Surrendering to the Sound: An Interview With Joanna Mattrey

I’ve become such a massive fan of Joanna Mattrey in the last few years, and am fascinated by her approach to improvisation and her principal instrument (viola). There are so many things I hear and feel when listening to her records. Sometimes it’s the open, exploratory spirit she follows; other times, a cathartic, emotive core bursts through the sonic seams, but her music is constantly engaging and leaving room for listeners. 

Something else I find so interesting is her use of obscure, interesting, and historical instruments. It always adds a unique timbre and unique air to her work. Her most recent album, Soulcaster, uses the Tromba Marina built by Webb Crawford, and the results are simultaneously familiar and otherworldly. It’s out now on Notice Recordings.

Joanna Mattrey can be reached via her website.

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I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

I actually grew up in a very intense evangelical Christian environment, which was definitely an inhospitable place for me, but that’s where I first experienced music. My family attended this mega-church in upstate New York with something like 1000-2000 members, and one out of the 3 weekly hours of the service would be singing worship songs, called music ministry. The intense power of that number of people pouring out their hearts together in sound was why I believed in God as a young person. Over time that sensation shifted away from Christianity and became rooted in bodies and spirits resonating together, which to me now is a deeply profound but secular, human superpower. 

What first pushed you to start playing an instrument? Was it always Viola, or did you come to that later somehow?

I was a very rambunctious, high-energy, curious child, and I was always getting into trouble in elementary school. My name was always written on the board with the looming threat of one more problem and my parents would be getting a call. One day in third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Wilson, brought in her violin and played for us, and I simply sat on the rug and listened the entire time. My teacher was so shocked she immediately called my mom and said, ‘You need to get Joanna in strings right away; I’ve never seen her sit still and listen, let alone for 15 minutes straight!’ I often think about that lady when I work with young students, I must have been such a pain in the ass, yet she took time out of her day to do something enriching for me beyond the scope of her actual job. I was a tall kid, so the hack music teacher at our school gave me an adult-size viola with no shoulder rest, which I immediately dropped and snapped the neck off on the first day of strings class. Luckily after a few years, a genius musician, Jon Handman, moved to our public school, and after that, it was all music all the time for me.  

Did you always want to be a musician?

It should have been obvious long before then, but I knew for real I wanted to do music when I was 16 years old. I was completely obsessed with classical music and attended a string quartet camp with the Pacifica Quartet. One of the groups was working on Mendelssohn Quartet No. 2, Opus 13 in a masterclass, and Pacifica was like actually, we just recorded this piece; why don’t we show you what we demonstrate, grabbed their instruments, and just completely rocked out on the first movement. The piece is so lush, so dramatic, and exciting, and definitely a teenage favorite for many string dorks like me. I just remember crying and being so moved. It was clear to me then that music was my path. I came home from camp and told my mom that I wanted to be a musician, and she cried and cried and said, why can’t you get a real job! Haha, but it was far too late by then. 

Improvisation is an important piece of your creative practice. When did you first start improvising, whether on solo pieces or in groups? And what is it that you love about improvising, and why is it so important to you?

I had this small-town, idealized concept about what being a musician would be like. My teenage years were spent in string and full orchestras where everyone knew each other, and all grew up playing music together (shout out to the community music program, Stringendo). Music, in my mind, was about deep connection and trust, and vulnerability. When I got to conservatory, I just shrank. My wide open, little young heart was crushed by the super intense environment, and I became so serious and self-critical. The small respites from my pressurized mindset were found hearing the student jazz ensembles and in Renaissance choir. After graduating and making my way to NYC – I was pretty disconnected from music and pretty lost and confused, playing mostly with singer-songwriters and in bands. I randomly went to hear Tatsuya Nakatani, and I was like Oh Shit, YES! I once again felt the spiritual, all-encompassing feeling of sound and music! After that, I just tried to learn everything I could, going to shows all the time and playing sessions all the time with anyone and everyone I could. I love how in NYC, people are just so down to play – and even literal legends make time to play sessions. Gathering together to hang and explore music. It’s so rare and so precious. 

What I’ve found in improvisation is an immediate connection to expression, character, and connection, without the need of the over-thinking/critical mind’s input to understand, process, or interpret. In improvisation, I tap into a state where I’m listening, surrendering to the sound, and sending the energy of the sound through my body. It feels like a very direct and personal transmission that I haven’t found in other settings. 

I want to talk about Soulcaster, but first, can you talk about your interest in… I don’t know if historical instruments are the right phrase, but that’s the best I can come up with – but instruments like the Stroh violin or the tromba marina – what draws you to these unusual instruments? And what’s it like working with them compared to Viola? 

A big part of my improvisation practice has been preparing the viola. I love making new and surprising sounds come out of my instrument. I love how preparations are acoustic, living, and vibrating instruments of their own. Playing with pedals or through electronic processing can be really fun also, but preparations are resonating bodies themselves, and the way that they interact with acoustic instruments changes depending on the day, depending on the room, almost as if they have their own temperament. I love how introducing that variable challenges any pre-planning I might bring to my improvisation and forces me to be in the immediate moment. Playing with preparations and extended techniques has also taught me to listen deeply to timbre, and colors, overtones, and micro-tonal shifts in the sounds. It’s the appreciation for all the different colors one sound can bring that made me fall in love with the Stroh Violin and the Tromba Marina. Those instruments have such different sound possibilities that the viola, and playing them transports and delights me; it’s like suddenly discovering you can speak a different language. The Stroh, with its brassy trumpet bell, really sounds like an old record being played out of a victrola, and hearing that just activates my imagination. I do think since the Stroh came into my life (thanks to Shahzad Ismaily for putting that baby in my hands at Figure 8), I’ve enjoyed playing more folk-inspired sounds, whereas, in earlier years, I definitely shunned melody altogether. I guess the short answer is, playing those instruments is just tons of fun!

Okay, so Soulcaster… first, can you tell me more about how you decided on the album name? I know the liner notes mention a Brandon Sanderson book, but I’d love to learn more about it…

So I love fantasy novels! I love heroes and warriors, and I get a lot of inspiration from powerful femme characters. Brandon Sanderson is an awesome writer, and his latest series, The Stormlight Archive, is awesome. A feature of the world in that series is that every object and force has a kind of individual inner spirit, and they interact with the rest of the world. A soulcaster is a tool that transforms one object into another through connecting to that object’s spirit. I think the role of a performer is to connect to everyone in the space and speak to the audience’s soul from their soul. My role is to connect so deeply to the expression in me, to imbue the sound with my personal energy, and to intend for that sound/energy/vibration to reach the listeners. When the performer can get into a deep state themselves and speak from that place, they can cut past the listener’s thinking mind and just connect on a vibrational/soul level, and that is the transformative power of music. 

What made you want to use the tromba marina on this album? How did you come to the instrument Webb Crawford built? 

The Tromba Marina is a new friend, built by Webb Crawford, a badass guitarist who has a record in the works; where they asked me, Lester St. Louis, and Nick Dunston, to bring our string freak solo improvisations to Webb’s amazing instruments. That instrument is so big and powerful and has such a unique resonance; it is a massive joy to play! I am also fascinated by the origins of that instrument. It was invented as a way for Nun’s to be able to make trumpet sounds without all that suggestive mouth blowing! Haha. It’s conventionally played using mainly harmonics and drone, but maybe because of that women-hating repressive bs in the instrument’s origin, I just really felt like raging on that thing. 

I’ve always been struck by the vulnerability and open spirit in your work and your playing. On your website, it says (which is really great): “She is searching for moments of ceremony and ritual in a modern soundscape.” To me, that spirit pushes me to find those moments in your music, but I wonder what kind of approach or mindset you try to get into or find when you’re writing and playing to find those moments?

A colleague who had also come from a super Christian upbringing once described us as ‘The Fallen’ It’s like what do you do with these extremely powerful spiritual experiences you’ve had once you don’t believe anymore. The memories of those experiences don’t go away, so instead, you have to find a new context to make sense of those moments. The first place I found that kind of heightened state of being was in the orchestra. I remember feeling full body chills, literally encompassing my whole self, while playing in orchestra. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite gotten back to that teenage level of complete self-surrender, with no reservations, no barriers, and complete naive trust in myself and the world, but now, getting into these states isn’t something that just happens to me, but a skill I’ve developed. An ability to quiet my mind and to activate my body and my listening, and my spirit. I trained for years in Alexander Technique and Yoga and hold teaching certificates in both. I also found an amazing Aikido teacher and community in the martial arts dojo Brooklyn Aikikai, where I continue furthering my learning in mind-body-spirit training. These practices have helped me as a musician and helped me understand my path. They are huge components of my musicianship and also remind me that these states of being are ancient, deeply human facets of being alive. Maybe it’s part of my work in life to offer that experience, which is communal escape from the digital content, turn-yourself-into-an-avatar life. 

Photo by TJ Huff

A quick question about collaboration, as you’ve done so many fantastic collaborations in recent years. How important is collaboration to you, and how does working with all these great musicians help push and inspire your work?

For me, even solo playing is a collaboration since the sound is always relating to the listener, but there are so many exciting musicians playing really, really well and in such interesting ways. I find collaboration is so helpful for bringing new sounds out of me, pushing me in directions I wouldn’t find by myself, and sometimes really challenging me, haha. Collaborating with people who work in totally different ways to me really makes me grow so much, like when something or someone forces you to stop and examine what you’ve been doing and shows you there is more to unearth in an idea. It’s also so exciting when you play with someone who just really inspires you and makes you want to go home and practice! 

What’s coming up next for you?

I’ve really enjoyed working with installation, video, and more traditional composition. The old capital C composer definition has really broken down, especially here in NYC, where everyone is suddenly a composer/performer/improvisor/curator, etc., and it’s really fun for me to see myself in these new spaces. I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had with ISSUE Project Room and Roulette Residencies over the past two years that gave me the support to add these new dimensions to my work. I’m working on another of these large-scale compositions with embedded video and sculptural installation. I’ve also released a few new records this year, and I have a few more in the works: a collection of commissioned solo pieces for Relative Pitch, a duo audio and video release with Camilo Angeles on Notice Recordings, Camila Nebbia’s ensemble, and a quartet with Patrick Shiroishi, Chris Williams, and gabby fluke-mogul. I also really want this next phase of my work to incorporate more playfulness, more child-like experimentation, and more trust. 

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.