A few weeks ago, composer Matt Siffert made the grave tactical error of emailing me and offering me a streaming link to his album, Cold Songs. Naturally I took his email hostage and refused to return it until he granted me an interview. Read on to learn more about inspiration, orchestration, and the emotional impact of the creative process. Oh, and to hear a little of the album yourself. Allons-y!
Jenn German: The first question is VERY IMPORTANT, so I want you to consider it carefully. The fate of this entire interview and all the people on it rests in your hands. Beethoven or Mozart?
Matt Siffert: Beethoven, no question.
JG: We shall do well here.
MS: Whew… that was a close one…
JG: Okay, Matt Siffert’s Musical Pedigree. What’s your background? Go!
MS: I went to college at Carnegie Mellon, where I studied music and psychology. The music portion of my studies were mostly jazz, with a bit of classical theory/performance practice.
I also did a fair share of music history. I studied abroad in Havana, Cuba, which was where I developed an interest in songwriting. Upon returning to CMU in my senior year, I recorded an album of songs I wrote and arranged for a singer and jazz musicians.
JG: Nice! I took an Latin American ethnomusicology course in undergrad, but we didn’t spend a ton of time on Cuban music. Highly influential?
MS: Yeah, Havana was very, very influential. They had a perfect balance of melodically-driven songs with sensitive musicianship accompaniment.
So it was there that I realized I can put the worlds of songwriting and sophisticated musical technique together. As I got more interested in arranging, I became drawn to the sound of classical instruments. And that’s when I started studying composition; first on my own, then in the evening division at Julliard, which is where I’ve been for the last two years.
JG: Would you say you’re working on a sort of Cuban fusion music, or are you more influenced by the idea of melody and sensitivity as opposed to literal Cuban rhythms and motifs?
MS: Definitely the latter. I’m not as interested in the actual Cuban rhythmic sensibilities as I am the idea of melody paired with musical sensitivity.
JG: How would you describe your niche?
MS: I strive to combine folk-influenced songwriting with musical sensibilities from the jazz and classical worlds.
JG: What instruments do you play?
MS: My primary instrument is bass, but I play a bit of guitar and piano. And I sing.
JG: Do you compose around these instruments?
MS: Yeah. Usually the seed of a song comes when I’m in random places, like the train, shower, or in bed, but when I build them out and really sculpt them I usually work on guitar or piano.
JG: Do you later re-orchestrate them, or stick to the original arrangement?
MS: Yeah, I then re-orchestrate them. Sometimes I write the whole song and then orchestrate; sometimes I want the orchestration to be more integrated into the lyric and form, and will start orchestrating while I develop the song itself. It just depends on what that initial seed calls for.
On [my album] Cold Songs, for example, I wrote every song except “Show-Off” first. With that one, I really wanted it to be about combining the virtuosity of the quartet with the melodic line I wrote. So there was more of a back and forth when I composed that one.
JG: What’s your concept behind Cold Songs?
MS: I started writing songs for the project right after a convergence of three crummy events; health problems, job problems, and relationship problems. But funnily enough I was still working through those problems in my head, and wasn’t ready to write songs about them. So I took themes that I have previously written about – new-found love, nature, ego, growing up – and fed them through this dark wavelength I was living on.
After writing the songs on guitar, I felt like the accompaniment wasn’t bringing the stories and characters to life in the way I wanted. I had been listening to lots of string quartet music, as well as pop music that utilized strings, and thought that this austere sound world was a perfect match for my songs. So I devoured the music of Ligeti, Schoenberg, Britten, Dvorak, and others, and arranged the songs for a string quartet.
JG: How did you find the chamber orchestration transformed the work?
MS: It allowed the emotional states of the characters to come through on a non-verbal level. On songs where the narrator is angry, the strings get gritty and brutal. In songs where the narrator is flashy, the strings are virtuosic, etc., etc. These musical backdrops support the narrator in a way that adds depth and life that you just can’t get with a voice and guitar.
JG: It seems like the music on this album came from an emotionally dark place, but as in so many cases it brought about some catharsis. Would you say the listener should find it ultimately uplifting, or is it a soundtrack to help through rough times?
MS: Great question, and funny, I was just talking about this with a friend last night…
I don’t really feel like this should be either uplifting or depressing. I felt my work as almost journalistic, in some respects. I more just want people to see this darker world and feel okay living in it for a little while. People tend to smell sadness and run away from it, often at great expense. They often ignore the confrontation of problems stuff away their problems, which always come back at some point. So my hope was that I invite the listener into this dark world and show them the insides of it; that it’s really not a horrible place. You just need adjust to it, work your way through it, and move on.
JG: As the original thinker of dark thoughts and writer of dark notes, how you feel when you hear your work?
Matt: Another great question… When I listen back to Cold Songs, I am drawn mostly to the steps I made in terms of songwriting and compositional craft. With these songs I really started to find my own voice as a lyricist, and made genuine strides in pairing my songs with the appropriate musical accompaniment.
JG: Now that you’ve found your voice, where do you expect to take it next?
MS: I’m actually about halfway through my next project, which is a group of songs I’m writing for myself (voice) and harp! I’m continuing the idea of pushing myself as a songwriter, and striving for the most appropriate musical accompaniment for the songs I’m writing.
JG: Any performances coming up? I assume you continue to post your appearances on your website, which you sent me. Would you by chance want to offer a streaming track?
MS: I do indeed post the appearances. And sure! I’d be happy to offer a streaming track!
JG: Beautiful. And the full album can be purchased on your website? iTunes?
MS: Yeah, it’s up on iTunes here.
JG: Sounds good. Anything you wanted to add?
MS: I think that’s it! Thank you so much for doing this, it was a blast!
JG: Pleasure’s all mine!
Thank you, Matt! Be sure to check out his website, mattsiffert.com.