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MATT HERSKOWITZ, a world class pianist who leaves anyone breathless after hearing him play.  And Montreal has the honour and the privilege of counting this musical genius amongst its residents. “ I was raised in a small village called Rensselaerville, in New York State, says Matt.  At age 13, I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, then at age 14, I was accepted at the Curtis Institute of Music, an elite tuition-free school to train child prodigies to become professional performing artists. I studied there for 8 years, and started learning to play jazz with friends who were professional jazz musicians, going to gigs with them and sitting in. Then I started getting my own gigs in the city.”  So, as we can see, this amazing musician began at a very young age, live and played in L.A. New York, studied with masters and finally moved to Montreal and as he says: “It was the best move of my life. I was able to develop as a musician and find my voice, without the stress of having to earn $1000+ a month just to pay rent. I’ve been based in Montreal ever since, and I currently travel the world performing my own music. I’m pretty happy with that:). `

Matt, welcome once more, and as the first time we did this article, you were on tour all over the world, as you are now one more time!  So again, I want to thank you so much for participating in this project.  I’ve added a few questions and will publish your article in two parts.  Let’s get straight away  to part one:

No 1) What is music to and for you?Matt i

For me music is communication, in the purest sense; not from the head, but from the heart. I do use my brain in the course of writing, especially in longer works, where it needs a structure to hold it all together, but ultimately music succeeds because of what it communicates on a very basic level, or fails because it doesn’t. No one needs to know what was in my head specifically when they hear my music or when I’m performing someone else’s music. I just need to communicate, or share, my story with the listener, and if I do that, the listener will be affected by it, and perhaps it will even touch them in a profound way. The only way to really do this is to completely trust yourself as a musician, to let what’s inside come out and evolve without trying to manipulate a result. If that’s not happening, it can be very difficult to be convincing. Inspiration is the key, and the ability to successfully convey that to the listener. If you can convey a powerful emotion through music, that’s pure communication, which goes far beyond words alone.

Music is also the air that we all breathe – most of us couldn’t imagine life without our favourite music. It can inspire us, comfort and reassure us, and most importantly, it makes us feel something more powerful than any other art form can. Music is sympathetic; it reaches us directly, as if the music is expressing our own personal feelings, our lives. It’s a completely subjective art form, affecting everyone personally, and everyone differently. We don’t necessarily know what it is that is giving us the shivers (les frissons), we just know that we’re affected. It literally changes our lives, and I don’t think anyone can really live without it.

No. 2)  What inspires you?

Many things can inspire me. Powerful emotions inevitably inspire creativity, of course. But Matt gI also get inspired by listening to great music that touches me, being in an incredibly beautiful setting, a rhythm or melody that gets inside my head that I just have to get down… but as a professional musician, it’s often the deadline or concert around the corner that inspires me to get going! Let’s say I have to finish a new piece a month from now. I’ll start thinking about ideas, what kind of piece I want it to be, how long, what kind of structure, what style, mood… then within a few days I’ve usually found the basic ideas that will make up my piece. Once I have that, I’m on my way. So necessity is for me, and for most other composers as well, a good form of inspiration! When I write songs, the inspiration often comes in one giant spurt – that is to say, I usually finish a song the same day I start it, or it won’t let me go. It’s kind of like a drug – once I have the idea for the song, I can’t stop! However, I could be thinking about the ideas that will eventually become the song for a few days before actually writing it, sometimes without even realizing that’s what I’m doing, they’re just swirling around in my head – make any sense? The most fragile feelings seem to translate well into music, I find, if you’re willing to go there. That especially goes for lyrics as well. If I’m writing songs for an album with a deadline, I can’t afford to wait for inspiration to bite me in the butt, so I’ll constantly be spinning ideas around in my head, allowing them to take shape naturally. Writing for an album is a 24 hour-a-day process; I just go into that mode until it’s finished.

No. 3) When you are playing, creating, where does it take you?  Where does your mind travel?

For me, the creative process is the most fun. It’s like a drawing with music on a big emptyMatt k canvas, full of inspired ideas, which then lead you to other ideas, expanding the canvas even more. Then the canvas starts to take shape, you can see where it’s going, including what doesn’t fit that you need to let go of… and then it’s like the piece is writing itself. I find it’s the same for composing and improvising, perhaps two sides of the same coin. At a certain point, whether I’m writing a song or a symphony, I see the whole thing in my head well before I’ve finished it. That’s the end of the most fun part – then it’s on to putting it all together, making it whole. For me, it’s really fun and exciting if my music takes me on a journey, rather than me trying to lead it somewhere specific. If I find that I’m forcing it, that it’s not really going anywhere, I have to give it up and start with something new – which often isn’t completely new, but a subconscious reworking of the same ideas! It’s fun to notice when that happens. Basically, playing or writing takes me into a new world, which I’m simultaneously creating and discovering.  

No. 4)  Do you feel music, visual arts and health are related and if so, how do you see that?

Yes, I do feel they are all related. I already made an analogy between visual arts and music as related to creativity in my response to the third question. For me, music can be visual, sometimes related to colours, or images. Sometimes I see a narrative in music I play, or a story, kind of like a movie.

I feel that being healthy is very important for creativity. If I feel like crap, I’m unlikely to feel very creative. Your energy level is low when you’re sick, and creating takes energy; inspiration takes energy. Chopin was a big exception though: he composed much of his music while suffering tuberculosis. That was his reality, and he created anyway because his need to create was greater than his sickness, and was thus willing and able to overcome it’s obstacles. There are some accounts from the period that Chopin actually enjoyed being sick… I can’t speak to that rather bizarre form of pleasure, but if it’s true, he’s likely the only one. Kind of hard to believe though. There are also examples of composers writing their greatest music on their deathbeds: Mozart and Schubert come to mind. Perhaps it’s the knowledge of their own imminent mortality that inspires the need to get everything that’s inside them down on paper before it’s too late; to leave the fruits of their souls behind, making themselves immortal through their music. And that’s exactly what they did.

Matt HMusic and visual arts also share a common source of inspiration: from pain, torment, love, loss and longing, and the expression of great beauty through those powerful emotions. They also share a common source of inspiration from happiness, ecstasy, and religious devotion in particular, which produces a different kind of art than the “negative” emotions, but no less great or powerful. Bach and Messiaen both wrote for God, and both produced incredibly powerful music. I think Schubert and Van Gogh are artistic soul brothers; both were tortured souls who found expression of great beauty and the profound in their music and art.

No. 5)  When you are playing for yourself, not performing, how do you feel?

Playing for myself is a very intimate experience. It’s where I can experiment with complete freedom, without worrying about how it will come across to an audience. Sometimes it’s great just to play in my own solitude, to let whatever’s inside come out unhinged and uncensored, without the stress or constraints of a performance – just me and the piano. I can stop and explore an idea that I stumble upon, take it as far as I want, then continue on to something else, wherever it leads me. Often really cool things happen while playing for myself, and if I hear something I really like, I’ll record it on my little digital microphone so I don’t forget it – why waste perfectly good inspiration?:) However, performing free improvisation in public can often be a very similar experience to playing alone – I simply forget that the audience is there and enter into a vibe, into myself. But the audience does have an influence on me when I’m doing that, of course – the fact that they’re there and watching me adds something to the mix; sometimes it’s a motivating influence, sometimes it can make me a bit self-conscious. Fortunately, I’m now mostly able to subjugate the self-conscious part and experience the same freedom improvising in front of people that I do alone. It’s all a matter of self-confidence, of allowing yourself to be that naked (musically speaking, of course!) in front of an audience as you would do alone.

All of this is in response to “playing for myself”, not practicing, which is a completely different thing. Practicing is working things out, which we all have to do every day. Performing for myself is not something I indulge in every day, or not even very often for that matter, but it’s always a beautiful experience to open up to yourself in music, and it makes us better musicians. Perhaps I should do it more often. 🙂

No. 6)  When do you do your best work?  (conditions, environment)

I often do my best work at night; I find the peace and tranquility of the after-hours a niceMatt j environment to create. Of course I sometimes have to write during the day as well, especially with a looming deadline, but I prefer writing at night. I also do some of my best work while traveling, especially on the 11+ hour ride from Montreal to New York City. It’s a beautiful ride, and there’s nothing like being trapped on a train for the entire day to get things done!

No. 7)  Do you identify with your music and if so, on what level?

Yes, most of the time I do. I find my music in some way reflects my state of being, and I can usually understand where it’s coming from. Not always though, sometimes I just don’t understand why something came out like that, lol! But I know that it came from me, so it’s part of my voice, even if I don’t really identify with it at the moment. I’m often channeling a certain form, or style, depending on what I’m writing, but I generally recognize myself in there, yes. It’s interesting you ask on what level, as there are various levels to which I identify with my own music. If I never get tired of thinking about or playing something I wrote, then I know that it’s the closest, direct connection to myself I can have through my work. It’s a great feeling to create something like that. I think it’s working on the level of pure inspiration. If something has taken a while to get out, if I had to work on it for a while, construct it, I’ll still hear myself in there, but it’s usually not quite as direct an effect when I hear it. However, I might grow to like it more and more over time, and it may even become a favourite of mine – it’s happened, though it’s not generally the norm.

Matt, thank you for sharing so much with us.  It will be a pleasure to continue with part two of this most enlightening article next week:


Please tune in next week for part two.  Until then, you are cordially invited to visit Matt’s links where you’ll hear more of his incredible music and learn even more of this extraordinary artist.  Your comments are always appreciated, thank you and enjoy!

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Filed in: MUSIC • Friday, August 12th, 2011


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My name is Michele Andree. I am an artist, I paint musicians in action. I think I’m a musician at heart, my instrument being… a brush, so I play…brush and I paint… music.
I love jazz. I call it freedom music. It promotes special values. I love intelligent people and good conversations.

Some people ask me how music relates to art. Personally I find they go hand in hand. Music is what turns me on to painting. It makes me see colours