Rising star composer and violist Matt Laing took part in the Flinders Quartet’s Composer Development Program last year and the Quartet will premiere his new workOut of Hibernation, in their first program this year. The composer tells us about working with the Flinders Quartet and studying with Brett Dean in Berlin.

Matt Laing, Viola, Flinders QuartetMatt Laing. Photo © Sharon Gertner

What inspires you to compose?

Mainly just an interest in sound, and combinations of sound, and the evocative and expressive possibilities. I mostly work as a viola player, and that is a great way to learn a work as a whole, but in almost every context the viola part has a subservience to something else so often it can feel like, for better or for worse, you’re serving someone else’s vision. So from a creative point of view, with composing I know that it’ll be good or rubbish, but that’ll happen on my terms, and I like the creative responsibility of that.

Are there advantages or disadvantages to being a viola player when it comes to composition?

I think it’s generally an advantage, particularly for ensemble writing. Violists play music of every era, and so many different roles within that music, so it’s a great vantage point to learn how the pieces you’re playing work from the inside.

What were the most memorable experiences participating in the Flinders Quartet’s Composer Development Program?

This was the first time I’d had a professional ensemble play my music so the whole process was a bit surreal. I got to the first workshop early so I sat outside the rehearsal room for a bit and listened to them tackle the opening bars of my other quartet, Shapes, and it was a bit confronting; to hear something live that had really only existed in your head for months. The piece was quite complex and unusual in its mode of expression, so to hear it come together, make changes and go through the rehearsal process “from the other side” was great. The Quartet made a recording and the performance was excellent so I’d strongly encourage any composer out there to apply for the program, I think it’s coming up again quite soon!

What were the most important things you learned through that experience?

That all of the time you take working on making things as clear as possible – whilst painstaking – is definitely worth it. And that whilst you’ve sat with a work for months, you have to stay pragmatic and open minded about where it might go in rehearsals because once you give a piece up to be played, it’s not just yours anymore.

You recently worked with composer and violist Brett Dean in Berlin. What made you choose him as a mentor?

Brett is someone I’ve always really admired as a viola player and a composer. I met him when I was at university playing a work of his, and I ended up having a two hour viola lesson on his piece Intimate Decisions. I got so much out of it that when thinking of people I could work with he was the obvious choice. I was very grateful when he decided to take me on, and very grateful to the Ian Potter Cultural Trust for helping fund my time with him.

What did you work on in Berlin?

We worked a lot on the quartet the Flinders Quartet will play in the upcoming concerts, and on composition techniques and skills more generally. I also sat in on rehearsals for the performance of a work of his by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, which was really fascinating, reading the score with Brett, to hear his insight on his own work, and what was important and stood out to him.

What is he like to work with?

He’s an excellent teacher and a really great person. His teaching is a good blend of encouragement and support whilst also making you realise just how much work and learning there is in front of you. The best lessons are the ones that reinforce themselves over time and already I feel like what I’ve learned will hold me in good stead for a long time yet.

Can you tell us about Out of Hibernation

Out of Hibernation is a four-part work about change, in nature and people. I’ve always been interested in stepping into the mind’s eye of other people, animals and things, and the very opening of the piece is what I imagine it must be like for an animal to wake out of hibernation, the intensity of the light and the sensory overload. And I felt that I could make that work with something around the idea that photographs, while reminding you of a time or place, can eventually replace the memories themselves until we all just become photographs. So it’s not bleak but I suppose there is a bit of an existentialist bent to the work, and this dual between seeing old things anew and forgetting things past carries the narrative.

What was the very first idea you had for the piece?

The opening of the work, the idea of an intense white light. The material has changed quite a bit since, but that was the starting point from which everything else followed.

What were the biggest challenges in writing and refining this music?

This is the longest work I’ve written and the scale of the work was by far the hardest part. With how I’d planned the piece initially, the first completed score felt a bit hectic and contrived; I’d layered too many ideas on top of one another, and with clunky punctuation to get from one idea to the next. Brett’s advice was a great help in ironing that out into something that’s now much more cohesive, both within movements and as an overall arc.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working with Ossicle Duo to put together a work for trombone, percussion and electronics for later in the year, as well as applying for various programs whilst working as a freelance viola player in Melbourne.

The Flinders Quartet performs Matt Laing’s Out of Hibernation at Montsalvat Barn Gallery on February 24, Collins Street Baptist Church on February 26, Melbourne Recital Centre on February 28 and Peninsula Music Society on March 2