Matt Laing is a violist and composer of contemporary classical music. He plays regularly with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Victoria, Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, Opera Australia, and Victorian Opera, as well as smaller classical and contemporary ensembles.
Matt has been composing and improvising for over ten years alongside his viola practice, and is now at a point of wanting to switch the emphasis in his professional career from performance to composition. Participating in the Flinders Quartet 2017 Composer Development Program was pivotal in this transition; as a result of the workshop Matthew was awarded a residency at All That We Are in Hobart,, and commissioned by Flinders Quartet to write a new work for the first concert in their 2019 subscription series. The experience gave him the confidence and impetus to try and make a career as a composer.
A Cultural Trust grant will assist Matt in travelling to Berlin, where he will work on two separate commissions under the mentorship of musician and composer Brett Dean: the first commission for the Flinders Quartet, and the second a piece for trombone, percussion and electronics for Ossicle Duo. Given Matt has been commissioned to write two large scale works for professional ensembles and has no formal compositional training, it is the perfect time for him to receive guidance in his craft.
The opportunity to work with Brett Dean was a long time in the making. I’ve always been a big admirer of Brett’s, both as an instrumentalist and composer. Back in 2011 when I was studying viola at university a friend introduced me to Brett’s wife Heather at the interval of a concert that included Brett playing his viola concerto, and we got chatting and I mentioned that I was performing Brett’s work Intimate Decisions for solo viola in a few weeks. Brett caught wind of this and about a week later I found myself at his house in Melbourne, and for a few hours we worked on the piece. It was a really fascinating lesson and I learnt a lot about viola playing that I still incorporate into my practice today, but more so I was intrigued by his ideas around structuring the performance of the work to give it maximum effect. It was a window into how he’d constructed the work. The concert itself was a fairly informal one, but I was surprised and really touched that Brett had come along to see it, despite his busy schedule. (As a side, I could see Brett in the audience from the green room at Melba Hall, and the pianist that would follow quipped that it was the equivalent of him seeing Liszt in the back row.)
As someone who has never studied composition in a formal sense, when the 2019 Flinders Quartet and Ossicle Duo commissions came up I was naturally a little overwhelmed at the prospect. I was keen to have some guidance, but I didn’t want to enrol at university in order to get it as I feel the variety of my freelance career is a huge positive on my compositional creativity. So I thought about who would be the best person and given our established relationship, his life as a viola player and composer, his experience fulfilling commissions, and the regard with which I hold him, basically I emailed Brett, confessed that I’d been writing music that whole time, and asked him if he would be free and interested to give me some guidance. I emailed him the quartet I wrote for the 2017 Flinders Quartet workshop, and fortunately enough he liked the work and was really happy to take me on.
Brett Dean is uniquely positioned to mentor Matt as he too worked as a viola player before turning to composition. His experience in writing for a variety of ensemble types on both small and large scales will prove invaluable as he guides Matt through the process of develop the two scores. Moreover, Dean has built a successful career playing the viola as well as composing, which Matt would ideally like to emulate, while his knowledge of the scenes both in Europe and Australia may lead to exciting opportunities for Matt’s commissioned works and other compositions down the track.
I’m really grateful that Brett has taken me on in this way because it can be difficult to write without someone to bounce off from time to time. I’ve found having a mentor-mentee relationship really useful in my playing career, so I’m looking forward to having that with Brett in some capacity going forward, something I couldn’t establish without the aid of this grant.
Matt had this to say to other emerging artists who are thinking of approaching a potential mentor:
This opportunity [to work with Brett Dean] probably wouldn’t have come about had I not formed the relationship earlier at some point, but when it comes to self-initiated opportunities outside of the standard programs and schools, I think the best thing is to have a clear and fundamentally simple idea of what you want to do, how you want to do it, and who is best placed to help you achieve it, and then consider environmental factors that might effect how well you can do your work. If you can satisfactorily combine all of those things then the case is inherently compelling, whether it is as a point of initial contact with a prospective mentor with whom you haven't met or if you’ve already got an established relationship. From there I think you just need to be brave and almost a bit audacious. It can be intimidating contacting someone you respect to pass judgement on your work and prospects, but if you’re satisfied you meet all that criteria then seize the moment because I’m not sure there’s ever the "perfect" time.
Matt will travel to Berlin to commence his mentorship with Brett Dean in January 2019.