Composing, community and gnome-core with Dr Matt Hsu

Composing, community and gnome-core with Dr Matt Hsu

Dr Matt Hsu is an award winning Meanjin based Taiwanese-Australian multi-instrumentalist and (self-described) anti-racist composer, receiving awards from the Queensland Music Awards (QMA) in 2020 and 2022. Matt is fascinated with experimental sounds and has an affinity for those derived from nature, artfully combining field recordings with orchestral instruments and everyday objects in compositions.

Seljak had the privilege of visiting Matt’s new home which he shares with his partner Freya and their dog Nacho. We got a special tour of where the musical magic happens, in his colourful gnome-core home music studio, a cosy, whimsical space lined floor to ceiling with instruments big and small.

What started as Matt’s solo project, the Obscure Orchestra, is in his own words “a curious world of intricately crafted experimental music, made with world instruments and rethought everyday objects”. It has since transformed into a large collective of musicians who play at the intersection of art and activism, where the ensemble challenges the traditional barriers to entry and the outdated conservative formality of classical orchestras. The project’s foundation is based on community-minded inclusivity, composed of 20+ BIPOC, First Nations, disabled, non-binary and trans artists. Merch from The Obscure Orchestra shop is not-for-profit, with all funds going to refugee and asylum seeker organisations supporting those in detention or resettling into community.

Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra. Photograph by Rod Pilbeam

We chatted about Matt’s DIY renovations, the new neighbourhood they call home, community, creativity, and what’s next for MHOO (Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra).

Matt_Hsu_Home_Studio  Matt's studio

You just moved into a new space with your partner Freya and set up a home studio, tell us about some of your renovations!

Yes, we were in Highgate Hill for a decade and loved it, but we did sneak off to Sunnybank a lot on weekends, where Freya says is the only place she feels completely relaxed in Meanjin and where I spent my childhood. It’s a crazy diverse, organically arising Taiwan Town… now a broader Asia Town.

In making the music studio, I thought back to music studios I’ve been in, that are these dark industrial bunkers with maybe a random neon light accent, and I could never handle being in them for too long. When I got a chance to make my own, I wanted it to feel like a treehouse, with lots of bright dappled light and grown materials. 

Freya suggested plywood which I immediately loved. It has minimal timber waste, lasts long and is beautiful, so I measured them up, got them cut to shape, and installed them. It’s perfect, it gives the room warmth, a bit of soundproofing, and a canvas to do whatever on.

All my instruments which used to be in baskets or strewn around our Highgate Hill sharehouse, now all have a spot and look so cute together!

Matt_Hsu_Studio_instruments_closeup  Matt’s DIY plywood walls and his myriad of instruments

How do you make your environment one you can be creative in?

I love being outside, gliding around on my bicycle or swimming in the reservoir, so if I need to work indoors, I like to have a piece of the outdoors with me. On top of the plywood walls, I found this huge gorgeous fallen branch in Yugarapul Park, hurried back with a saw, and hung it in the studio with percussion bit-and-bobs-and-bells.

Matt_Hsu_Studio_Seljak_Lune_Blanket Instruments dangling from the salvaged tree branch and the Seljak Lune blanket filtering light from the balcony window

I also wanted to put a subtle stamp of my Taiwanese heritage in the studio in amongst the treehouse feels, so there’s Fu paper charms and textile art from my Taiwan artist friends LOOPY!鹿皮, monk dolls from Tibet, and Studio Ghibli and Lupin III figurines and Noren curtains, because I’m a bit of a weeb, haha!

Matt_Hsu_Custom_Noren_CurtainCustom Noren curtains hanging in the doorway

Is there a favourite feature or special part of your new home that stands out to you? 

Honesty, the best part is being so close to grassroots Asian pop-up markets, crafts, food and culture. The Asian grandparents going on their daily stroll, children running around flipping back and forth between English and their home languages, that intense BMX track where toddlers do backflips on tricycles in Macgregor. 

We love getting tea at Mountain River Patisserie, picking up a donut from the Korean food truck at Yimbun Park where our dog Nacho can play, getting breakfast at Fry Chicken Master in Market Square, battered mushrooms from Hot Star, so many noodle and bento places, and Freya’s obsession, bubble tea from Machi Machi or Gong Cha. It’s unbelievable how much good food we’re surrounded by — it just feels soooo good that there’s no vague, appropriative overpriced ‘fusion’ restaurants, just POC-run mom and pop owned affordable, authentic eats.

Tell us about gnome-core!

People were asking me about what kind of music we (the Obscure Orchestra) make, and I was really struggling to explain it. Okay, so it’s like folk, world, experimental, bedroom pop, contemporary-classical but also punk and hip-hop, and then alternative. It just got really confusing and I just really thought about what the essence of the thing I wanted to capture, and it’s this cute, playful thing, like a bunch of gnomes making music and so I was thinking “gnome-core” sounds kinda cute!

Matt_Hsu_Harp_Lune_blanketMatt with his beautiful carved harp and out on the balcony

Nature seems like a big source of inspiration for you, as a recurring theme throughout the Obscure Orchestra discography with tracks like Mycelium, Ant Dance, Birdsnest Hair, Runes Dans Le Sable (Runes in the Sands) and Tap Water. What’s been inspiring you lately? 

That’s really astute! I think nature is an absolute balm and should be a necessary part of everyday life, so I think it inevitably seeps into my music. Playing music is so elemental in itself, it’s air, breathing, rhythms and cyclical repetitions, I think they go hand in hand. It’s ironic that I gravitated to a hobby (and now profession) that requires me being inside to record for long stretches, which I think reiterates why I sought to make an as-close-to-outdoors feeling studio as I could.

Lately, I’ve been really interested in the joy of mundane everyday things, stuff that is important but overlooked, things that children talk about, like their favourite food, favourite colour, their best friend, the simple joys of life, which give a little respite important but heady complex issues. I’m also really inspired by relationships and community. I spent all of 2022 working at 4ZZZ as their Community Engagement Coordinator, so the question of what makes a community has been sitting with me, and will come out in some way in my next pieces, I’m sure. 

Matt_Hsu_Outside_Dune_blanketMatt sitting in his garden on the Dune blanket

Matt_Hsu_Dune_Blanket_MusicMatt with his Kalimba

In your 2022 QMA acceptance speech you said that “no artist is a solo artist” and that “we can’t thrive without the communities of support we have around us.” What does community look like to you?

I absolutely stand by those words, I couldn’t do any of this without my friends and loved ones. They may not always be in the studio with me, but they share their stories and worries and moments of joy, and that encourages me to keep going at my thing, and inspire themes and ideas. 

Community can be accidental or purposeful, but I feel like a common thread between a well working one is trust, and I’m so lucky to play with people in Obscure Orchestra that I absolutely trust and adore. They’re all amazing musicians in their own right, so MHOO feels like a little support group where we can share our music and life triumphs and struggles and thoughts. 

Largely, Obscure Orchestra has been musicians playing songs I’ve written, but this year we’ve had the opportunity with shows at Museum of Brisbane and GOMA to improvise a bit more, which has given my orchestra friends space to create and compose in the moment. That’s made me really happy to see. 

Any person can welcome you into a room and simply say the words “this is a safe space”, but it takes intentionally creating a culture and effort in keeping it alive — and I’m really grateful for this little space and community called Obscure Orchestra that we’ve carved out for ourselves.

In an ABC Radio Brisbane interview you said that the goal of diversity isn't to separate people and that it’s really about finding common ground, while celebrating our differences. What do you believe music’s role in that can be now? 

I think music and the arts in general have a crucial, very tangible function in how we relate to each other. There are important conversations about identity and equity for example, that people might not seek out – people may not go out of their way to learn about nuances of another culture or educate themselves about ableism and read a 10 minute article, but they will seek out entertainment. Entertainment is something that shapes culture, characters and artists that people use as exemplars for themselves, media that allows someone to feel represented. 

So, besides just feeling really good and soundtracking our lives, music has a function to help us express those core overlapping human experiences we all have, even if it’s silly stuff like eating chips or funny bad dates, and also dig a bit deeper into the nuances and differences that make people unique, and show those differences as something beautiful and worthwhile, rather than scary, off-putting and ‘not for me’.

What are you hoping to see from MHOO in the near and far future? 

I’m a slow life, take my time, kind of person. I don’t like to force anything to happen too quickly, too hungrily. Though, once I have an idea I’m really excited about, I’m all in, and carefully craft it in my corner at my own pace until it’s done. That’s the way I write songs, and the way I put the orchestra together. 

So, my long term hopes are to keep this family of musicians together, safe and happy and fulfilled, and have some short bursts of big activity. I’d love to do some travelling as an ensemble, try writing and recording music collectively, rather than solo-braining it as I mostly have been.

I’d also love to compose the soundtrack to a film! Something that matches the spirit of this project, something like a Studio Ghibli film would be a dreeeeam.

Is there anything you are working on at the moment that we should keep an eye out for?

Yes! We’ll just have done a live soundtrack at GOMA Cinémathèque when this comes out, but next up, I’m composing the music for La Boite Theatre’s next main stage show The Poison of Polygamy, it’s a page-to-stage adaptation of Wong Shee Ping’s trailblazing novella that traverses the opium dens of 19th Century China to goldfields of colonial Australia. I get to dig into vintage Asian and Australian themes and motifs, and unpack some of my own dual history through the process.

One of the gem moments I’m also looking forward to is the orchestra reuniting with First Nations artist Sachém to mount an absolutely epic concert called The Bigger Picture at QPAC. That’s going to be a spectacular night of BIPOC excellence, hip hop, Indigenous theatre and dance. I can’t wait.

I’m also working on new Obscure Orchestra music, with an eye to a second album!

Matt_Hsu_Lune_BlanketMatt wrapped in the Lune blanket 

How do you use your Seljak blankets? 

Freya already had a Dune blanket and she loves using it on the couch and taking it to cinemas! She’ll throw it over Nacho and have a laugh at how much he looks like an Irish maven looking solemnly over a cliff face at the roaring ocean. 

I think the Lune will wander around the house being very flexible! As a curtain for the studio, on a lap in winter, for picnics, and little chair forts!

Nacho_Lune_blanketNacho snuggled up in the Lune blanket

Follow Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra on Instagram to stay updated with all their upcoming events and stream their music on Spotify!

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