At home with Matthew Laing

First published in CutCommon. With thanks to CutCommon and Dr Emma Sullivan
For most freelance musicians, there are few things more important than being busy. A full diary translates to peace of mind. There are few guarantees about work in the long term, so we seize every opportunity (often spreading ourselves a little thin in the process).
The Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, of which I have the privilege of being the principal double bass player, is an orchestra of freelance musicians. We love nothing more than coming together for rehearsals, concerts, tours, and education programs. And when we aren’t working together, our members are out in the wider music community teaching, playing chamber music, and working with other fantastic orchestras in Melbourne and beyond.
When the restrictions for large gatherings were introduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our busy lives changed in an instant.
For me personally, I was cancelled for four work engagements within 10 minutes of the initial announcement. And the cancellations kept coming.
Soon, we were facing the reality that our lives probably would not be busy for quite some time. And while there is nothing more important than the health and wellbeing of our society at large, it has still been a difficult adjustment to make.
But the best way to overcome adversity is to look for the new opportunities it presents – and that is what everyone at Melbourne Chamber Orchestra is trying to do. For me, it has been an opportunity to explore new technology options so I can continue teaching my wonderful double bass students remotely. I am so inspired by their dedication and passion for music during these challenging times.
I now have unlimited time to practice and learn new repertoire, to read, and to watch the full six episodes of Pride and Prejudice. (Normally, I only have time to skip to episode four where Darcy jumps in the lake.) I am even trying to improve my cooking skills – although an entire year in isolation may not be enough to cure that deficiency!
But I also took this time to catch up with some of my MCO colleagues to ask them how they have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how they are planning to use their newly imposed downtime. From gardening and learning a language, to the obvious practice opportunity, they are all finding positive ways to embrace this time at home – and they might give you some inspiration to do the same!

At home with Matthew Laing, viola

In early March, I was in Avignon in the south of France, in what I guess you’d now call a form of voluntary isolation.
As well as being a violist with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, I’m also a composer – and when isolation is self-imposed, the solitude is a golden creative environment. It’s also very mobile, so what better place to impose that solitude on yourself than in the south of France?
I was working on one of the five pieces I am (now theoretically) to have premiered in Melbourne later this year, and was seeing this year as an opportunity to travel and write on my own timetable and contemplate a future overseas, having been in London in February for the premiere of another work.
But then coronavirus hit, and in 72 hours I went from Avignon, with a vision of the next two years, to Melbourne self-isolating and not knowing what I’d be doing in two weeks. On my way home, I was blocked from even transiting through Singapore, and that was when it really hit me that things were going to change for a long time.
Since then, it’s been quite a confusing path, coming to grips with the loss we’re all experiencing at the moment, and adapting to a reality that sometimes still feels like a parallel universe.
Professionally, I’ve found the hardest aspect of it all is the inability to plan: how do you write something for which there is still a performance date, but you’re pretty sure can’t happen? And if it does happen, how? Will it work online? How do you motivate practice for a concert that probably won’t happen but might?
And then, there’s coming to terms with contextualising your loss of income, work, opportunity, and agency against the daily news. Am I lucky? Should I be sad for the loss or grateful to be here? In the first few months, this was particularly debilitating – being effectively trapped in your house gives you safety and free time, but it’s not a creative space.
As a performer, often the irregular hours and unusual time pressures don’t give you the room to remember why you’re doing this to yourself. But online teaching and live streamed performances have shown how quickly you can adapt when you’re forced to; forming a string quartet or putting on a solo recital feels so much easier than dealing with this!
I’m hopeful this suspension will make artists even more bold and creative in their future plans, and in time we’ll all be the richer for it. By its absence, the real value of live performance across all genres has shown its worth – the assembly, the interaction, the immediacy of shared experience. So I’m looking forward to when we can all return to that as performers and audiences, whether it’s at the Melbourne Recital Centre or the local pub.
For me, the most significant part of adapting has been reaching out to artistic and life mentors, teachers, friends, and supporters, and has led me to taking up residence in Bermagui thanks to the passionate arts community here with whom I have a long standing friendship. They’re taking care of me very well, and I really can’t thank them enough.
Reaching out has been enabling, and not just artistically. It’s provided me support at a difficult moment, and a space to write – but it’s also helped me deal with the changes happening now and engaged me to think about navigating a future beyond this turbulence. It’s also made the success or failure of all the emergency grant applications around at the moment feel less like survival lotto, because there’s something beyond that to aim for.
Bermagui is also a spectacular place to just be, so as restrictions relax locally I’m looking forward to a lot of beach and bush walks, shopping locally, and expanding my shamefully narrow cooking repertoire.
I did more productive work in the first week here than I had in the months since I left France, so I suppose the irony is that, after all this, I have found the creative solitude I sought on my travels right here!