Any discussion of Matthew Ariaratnam’s music is necessarily going to be reductive, because he’s already created a vast and varied body of work. Deceptively placid guitar quartets that mix shimmering abstraction with very prettily plucked notes. Slowly unfurling soundscapes that can, at times, sound quite literally like a walk in the woods. Electronic dirges that hint at tectonic plates shifting below a calm surface. And then there’s dumbpop, his home-studio “rock band”, which specializes in one-minute melodies that make the Ramones look loquacious.
At 26, it’s possible that he’s still finding his way, slowly developing a signature sound. But it’s more likely that Ariaratnam has already discovered his own sound world—one marked by discovery, along with the different creative opportunities afforded by duration and concision.
“They are opposites, but I think they both function as ways of being in the world,” Ariaratnam tells the Straight in a wide-ranging phone call from his East Van home. “I’m really trying to think about my musical practice being more expansive: not ‘I’m a composer who writes chamber music’ or ‘I’m a composer who just writes pop music,’ but having my primary focus be setting up listening.
“I see dumbpop as using what I’ve learned being a songwriter and my skills as a composer,” the former classical guitarist continues. “I’m trying to put that all into one thing, and distill it as fast as possible. How strong a song can I make with just a minute of material? It’s kind of a compositional challenge. The long, unfolding things are also a compositional challenge, but there I’m more thinking about landscape…and about working with groups of people in different ways—not just in a compositional way.”
That Ariaratnam is as much a philosopher as a musician is readily apparent. When he composes, he’s thinking as much about sound’s function in the world as he is about note placement, and he brings an improvisational aesthetic to his work that is also a reflection of how he navigates life itself.
Improvisation, he says, “is kind of a practice that I feel like I do just for survival, because it really brings you to a present moment, where you don’t have to think about the future and you’re not thinking about the past. It’s very meditative, I guess, and it’s been central to all of my work. Anything I’ve composed, I will improvise first.”
Which makes it hard to predict just what Ariaratnam will do at the Fox Cabaret on April 23 of next year, when he’ll join percussionist Julia Chien and composer Alex Mah as part of Music on Main’s Emerge on Main showcase of new artists to watch.
“There’ll be some music, that’s for sure,” Ariaratnam says with a laugh. “Definitely some sound stuff. It might not even be guitar; it could be many other things.”