Susan Matthews began teaching herself to read and play music by ‘borrowing’ her sister’s music instruction book and school recorder. From there she progressed to classical guitar, but disliked the formality of the teaching. At the age of eleven she started taking piano lessons and, although she lacked the commitment to practice for hours a day, found that she had an aptitude for, and enjoyed, playing the instrument.
Although as a teenager Matthews lacked the self-confidence to perform publicly, she started composing her own music. Later, in her early twenties, after an unfortunate accident at work meant she lost her job, she returned to playing piano. As she couldn’t work she was able to be much more disciplined in her playing, and practiced for hours a day, even writing her own short pieces for piano.
After seeking advice from her former piano teacher, Matthews decided to sign up to a classical music course at her local college. Having not taken the conventional route to further music education she found it hard work, but it did help clarify the musical direction she wanted to take. It was at this point that Matthews’ interest in experimental music developed, she purchased a 4-track recorder, and limited exposure to artists such as Steve Reich and John Cage further solidified this belief. Matthews’ music is often likened to the works of such legendary avant-garde and underground composers along with bands such as Current 93, Coil, or even Throbbing Gristle, but her music is actually all her own making.
“I’m not familiar with the work of the majority of the bands/artists I’ve been compared to. I came to this via an aborted classical music education coupled with an interest in popular music. When I first began experimenting musically I was very conscious of the need to allow my sound to develop very naturally, it would be very easy to directly copy someone else, but I can’t imagine feeling creatively satisfied by doing things that way. For a few years I consciously put myself into a bubble, I switched myself off to other people’s music so that I could focus on my own in a very pure way, to really discover my ‘sound’.”
Once she had completed the course, she took the decision to move to Hull and pursue her interest in experimental forms of music composition by enrolling on a course in Phonic Art. It was while living in Hull and studying experimental music forms that Matthews composed her debut album “SirenWire69,” an album that she notes reflects her environment and surroundings as much as the musical style she had cultivated to that point.
“Musically I’m incredibly influenced by the environment around me. When I began working on my debut CD ‘SirenWire69’ I lived in Hull. It was quite a harsh, stormy, industrial landscape and that certainly permeated my work. There used to be these incredible sounds echoing around the city, the sounds of industry, of cranes and lorries. Also, the storms there were incredible. Because the landscape is basically flat you can hear thunder rolling in for miles; that made a huge impression on me.”
It was this course that gave Matthews the freedom to explore the classic experimental music that she found so interesting. It also provided her with a new academic environment much more conducive to such ideas. It was this freedom that provided the catalyst for the natural progression from traditional piano to electronic composition as a means of developing her sound further. More recently she has also switched to recording and mixing using music editing software, as this provides further freedom to experiment sonically.
Always searching for outlets for her music, and after receiving a somewhat negative response from the music media in general, Matthews was offered the opportunity to produce music for a multi-media art exhibition. In contrast to the reception from the music media, the reaction from the art community was perhaps a little surprising. “The response I got was wonderful. I couldn’t believe it. The people I met were so positive and encouraging about my work. So I stuck with that side of things for a while. I thoroughly enjoyed it too,” explains Matthews. “It gave me an opportunity to develop my work in a reasonably supportive, open-minded environment and that helped me to gain a lot more confidence in my music.”
Having contributed to a number of exhibitions and art installations around the UK and beyond in the past, Matthews is still involved in this form of artistic expression, and has even been recognised for her work in the field. “There is one project I’m particularly proud of and that’s last years ‘Women in New Music Festival’,” explains Matthews. “The festival itself ran in California but the thing I’m most proud of is being selected for their ‘On The Road’ project where basically they put together a programme, by select artists from six years of the festival, which they took to a variety of worldwide venues. It was an incredible compliment for me to have my work on show alongside artists like Diamanda Galas and Meredith Monk.”
Although her work regularly appears in art galleries and exhibitions around the world, Matthews is yet to tour or play live dates in her own right. Largely due to other commitments and family life, the prospect of being away from home for extended periods of time is a difficult proposition. With offers and requests coming in from the UK, Germany and the USA, it is something Matthews is seriously considering for the future. “[A production company] contacted me last year to ask if I’d be interested in putting together something for a performance in Cumbria and that really sowed the seed for me,” she says. “Although it fell through the plans are still on the table so we’ll have to see.” In the meantime, she will continue with her gallery work so that her work can at least be experienced outside of the recorded medium, even she is only present in spirit.
When queried on what form a live appearance might take, Matthews comes up with a typically creative idea for performing based on a previous work she undertook. Never one for convention and always looking for new and interesting ways to use and present sound, Matthews sees the live environment as an opportunity to further push the boundaries of the traditional concert format, and add an almost performance art element to proceedings. “I’d like to do something very experimental with the piano. For instance, I created a piece for the Soundcafe project in Scotland, where I directly plucked the piano’s strings. I’d like to do something like that live.”
In keeping with her drive to explore sound, improvisation and experiment with possibilities, Matthews’ creative process can be either carefully mapped out and methodical, or drawn out and progressive, based around an idea or borne out of her experimentation on the piano and developed from there.
“Sometimes it just starts with a sound and nothing more. Just a sound that catches my ear, which I’ll sit and listen to, sometimes for long periods until ideas begin to develop. Sometimes, it’s all there in my head, sometimes I know what I want to say and how I want to say it and it’s just a case of setting up the equipment and getting on with it,” she explains. “‘Joy’s Farewell’1 was like that. But that was planned quite carefully. I generated the percussion idea first and built the track up around that. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to say lyrically, so it was a very easy track to put together. Even within that methodology I still allow myself freedom, I still try to push the boundaries of the original idea.”
Following the progression of her first three albums and the “Lost Sorrows” EP that bridges the gap between her second album, “bruiser,” and her latest, “Hope-Bound,” it is her recent work that is the more positive sounding of the set. All of her albums have been intensely personal and impassioned works, and while “Hope-Bound” is very recognisable as Matthews’ work, bearing all the hallmarks of the previous two albums, it also marks a progression in sound to a smoother, more positive sound. Thematically there are still some very intense feelings and moods explored in her music, and it maintains its distinctive experimental avant-garde structure. “In terms of the general ‘feel’ of an album, I do plan that in advance. ‘SirenWire69’ was intended from the start to be aurally ‘intense’ whereas ‘Hope-Bound’ was intended to be much more ‘open’,” says Matthews. “I think ‘Hope-Bound’ is a very different creature from ‘bruiser’ and ‘Lost Sorrows.’ It’s a much more positive album, thematically – and that is reflected in the title. That was a very conscious decision, to project a more positive energy with this album.”
Matthews is always working on something new, whether it is a collaboration, compilation tracks, a gallery project, or working on new material. Unbelievably, her next album, “The Silent Architect,” is already complete, scheduled for release in the next few months, with an EP of alternate versions of some of the album tracks entitled “Silent Variations,” to be released simultaneously. Expect “The Silent Architect” to be a further progression from “Hope-Bound,” with a focus on field recordings and sparse electronic arrangements. Hot on the heels of that album, Matthews has also been compiling remixes of some of her tracks by the artists such as Tony Wakeford, Rainier Lericolais, Fabrizio Mondonese Palumbo, Shaun Blezard, Alistair Crosbie and Nick Grey, entitled “Motion.Silence.Echo,” for release as a remix album early in 2008. Not content with that, she has also been busy working on a number of collaborative projects, a re-release of one her earlier EPs, a remix for US band Marble Blade and some compilation tracks. Listening to her music and reading the long list of upcoming and ‘in progress’ projects on her website, it is clear that Matthews’ passion for music and sonic experimentation is still as strong as ever and each project documents her progression down the road of artistic exploration as she develops new ideas, taking her music in new and ever-interesting directions. Based on the work she has produced to date, it would be wise to catch up with her and join her on the journey.
1 “Joy’s Farewell” is a track from the 2007 album “Hope-Bound” on Sirenwire.
— interview by Paul Lloyd (October 2007)