Matt Hsu and Jodie Rottle, musicians and composers, Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra
Often, accessibility is considered for the audience, but it isn’t as common to have it considered for the performers. So, this show is an exercise in what that might look and sound like ...
Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra is, perhaps, one of the most singular (and most respected) musical ensembles currently operating in this city. Comprised of more than 20 BIPOC, First Nations, disabled, non-binary and trans artists, the Obscure Orchestra crafts experimental musical compositions using a broad array of world instruments and rethought everyday objects. On Friday March 8, the Obscure Orchestra will be taking the Powerhouse Theatre for a special performance called Companions as part of the 2024 ΩHM Festival at Brisbane Powerhouse. We caught up with orchestra founder, composer and musician Matt Hsu, and flutist and composer Dr Jodie Rottle to talk about the special performance, the spirit of collaboration and advocacy through music.
Hey Matt! To start, we’d love to know where your love affair with music began. Can you recall the first tune that enchanted you?
Matt: I remember watching Princess Mononoke as a youngling and feeling magic shivers during the opening credits music, even before the film properly began. I’ve also always been enamoured by natural sounds, the squeak of walking on soft sand at the beach and rustle of leaves. Both my parents loved music, and my dad collected tapes and CDs like his life depended on it, music from all over the world.
Who were some of your formative influences (musical and non-musical) growing up, and how did they shape your creative sensibilities and tastes?
Matt: When I was 15 I went on a month-long exchange to Japan and was exposed to this completely different musical worldview. It sounded like pop, but it arrived there from a wholly different path, and that just ended my ethnocentric taste in Western indie and pop. Sheena Ringo changed everything – the closest I can describe her is Japan’s Bjork. Also adorable hip-hop group Rip Slyme, jazz musician Ohashi Trio, Kaela Kimura, Chara, Joe Hisaishi, Shugo Tokumaru and the late Ryuichi Sakamoto.
I was the vocalist in a Rage Against The Machine cover band in my teens, I think that’s lingered on in my composing, exploring social issues in subtle and overt ways. Other big influences have been Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, Chavela Vargas, Robin Pecknold, Tom Waits, Fela Kuti, Gogol Bordello. Then closer to home, the Meanjin artist Laneous.
The cartoon Hey Arnold, both its surprising depth and the music and was pretty influential on a young Matt too.
You play a mind-boggling number of instruments – what driving force is behind this voracious desire to become adept at so many instruments? (Also, what instrument are you currently trying to incorporate into your repertoire?)
Matt: To be honest, I’ve always been a mediocre instrument player and I think that weirdly was the driving force, realising that striving for ‘excellence’ and ‘perfection’ has never been enjoyable for me, and just trying things and getting the ‘knack’ of something, was what was fun for me.
I didn’t study music at uni or go to a conservatorium, I joined a folk-punk band in my 20s called The Mouldy Lovers with what meagre trumpet I remembered from school, and that’s where I learned how to become a composer… a punk trained composer. I just had the best time playing music, I wanted to do it more and in different ways, so I started learning clarinet, accordion, double bass, trombone, mbira – just anything I could get my hands on – and playing them at Mouldy Lovers shows. Then at a certain point, around 2015, I started making little multi-instrumental experiments with a microphone and a laptop, and I’ve basically been doing that ever since! Now with the help of 22 artist friends!
Having an array of instruments at your disposal must be a huge boon, especially when experimenting with diverse sonic textures. Can you give us any insight into what drives and informs your compositional practice as a whole?
Matt: I compose by ear and instinct. I tend to pick up an instrument and find a little melody and record it, pick up something else and play along, and do that maybe 50 times until I’ve got a weird and wonky sounding thing that I’m happy with.
I have this music writing thought that I’ve only recently figured out how to put into words. It’s that I’d rather make anything than something — because something already exists. Like, if you aim to write something that sounds like a surf-rock tune, it’ll sound like a surf-rock tune. But if you aim to write anything, then anything could literally be anything.
Jodie plays a nuts array of instruments and objects too, do you have any thoughts on this?
Jodie: I only play one instrument – the flute – but I have a curious practice of making music with everyday objects. I am careful to say that everyday objects are not instruments, rather they can be reimagined into musical contexts. When I compose with objects, I think about subverting their function. What might it sound or look like to play something that isn’t normally a musical object, and importantly, how can we laugh at the effect? I am very driven by humour and levity, so I try to write music that highlights a connection to laughter.
You’re the mastermind behind Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra – one of the most creative (and inclusive) musical ensembles in the country. Can you tell us how the ensemble came to be and what inspired you to start it?
Matt: Growing up Asian in dominantly white culture, it hit deeply every time I felt othered. I remember dreading every ‘Australia Day’ because I knew at some point someone would yell race-related abuse at me while speeding past in car. So, when I was in a position to gather people together to create music together, I naturally and unconsciously gravitated to creating a space where people who have shared in that feeling of being othered, can feel delighted and happy and mischievous and daring. So with that ethos of just wanted to include different people and intersectionalities, that we have this very big band of queer, trans, non-binary, disabled, First Peoples, BIPOC and refugee artists.
The Obscure Orchestra encompasses more than 20 members – are you able to share any insight into how the ensemble operates and how you all approach the art of creating as a collective?
Matt: I’m happy let Jodie partially answer this one, because I’m so in it that I don’t describe it very well. But essentially, we gather together like a bunch of ninja turtles called into action, gather in a room, catch up, laugh and play tunes.
When I’m writing the music, I’ll get to point where I can’t play a certain instrument as well as someone in the ensemble, or I can’t rap or sing beautifully, so I’ll invite someone from OO over for dinner and a recording session at my home studio. Up until now, I’ve written most of the music, before it’s orchestrated by OO member Fin Nichol-Taylor to make sense for the musicians we have — but we’re beginning to share the ‘composer’ hat around, which this Companions project is a big part of.
Jodie: I see the ensemble as a peak example of community. Yes, we each play an instrument (or many!), but I think we each really prioritise our membership and support each other, and this comes out in the music we make. Our personal stories and friendships are a guiding force in our musical connections, and this is what makes creating music together so magical.
Obscure Orchestra will be performing Companions as part of this year’s ΩHM Festival at Brisbane Powerhouse. You’ll both be joined by Erin Fitzsimon (aka INIGO) and composer Han Reardon-Smith. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about the conceptual crux of the show and what audiences can expect?
Matt: I’m going to give the credit here to Jodie! Building off the Obscure Orchestra spirit of collaboration with people with experiences of disability, she came up with the concept for the show, did all the ground work and, really, this show is hers.
Jodie: Companions is a project at the intersection of a few areas of my life, and I’m really honoured I could realise this alongside Obscure Orchestra.
The idea for this show was inspired by my friendship with vocalist Erin Fitzsimon, who is one of the guests on the program. Erin was the first friend I met when I moved to Brisbane in 2013. For a decade, we have witnessed each other grow up and held each other through some incredible and life-changing events. Companions is my attempt at creating space where I can make music with my friends who have different accessibility requirements that are not typically considered within a music performance context (in Erin’s case: light, sound, and motion sensitivities). Often, accessibility is considered for the audience, but it isn’t as common to have it considered for the performers. So, this show is an exercise in what that might look and sound like.
The title comes from my research work with Han Reardon-Smith, where we investigate a concept called companion thinking. This is where we work – with ideas and non-musical elements as companions. We befriend the unknown and honour the processes of discovering what else might be possible when we listen vulnerably beyond our limitations.
In the context of this show, accessibility became our companion. In short, it’s a sensory-friendly performance of live instrumental pop music. Fin is arranging the music to be soft-textured, with elements like muted brass, thinner textures, and dampened percussion. Seating will flexible: bar tables, chairs, and floor cushions are a few options. Lighting will be controlled, with no strobes, haze, or moving visuals. We encourage snapping fingers instead of clapping hands, and resources such as AusLan and quiet zones will be available.
You’re both huge proponents of advocacy through music. In what ways do you both believe that music can be a galvanising force for change, particularly when it comes to improving representation of marginalised communities and spreading awareness of contemporary societal issues?
Matt: I think music, and entertainment at large, is a huge force for challenging norms and establishing new ‘norms’ in our culture. Crucially, music is something people seek out, it’s vital and intrinsic to our humanity, as is telling and sharing stories, which music often is. Not everyone’s going to seek out a heady article about a social issue, but they’ll seek out art. That combination of joy, leisure, and seeing each other, every kind of person, through that music/art/entertainment is why it’s so powerful.
Jodie: I echo the “joy” part – listening and playing music are the few experiences where I lose track of time and connect with myself and others. Existing in this space creates a new reality; my train of thought become less practical and more in-the-moment. Music allows us to offer and receive stories in creative ways. Personally, making music and storytelling with Obscure Orchestra has helped me understand who I am, and I think understanding our own self is the biggest step we can take to understanding other people. So the change happens within us personally, and music is a resource to help us along the way.
Catch the Obscure Orchestra on Friday March 8 when it performs Companions as part of ΩHM Festival – tickets can be purchased now from the Brisbane Powerhouse website.