OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS Q&A with Matthew Halpin, on ‘Agreements’
The development of a musical work begins a long time before an audience sees it, with inspiration, creation, choices, and many hours of work in rehearsal, practice, recording, and organisation. We love hearing the stories of how albums or concerts get from their initial seeds of thought to the final production, and how different musicians think about their creative process and work they do. Other Side of the Tracks gives us insights into this process from a range of musicians, and provides some fantastic perspectives on music, inspiration, work, and life.
Cologne-based Irish saxophonist Matthew Halpin has just released his debut album, 'Agreements', and shared some of his thoughts with us on avoiding boundaries of genre and conventional album structure, how sketches develop into a final work through collaboration, and the human emotion behind the music.
Described as "one of the finest saxophonists to have emerged from Ireland in recent years..." [All About Jazz], Matthew Halpin was the first Irish musician to receive the presidential scholarship to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. His debut album 'Agreements' was released on 14th May, featuring Kit Downes on hammond organ, Hanno Busch on electric guitar, Sergio Martinez on percussion, and Sean Carpio on drums. The album has been described as "...many different things at the same time... often melodic, some tracks have a retro feel, and others come right out of the space age." [London Jazz News]
You can buy 'Agreements' now on Bandcamp.
Q 1. Could you tell us about the inspiration behind this album?
This album has been a long time coming for me. I have focused on working as a sideman/co-leader over the last few years, developing and searching for my own directions, tastes and values in music. I finally felt that with the compositions I had accumulated and the musicians I chose, I would be able to make something that I felt was truly representative of how I want to hear music.
The inspiration behind this album is nothing overly mysterious, maybe it even sounds cliché. Good and clear communication is where the whole thing starts and finishes. Around the time of planning this album I was reading the Don Miguel Ruiz book "The Four Agreements" which talks very deeply and plainly about how to improve your communication with yourself, others and the world. It was incredible how key the messages of that book became in shaping my approach to the whole process. Being clear from the beginning that I was making an inclusive album, choosing not to define it with minimising terms of genre or excluding the human qualities of vulnerability, insecurity or imperfection. I chose to delay my expectations of the process and of the outcome, or perhaps just to relabel expectations as possibilities. It is challenging to stay open and keep only a loose hand on the reins, trusting the music to show its own course, especially when you know people will hear it, and judge it, for better or worse. I don't find judgement is helpful as a musician or as a listener - it is not a competitive medium, or at least I don't believe it should be. I think music is much better understood as an emotional medium and there's no place for judgement with emotions. On that note, the final part of the communication is of course how the listener hears and understands the music. When I listen back, there is a through line which is organic and alive, for sure not artificial or planned. It is something completely different than a genre-specific, showcase-style album, which definitely is a challenge for listeners who are more used to those types of albums.
Q2. Musically speaking, how do you go about taking the steps from initial inspiration to a finished piece/album?
Most of the time, when I write music, it comes as a little handwritten musical sketch in response to how I'm feeling, that could be about my day, or a person or a movie I just watched. Sometimes those little sketches are complete enough to bring to a band and play, and sometimes the character in what's written is clear enough that the sketch won't need many revisions, usually just a little tidying up. The character of the piece then has to find its way to interact with the members of the band, the band as a whole and vice versa. Some bands get along with certain tunes and some don't. Once there is a good working relationship between the written music, the individuals and the band as a whole, and all agree on the rules of engagement, there is likely to be some interesting music made and a lot of fun had while making it! (By the way, that "good working relationship" includes a healthy amount of ease and tension.) Once the music had been recorded the objective was to mix it so as to present it in a way that accentuated certain characteristics without manipulating or changing them.
Q3. What is the most important thing to you when making music?
Communication is the most important thing to me. I try to treat music as if it's a living thing, to respect it, be ready to lead or follow it. Of course communication with the fellow musicians, the audience, the space you're in, physically and non-physically, is all part of that too.
Q4. What would you like listeners to experience when listening to the album?
I hope some listeners hear past the instruments, genre definitions and notes, to the energy and emotional intent behind the music. I hope they hear that it's human-powered, strong, sensitive, honest, adventurous, searching, vulnerable, and that they might identify with the humanness of it and feel they are a part of that.