Remembering Matthew: Dan Plonsey

The July 2003 issue of the Transbay Creative Music Calendar was called “Remembering Matthew” and included brief essays/remembrances by some of the creative improvisers who played with Matthew over the years. Here is Dan Plonsey‘s contribution.


I want to jot down my impressions of one aspect of Matthew Sperry’s performance which may not be apparent to those who know his music only from recordings: the manner with which he played, and in particular, the grace with which he manipulated all those _things_ which he used on his bass.

I never got the chance to discuss with Matthew the origins of each of those impliments: the wooden slat he’d wedge between the strings or place against the bass and bow like a daxophone, the driftwood, the wooden salad fork, the vibrator, the big metal bolt,
mallets and wooden hammer, and others. I would guess that some were chosen for more than their acoustical properties – evoking other aspects of human life, as though Matthew was attempting to infuse his own passions into the bass itself.

Of course Matthew was not alone in using “ordinary household objects” on his instrument. Among guitarists there are more than a few: Keith Rowe, Fred Frith, Eugene Chadbourne, and locally: John Shiurba, Myles Boisen, and Randy Porter. Drummers: around here there are Gino, Garth, and Mic Gendreau among others. Probably most pianists who play modern music have experimented with different preparations.

What made Matthew’s use of these objects special was the grace with which his objects were selected, activated, and then repeatedly adjusted. Watching him I sawa species of specialized ballet, a theatrical piece in which each object was a character which interacted with the bass, the bow, and Matthew; and through them, with the rest of the ensemble and with one another. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that it was an almost Shakespearean performance: each of those little evocative objects spoke with wit, with an almost comically tragic sense, with more awareness of fate than a piece of wood ought to have! This was due, I think, both to Matthew’s magical handling of each object, as well as to his flamboyance and theatricality which I became aware of most clearly when he was making music. His music had a certainty, an inevitability, yet as an improviser he was something more than incredibly responsive.

It would be romantic to claim that it was Matthew’s generosity and lovability as a person that made him such a great player – and certainly his music did strike me as personal – but I think that as Damon Smith has said, Matthew worked long and hard to develop his music – so such a claim would sell Matthew’s musicianship short. Furthermore, I believe that as with other great musicians, Matthew saw and accepted much of the best that was in himself – whether or not it might be called pretty or ugly, common or rare – and he did what he could to bring it out, as theatre, as music, or just as being a guy.