Matthias Schack-Arnott

During the lockdown I had some commissions to work on, so that kind of kept me sane. One was ‘Groundswell,’ a new work co-commisioned by Sydney Festival and Melbourne Fringe, which premiered in January. I had to design and test that work during COVID, which was a bit of a challenge. I also started work on a new collaboration with choreographer Lucy Guerin. We chipped away at the work between lockdowns, and retreated back to our studios and kept developing the work remotely when the lockdowns happened.

Groundswell took around two years to complete. I collaborated with the amazing designer / technical expert called Keith Tucker. He co-designed the work and also led the construction. It was a big undertaking, even just in terms of the building of the work. The work tilts on a central axis and can have up to 12 people on it, so he had to really engineer it and consider what sort of weight it could take and that kind of thing. Groundswell is an interactive sound art installation. It invites participants to move - individually or collaboratively - across a platform that tilts under their collective weight. This sets in motion thousands of metal balls that create oceanic waves of sound. The motion is disrupted by periodic swells of intense low vibration.

For me, one of the most important things when creating a new work is to find the right creative team. I often try and really push the envelope in terms of what’s achievable. Sometimes they just say no, you’re going too far! But that’s also an important part of the process, having others push back. That tension always leads to interesting results.

I think of myself as an artist who happens to work with sound. As an artist I’m often thinking about the conceptual alongside the phenomenological. I find exploring certain themes can open up the readings of a work in a way that to me feels quite rich, but I also really like work that is pure abstraction, I love that about music. Sometimes I like interweaving a work with multiple conceptual readings to provide access points for the audience to enter the work in different ways.

For example, Groundswell works on a purely abstract level as a visceral experience, but for me, it also speaks to our individual and collective impacts on the spaces we inhabit. This references the big issues of our time like the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, and the way our bodies are all inextricably linked. For me, some of these ideas can enrich the experience and get audiences thinking in a different way about how we relate to others and to the work. But if people don't read the artist statements, they can also experience the work in a purely abstract way.

When creating a new work, I’m often inspired by ideas that simultaneously speak to me on a visual or sculptural level and on a sonic level. If those two things are interacting with each other in a way that I feel has a lot of potential energy then I’m excited to delve further. There is a certain tension that I'm looking for between the visual and the sonic that is often the starting point. From there I usually spend a lot of time researching materials and the ideas that come from that research. My process then is really about to;ing and fro;ing between making / building and then composing, and moving backwards and forwards between those things until the work finally reaches a state that I’m happy with.

I started playing percussion in primary school, in the school covers band. In Year 7 I started at the VCA Secondary School studying classical percussion. I was exposed to a lot of contemporary visual art growing up so was always drawn to making music that felt analogous to that rather than, what felt to me, like anachronistic music of the past. Classical percussion by its very nature though is very modern, the classics are works by Stockhausen and Xenakis.

I’d love to perform and to play more in nature. I don't necessarily need an audience. I love listening to recordings which were made outdoors, in canyons or interesting natural acoustics. Like some of Jim Denley’s albums, where you can hear the sounds of the environment that he’s in and hist musical interaction with that. The idea of getting away from always needing a presenter or a festival really appeals to me. That's something I'd like to explore more.

I’m currently working on a new piece for RISING Festival with the choreographer Lucy Guerin. It features masses of pendulous bells that swing through the space and are activated by seven dancers. I’m really enjoying working with Lucy and being part of her creative process, it’s such an honour to have the chance to collaborate with her.

My dream collaboration is any collaboration where it feels like you're both growing through the process and it's going somewhere that you could never arrive at alone. That’s what I look for in a collaborative process, rather than trying to collaborate with certain people just because I think they are amazing. For me it’s more about trying to find collaborative relationships that can lead to something new and interesting.  

I’m also working on two new solo works at the moment and a collaboration with an amazing Indonesian filmmaker called Garin Nugroho. At the moment I'm working in different contexts and creative spaces. It’s been inspiring for me artistically to see how my work can exist in these different forms.

Photos by Alan Weedon

Interview by Ruby Willis

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