Matthew Shlomowitz

A young Australian composer who lives and works in London, and who’s already quite accomplished (with Joanna Bailie he leads the Plus Minus Ensemble, and he is also engaged as a teacher at a couple of academic institutions, to name two of his other commitments), Matthew Shlomowitz’ works are themselves filled with activity – and they might actually be meant to show just how much energy both musical and physical may flow from or be generated by the systematic or variable application of compositional constraints.

It isn’t by chance that Shlomowitz has collaborated with Rees Archibald and Andrew Infanti on a video in three parts about the Oulipo group in literature and its methods of utilising various constraints productively, which he has posted on his Youtube channel. One might conclude, as per this video’s suggestion, that his compositions themselves could be called “Oumupean works” or some other related variant of the original term.

Nor is the application of constraint in his composing simply intended to yield an instance of la musique pour la musique: the composition that results sounds as though it itself comes forward, approaches us as an analogon, a significant albeit enigmatic likeness of something else. . . . But what exactly is it supposed to resemble such that in so doing it would attract the listener’s attention?

Closing one’s eyes and focusing on his music only acoustically, one might be struck by the thought that many of his compositions seek to reveal how the human body itself, in its natural energy and activity, would be manifest if, generally speaking, our main organs of sensory perception were not our eyes but our ears, and these were sharper and more circumauditory by orders of magnitude than the weak instruments they at present are or seem to us to be. Accordingly, in Shlomowitz’ compositions we’d be given an adumbration of the acoustic images which bodies would project, so to speak, whenever they were active, involuntarily or purposefully as the case might be – and when is a body ever really inactive? – or, not so much those images by themselves as also the mode in which our hyperacute ears, as though listening to a recording played in slow motion, would register each image and their transitions quite distinctly.

Would it be mistaken to say that this is a music of the φύσις both as it now is and as it might perhaps have become at some point in a possible future?

However, when one opens one’s eyes again and watches the actual performances of many of his pieces, one sees that they also stage a gestural dance in which the musicians will have other roles to fill than their accustomed ones (and to balance the new physical responsibilities with their usual, specifically musical ones will require of them a fresh, an acrobatic dexterity) – or rather, it’s not so much that many of the gestures are new, as it is that the mode in which they are to be performed is novel: it seems that Shlomowitz has taken certain physical actions of which musicians avail themselves in the interstices of their performances (such as wiping their brows) usually so quickly that no one even sees them, slowed them down and/or isolated certain moments of them only, and in this form incorporated them deliberately and also at times contrapuntally into the composition itself, reconfiguring its traditional character in the process and our common expectations as well.

This actual counterpoint consisting of gestural movements somehow underscores how far even the smallest gestures of the body – of whose acoustic images this music often seems to be made – are already in themselves gesticulations, and even sometimes entire melodramas in miniature.

There are more than a few moments of humour, more than a few jokes in Shlomowitz’ works; when from time to time the audience laughs, that is the response they call forth.

And he seems to have a special feeling for those inadvertently comical situations in which we all sometimes find ourselves: a peculiar kind of miscommunication where we don’t so much get our wires crossed, as the saying goes, as get entangled in them; a mutual misunderstanding such as occurs when we move to step out of someone else’s path only to see that the other has done precisely the same and thus that we each still bar one another’s ways – yet when we try the manœuvre once again exactly the same thing happens, and again and again it takes place until we’re both nearly exasperated. (This interaction is one possible instantiation of the “jeu de ficelles” that so fascinated Henri Bergson in Le Rire.) The peculiar rhythm of such a minor and nearly mechanical piece of slapstick can be heard in several passages in Shlomowitz’ compositions, wherein it serves as the matrix of their musical form; and while the results may well not lead us anywhere, they certainly are diverting as long as they last.