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Interview with Matthew De Gennaro

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Matthew De Gennaro

On June 27, 2009, while I was nearing the end of my Physical Changes tour, we played a show at the Robinwood Concert House in Toledo, OH. I saw in advance that Matthew De Gennaro was to be on the bill. I recognized his name from a CD he did with Alastair Galbraith that I owned. I was highly curious what his performance would entail; long strings such as heard on that CD? Regardless, I knew it would be an interesting night.

Before his set, we had a nice chat about where he lived, why he played shows (rarely), and what his overall approach to the world of music was. He said some very captivating things in the most humble way possible. At the core, he seemed honestly interested in simply sharing music with those interested, and not too interested in anything outside or beyond that. Part idealist, but also a refreshing position of not trying to position what he was doing against anything else, to the point of almost anti-promotion.

And then the music itself.

His set began with him playing a small pump organ. Though the physicality to make this work was minimal, he put everything into it, and seemed to slowly work toward a small frenzy of energy to keep the tones ringing and the melodies churning. After exhausting the small piece of furniture, he picked up an odd stringed instrument, that I can’t recall the name of, and began playing the peculiar device as if he had played it his whole life, wringing stark and emotional lines out of it. Over time, the notes began to pile up, and he played a bit faster and with more intensity, driving onward, leaving me wondering, “Where is this going? There’s almost no more room to take it higher.” And before I could think more about it, he very abruptly stopped playing, immediately stood up and quickly gave thanks and rushed from the room, as if an emergency just occurred somewhere he needed to attend to.

This quick action made the crowd gasp, likely as they were expecting a winding down and quiet departure from this seemingly old European acoustic instrument. At least I did. Everyone then roared with voices and applause, out of admiration for the music, and approval of such a surprising end. It was one of the more intense things I’ve experienced, and won’t soon forget it.

Matthew and I have stayed in touch, and recently I got a copy of his new LP, Adversaria. Like his other solo recordings, it’s an acoustic based, multi-instrument affair, that makes for some of the best kind of home listening, in my opinion at least. Through it, you get a sense of a quiet, slow paced rural soundtrack that’s as pleasant as it is intriguing.

After spending some time with this record, I remembered our initial chat and his performance in Ohio, and I contacted him with some questions. As you’ll see from his answers, his sense of personal connection with the music remains, and I’m happy to be among the people it’s shared with.

What is your main objective in working with music?

Ideally, self-awareness. When playing or recording music, there’s often an experience of the present moment –or being in the middle of the moment – where that blip of time becomes pregnant or charged. Those moments I liken to pages from a diary, communicating with (myself) thro’ sound and music. I also gain meaning and pleasure, though this is not necessarily an objective, from creating music; a craft inevitably develops when working with anything over many years; I hold stock in doing the work. Although I can subscribe to the stoic aphorism (this is a winner): “Soon, I will have forgotten everything. Soon, everybody will have forgotten you!” (Meditations, VII, 21; Marcus Aurelius), some vanity believes my music will raise that part of me with some listener in the year —–; I do not care. However, once again, my life to come is NOW.

Your music is very welcoming, but also has a highly personal feel to it. How do you view live performance in this regard?

Well, live performance is rare, and, because of that, I can sometimes take possession of it and simply focus on making good music – both for the audience and myself. I don’t too often take a performance for granted and contemplate that this one may be my last. I suppose it’s conceivable I could do a performance that reconstructs how I record at home (I could take my 8 track to gigs and record a tune); hell, not a bad idea! But they are pretty similar endeavors, regardless. I enjoy the romantic notion that, “the more personal the work is the more universal it becomes.” It’s always a joy if I can reach a few people when I perform.

What role does your home play in the music you create?

I have been living alone in rural Michigan for nearly a decade. When you live alone, and have few distractions, things (personal things) come up to the surface. That confrontation, which most often takes place at home for me, has a role in my music, for sure. I decided many years ago I wanted a quiet place to live and work (make music). Besides enjoying solitude (solitude stirs my imagination), I can have a grand time wandering through the woods behind my house and pretend it’s 1812. There’s also a sense of permanence to where I live that is consoling. For the music, I’m the sum of my choices & experiences, so those moments get internalized and can take shape in sound, though not usually consciously. Having the patience – patience is the name of the game – for the music to develop in its own time, is essential. Because I record at home, and have choice with time, I can record whenever I want. This is something that took me years to figure out: how to set my life around making music, which means having the time to work on it or not.

In the past, you and I talked about your ideas about promoting music, which I found very interesting. Some view it as a necessary evil, while others view it almost more important than music itself. Where do you stand now?

My stance is personal and not a judgment on others: I prefer things to fall in my lap! That’s, of course, mostly due to my introverted nature. I’ve never entertained the idea of having a career in music, so the need to self-promote for money was never there. I do have the desire to share my music with other people, and share in the cultural pot, but can usually get rid of the itch for talk about my own name, which I’ve seen quite a bit. Lots of insecurities and need for external validation from the American privileged & educated, which I’m certainly a part of.

How did you come to music as a form of expression, and how do you see that expression transcribe in other parts of your life?

As a pre-pubescent boy, I found a deep connection with Led Zeppelin (via an older neighbor), especially Physical Graffiti & III. Without being able to articulate the meaning of it at the time, I found comfort in Led Zep’s expression with music, or simply the combination of certain tones, that worked over me where words or other forms of expression did not. Also, my musical interests developed with age and a connection with my identity crystallized. I came to music as expression because it’s the language – as art form – that I know best and is inherently part of my nature. It allows me to express the moments I share around me.

Regarding the work of music, how do you approach it? How do the songs develop?

Once again, having the time to move slowly with the music is my aim. The songs develop from focusing on a particular instrument – keying in on its expressive qualities – then relying on an internal logic to combine sounds and juxtapose moods. I record on ½” tape, which is expensive. I only record when I am sure I have finished song. The writing happens slowly, and often in sections, before sound reaches tape.

What is your background with instruments and music? What first inspired you to pursue it?

I’m self taught. I got into different instruments because of their expressive qualities. My sister got a cheap heavy metal guitar when I was 12 or so, and I picked it up after she left the hard rock/ heavy metal lifestyle post high school. I played guitar sporadically from then into my 20s, but didn’t develop the confidence & discipline to be a musician till I was near 30 years of age. It wasn’t until then that I could declare: I am a musician.