often share space and instrument inventories. Eighth Blackbird has always needed to maintain a private studio because otherwise ensemble logistics would be insurmountable. So, for two decades it now, I’ve had a private studio space for my individual preparation. The private part is crucial because isolated work space is very important to my ability to Flow, that state of uninterrupted engagement with an activity where one is unaware of hours passing. This has become a challenge in recent years because as Eighth Blackbird has expanded, there are more people around (employees, guests), and my space is less isolated, less my own.
We have a Facilities Manager now who is extremely helpful to me in managing the organizational chaos of a busy workspace. But at the same time, I’m learning that I can’t function if it’s too organized. The mess is part of my process when I’m learning. It’s a part of me. We’re working to find organizational systems that still serve my creative process. When I practice I take time to get all arranged with everything in its place. Notepad, metronome (iPhone), chargers, and other devices if I’m using audio files for practice (I use Anytune a lot). I have a routine for disabling phone and notification features. Sometimes all this setup can be a kind of procrastination, but regardless it does serve to put me in a clear context for work. I’m reminded of a Twyla Tharp quote something along the lines of “exercising is easy; the hard part is getting into a taxi to go to the gym, but once I’m in the taxi the rest of it falls into place.”
Tell me about your instrument. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one? How would you describe your relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence musical results, including your own performance?
I started on piano and was introduced to percussion about a year later. There never seemed to be a question that starting percussion meant that I would stop piano, and I continued with both through high school. Percussion came to feel like my primary instrument early on, but I don’t think that’s because I had a preference. I believe a key factor is that unfortunately when I was younger there was no opportunity for making chamber music at the piano the way there was for percussion. Piano was always a solo pursuit. Playing in a band or orchestra served to both add interest as well as the amount of time percussion was given my attention. I’ve come back to piano in recent years, slowly, and even included piano repertoire in recent solo appearances, no longer really caring to distinguish between playing piano or percussion. An additional interesting note is that I often feel free behind a piano the way I feel free behind a drum set, but this feeling doesn’t extend to composed multi-percussion work which is defined more by premeditated and exacting preparation.
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?
Ah...routines, balance, consistency. I emulate all these things but master none of them. In my professional schedule, change is the reliable norm, especially during periods of heavy travel. Being a founder and co-artistic director of Eighth Blackbird carries enormous administrative responsibilities that often overwhelm the space for artistic time - personal practice is the glaring example. I practice more when more practice is needed, I prioritize other things when less practicing is needed. One recent improvement, I think, is that I’ve started scheduling personal “workshop periods”, blocks of days similar to production tech weeks, for learning new material or practicing a complete program (rather than just individual pieces). Work/life balance is a challenge for me and everyone else. In my case, it is true that I don’t really have a border separating my work and my personal lives; my work is me. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that anything blends seamlessly, but it is the way I am, and to prioritize one over the other would compromise the wellbeing of both.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that’s particularly dear to you? 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?
The performative goal for me, speaking generally, is rarely a single piece. Instead, the creative product is in the curation of a complete program, so I’ll respond in that context. The piece doesn’t simply translate to the stage as if one were still in the practice room. There are numerous factors that impact the way a work of art is communicated and experienced. To give just a few examples: lighting, distance, the size of the room, and the nature of the repertoire in relation to all these factors. I recently curated a show co-produced by Contempo and University of Chicago Presents with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The programming idea began with the notion of music for percussion played at soft dynamics. It’s crucial to have a clear premise, simple is usually better.
That idea led to other ideas about relative volume, the distinction between manufactured and found instruments, the composition of Morton Feldman, his connections to John Cage and Merce Cunningham, about relations with the museum’s collection, assemblage art, about how to perceive art which led to talking about art… The final result was a production titled “Whisper(s)” that started loud and ended soft highlighting the impact of dynamic contrast, that navigated manufactured instruments then found objects, then compendiums of objects and concluded with sound produced with natural materials. It was a program that started as a solo and expanded in numbers until over 80 percussionists were making music together.
Morton Feldman’s “King of Denmark” was one of the programming centers, a work to which I felt everything else on the program needed to be connected in some way. This informed the stage design, leading to a batten hung with instruments being flown in to join the five stations on stage into a single larger setup for the Feldman. The “finished work of art”, in this case, is not any of the pieces individually, but rather the way the many parts are curated to create a new singularly complete whole.