Matthijs van Dijk, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I come from a musical family so I think it was pretty inevitable that music is what I would end up doing… My dad (Peter Louis van Dijk) is a composer and my mom (Susi van Dijk) was a singer, with a long line of musicians in her family (such as my great-grandfather Paul Essek, also a composer/violinist) so it was something that I was always surrounded by.

However, when I was 16, Marina Louw and Juan Munoz (two instructors of the Franschhoek Chamber Music Workshop I’d been attending) heard something I’d written, and quite soon after asked me to write pieces for the Beau Soleil Music Centre’s string orchestra and the Odeion string quartet respectively. I think the combination of growing up in an environment where “composer” seemed like a very normal career option, combined with the teenage awkwardness of “Hey, other people seem to actually like what I’m doing!” (as well as discovering composing to be a very good emotional outlet to help process my mom dying when I was 18) all led me to want to study music and pursue it further.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

In 2009 I was fortunate enough to have a fantastic masterclass with Missy Mazzoli in New York (due to winning the 2006 SAMRO Composition Bursary – I do have to give a quick shout out to Marc Uys and my brother Xandi for kicking my butt in getting me to enter the competition in the first place…). While she gave me a lot of very good constructive criticism and suggestions, what stayed with me the most was something she said to me along the lines of “You say that you include elements of rock and metal in your music… but I don’t hear it.” This lead to a discussion about why I felt I had to hide that element, my reason being that, in my experience, popular music has often been looked down upon by many academics and classical musicians, especially in, how I perceived it to be at the time, the more musically conservative environment of the South African College of Music where I had been studying. She encouraged me to be more overt about it – to find my own voice, as it were – and, in a nutshell, not to care about what other people think.

A few months later, I had the worst masterclass I’ve ever had, with a composer based in Germany. During this lesson, he embodied a similar musical conservatism, (as an example, telling me that I couldn’t write a certain way as “Stravinsky wouldn’t have done it like that”), offered no constructive criticism, and proceeded to verbally kick me around for two hours. I was so disheartened by it all, that, while walking home, I decided that I’d had enough of composing and of the art/classical music scene as a whole. That evening, while listening to (particularly angry) music by bands such as Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead and Opeth, I decided that if I was going to stop composing, I would write one last piece, taking Mazzoli’s suggestion to heart. In retrospect, this piece (my 7th string quartet, “Personal Graffiti”) became much more a beginning than an ending, as most of what I have written since, incorporates this hybrid of very pronounced rock/electronic dance music with 20th/21st Century Music languages.

Another huge moment for me was getting to know composer Robert Paterson and his American Modern Ensemble, whom I saw perform new works in bars a couple of times (such as Le Poisson Rouge and Galapagos), a practice that really resonated with me. For me, there’s nothing cooler than being able to sit back and listen to new music in that relaxed kind of environment, with a beer in hand, removing the “snobbish” element that unfortunately seems to be often attached to modern art music. I decided pretty instantly that this was something I wanted to pursue, and when I returned to Cape Town I eventually co-founded a new music group (The Night Light Collective, formerly The ShhArt Ensemble) with a couple of composer friends (Galina Juritz, Nicola du Toit, Sarah Evans and Cara Stacey) with the aim of promoting new works in “unusual” venues.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I think the biggest challenge is that there are not enough ensembles in South Africa to have one’s music (regularly) performed, especially with regards to larger/orchestral works. While I am very privileged to have had a few orchestral performances over the years, with (at the time of writing this) only three active full time orchestras in the entire country, opportunities are very rare and commissions for such even rarer. I do have to say though that this has thankfully gotten a little bit better over the last few years. Also, I think that it’s been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as it’s forced many local composers and performers to think outside of the box, stepping away from more traditional ways of performance, creating a very interesting and exciting creative “underground” environment that has lead to some very cool projects. While in some regards the scene has thankfully been gradually growing, unfortunately due to more and more venues simultaneously closing down, this is becoming trickier to sustain.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I can’t be the only composer who composes with the continuously repeating inner monologue of “Don’t mess this up. Don’t mess this up.”, right…?

I always enjoy starting a new commission. There’s a certain excitement (sometimes with “good” added pressure, depending on the size of the project) that comes with being approached to write something new. This includes, obviously, the excitement in knowing that the piece WILL get performed. I think like most composers, when I started out, I wrote a lot of music “for the drawer”, so when more and more commissions started coming in, it was a nice transition going from that, to having people ask to actually play something one has written before, and then, even better, being asked to write something for them to play, fresh out of the box. Thankfully, it’s something I still get excited about, that silly notion, which goes back to why I started composing in the first place of “Hey, people actually seem to like this!” …which is then usually immediately followed with “Don’t mess this up. Don’t mess this up.”

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Something that has been very musically rewarding the last couple of years is what has become a very regular series of collaborations with my group The Night Light Collective. While initially it began as an excuse to drink wine and bash through my 7th quartet with a couple of friends, we have since joined forces with other composer/performers under the basis of “you play mine, I’ll play yours”. There’s something great about working with the same group of performers regularly when it “clicks”, a kind of “band” dynamic. Although I do enjoy working with different performers whenever I can, the “vibe” in the room is obviously different if one has known the people one is working with for a very long time.

I think part of the challenge of working with “strangers” is the debate of musical ideas. If the performer has a big name and reputation, it can sometimes be intimidating to say that one doesn’t agree with what they are doing. It took me a while to learn to be able to stand up for myself a bit. This being said, I usually have a couple of set “pillars” in mind of moments that I’m looking out for in every piece and I’m not too phased what happens in between those moments. If the performer has thought through what they are doing, and do it convincingly enough, I’m happy.

Of which works are you most proud?

Seeing I’ve mentioned it a few times already, my 7th string quartet is definitely a work that I’m really proud of. As I mentioned, it’s a marker of sorts and a starting point of a change in my musical language. Another work along those lines, in which I made the shift from “less rock/more E. D. M.” is a piece called “R62” (for viola, bass and 2 percussionists). Frustratingly, this is one of those works that hasn’t been performed yet but has been sitting on various “soon” piles for a few years now. Another work along those lines is my violin concerto, one of the few pieces in the last few years that I’ve written purely because I felt like it, which I think gives the piece a certain freedom and energy, and is a really good representation of who I am as a composer.

Another work is a chamber piece called “Moments In A Life”, (for clarinet, piano, percussion, string quintet, overtone singer and narrator) which I co-wrote with freedom fighter and Rivonia trialist Denis Goldberg. (But more on that below…)

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I used to joke that it was the bastard love-child of Mahler and Shostakovitch, if they hooked up in a rock and roll bar… I think these days (and brace yourself for some flowery writing up ahead) I write an angular (but melodic) hybrid of the aforementioned (sprinkled with a touch of Schnittke) with minimalistic tendencies, combined with elements of spectral music, utilizing rock/metal and electronic dance music gestures along the lines of how Bernstein or Ravel would use jazz. (Or, to quote my brother after hearing the above mentioned “R62”: “It is what it is.”) While this can be quite eclectic, I try and tie it together with the use of motivic material, which I think keeps it from sounding too “split personality”.

How do you work?

Most of the time I compose directly in full score, straight into the Sibelius notation software. My piano playing is not fantastic so the software has been a huge help in being able to listen back to what I write as I go along. (Also, because of my musical language, I wouldn’t have enough hands to play back all of it at the same time anyway…) Every now and then I will sketch out a basic idea or record myself singing/playing into my phone, if I am not near my laptop and can’t write it out quickly. I usually try and start a piece with a pretty good idea as to how I will finish it, but I do often just let a line take me for a walk and see where it ends up, with a lot of editing along the way.

I tend to do most of my writing in my home office, but, later in the day, do I enjoy composing while sitting at a local bar close by to where I live. The headphones I use are pretty good at blocking out the background noises and their playlist, but there’s a certain energy there (depending on the time of day) that helps me focus on what I’m doing and will sometimes work it’s way into what I’m writing. (Part of this, I think, also comes from growing up watching my dad compose at coffee shops. Since I don’t like coffee, beer is a suitable substitute…)

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I think my list is pretty standard, but as a kid I used to regularly devour The Beatles, Queen, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. As a student, I’d listen to a lot of Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against The Machine and System Of A Down. As for classical music, I used to listen to a lot of Bach and Tchaikovsky, which was gradually replaced with a lot of Mahler, Shostakovitch, Schnittke, Richard Strauss, Bernstein and a little bit of Stravinsky and Berlioz. In between all of this, a record I would listen to very regularly was the Ravi Shankar/Yehudi Menuhin/Jean-Pierre Rampal album “West Meets East” (album 3), which is something I go back to often. Currently I’m listening to a lot of Kate Soper, Andy Akiho and John Luther Adams.

A composer who I feel it would be remiss if I didn’t mention amongst this list is my dad, Peter Louis van Dijk. I’ve had this conversation often, but I think even if I weren’t his son, I would still really like his music. (Of course there’s no way to prove this, so you’re just gonna have to take my word…) There are certain pieces of his, such as his “Youth Requiem”, his “About Nothing” overture and his “Selfish Giant” cantata, which have had a very strong influence on how I write, and I stand by what I’ve told quite a few people, which is that I don’t think there are many composers around who can write a climax like he can. (My mom used to refer to certain works of his having a “Crash Boom Sniff” ending, a family tradition I try to uphold now and then…)

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One that really stands out for me is the premier of my piece “Moments In A Life”. The piece, as I mentioned before, was in collaboration with African National Congress veteran Denis Goldberg, in which I set key moments of his life to music, such as childhood memories, his time in prison, his time in the underground (with Umkhonto we Sizwe and Nelson Mandela) and the Rivonia trial.

Everything around and leading up to this concert was something that I will never forget, from being fortunate enough to having been asked by the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival to write the piece to begin with, meeting this incredibly inspiring man, being able to speak with him one-on-one during the process of putting the piece together, and, on the other side of the coin, getting shingles twice during the time I was composing it. While I’ve been involved in a few “high stress” projects, I’ve never had to work on something so “charged” before, firstly due to the content itself and having to delve into South Africa’s horrific past, but down to the fact that (and I know this sounds kinda stupid when one says it out loud, but something that I was very aware of while working on it) whatever I would do with this piece, there would be a different type of interest in it that none of my previous works have ever received. On top of all of this, it was arranged that Mr Goldberg himself would narrate, which gave it all an extra layer of electricity.

While the piece was originally written as a “pure” chamber work, as I was putting it together I felt that a conductor would greatly help the process. What ended up happening and making the concert a little extra special for me was, as my brother, Xandi, was one of the performers invited to the festival that year, it was decided that he should conduct. The two of us ended up splitting the job, with him dealing with the ensemble and me sitting in the front row cueing Mr Goldberg. (Besides for being able to work with some world-class musicians in the ensemble and given the opportunity to be able to work with my brother again for the first time in years, the first violinist of the group ended up being my university violin teacher, Farida Bacharova, who had always been very supportive of me composing, when I should have been practicing, and having her involved in this production was very special for me.)

 

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

While more traditionally a jazz/rock thing, I think, as an art music composer, one should start a band/ensemble and play in it oneself. I’m not sure how global an issue this is or if it’s just a very South African classical scene thing (or maybe it’s just me, I’ll concede if I’m wrong…) but I sometimes get the feeling that there’s this very strong attitude among classical musicians of “I have spent years perfecting my craft, why are people not kicking my down door to play my music/hear me perform?!” Something that took me years to learn (which was really hit home after a conversation with pianist Kathy Tagg) is the brutal truth that, if one breaks it down, there is absolutely no reason what-so-ever for anyone to play anything you have ever written (or to listen to you play). As commissioning pieces can be expensive and adds the (unspoken) commitment of a performer basically agreeing to spend their time and energy learning something one has written for them, there are very few people who are going to go out of their way and invest in a composer that no-one has heard their music of before, or has some kind of buzz around. By working together with like-minded composers/performers and putting together shows, be they house-concerts or in a bar, the more one does it, the more one puts oneself out there, cross pollinating one’s audiences while creating awareness of one’s music.

What is worth saying is that I find that it does help to have a strong concept/theme. While simply putting together a program of new music is great, from an outside perspective, if you see a poster of names and piece titles, it means nothing and won’t necessarily draw you closer to wanting to go see it. (There was a podcast I was listening to a while back where a guest was discussing how they had been doing a series of stand-up comedy shows inside local grocery stores. Even just that slight change in venue I think gives it a certain edge in getting someone to want to check it out. These ideas, I think, can easily be applied to music.) Along those lines, if finding a venue is tricky, create one. I know that sounds easier said than done, but I’ve been to and been involved with some really fantastic new music events that have taken place in someone’s lounge or in a vintage car garage. While, of course, it’s lovely to be performed in the more “traditional” classical venues, which bring with it a very different type of audience, one shouldn’t fool oneself in believing that just because the music isn’t being performed in one of the three halls available in one’s home town, that the art created in those spaces is worth any less.

Another reason I feel forming a group (or collaborating regularly) with other composers is a positive thing to do is that it will open you up to getting a perspective as to what other people around you are doing. As composing can be a very isolating vocation, it’s very easy to stagnate and just repeat the same idea over and over. Not only will you hear how someone else might approach a specific type of instrumentation or project, by working with other people regularly, it encourages one to try and top oneself from project to project. If one is in an unfortunate position with no-one around to play with, to have similar results, I would suggest going out of your way to listen to music that you would not usually listen to, specifically music that you might not even like. One can learn so much more (about your own musical language/how you approach composition) from something that you hate, versus listening to the same boring ol’ composers that give you the same warm fuzzy feeling over and over. In short, if it’s something you like, you’ll try imitate (and, in some cases, end up sounding just like everyone else), if it’s something you don’t like, you’ll try improve it and put your own stamp on it.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

The same apartment block, possibly a few stories higher. Also, as much as I don’t really enjoy travelling, I’d like to be touring more with the various projects that I’m involved in.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being comfortable inside my own skin.

What is your most treasured possession?

My laptop. It’s where I do all my writing and a lot of my relaxing, so I end up spending way too many hours on it. I’ve had a machine of mine stolen in the past and managed to lose quite a few pieces that I’d written in the process, so I think I guard the current one to the point of serious obsession. (Alternatively, my cat. Although the pieces that I’ve written on him sound horrible…)

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing/writing, reading a comic, playing Minecraft, playing with LEGO.


Matthijs van Dijk is an active chamber and orchestral musician, composer and arranger, based in Cape Town, South Africa. Van Dijk started composing when he was nine and has written several works for orchestra and smaller chamber ensembles.

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