Intimate Distance by Matthew Svec

Matt Svec (‘23) a music and biology major at UNC, is one of the recipients of Arts Everywhere’s 2020-2021 Student Arts Innovation Grant. His project, Intimate Distance, celebrates the inherently collaborative nature of music and incorporates distance and isolation as integral components of musical performance through the retelling of the myth of Orpheus. Read more below to learn about Svec, his project, and how he and his team of musicians brought this myth to life.

Polka bands, 300-piece clarinet choir, and the Bayreuth Festival

Svec began his music studies as a young kid, taking piano lessons from his aunt before starting clarinet in middle school band, confessing that he’s “been in love with wind playing ever since.”

And since those early days in the middle school band, he already has had quite a number of memorable experiences as a musician. He reminisced on one favorite musical experience that happened the summer before college: “I played in a 300-piece clarinet choir at a conference in Knoxville, Tennessee. Every instrument in the clarinet family was represented, from contrabass to piccolo clarinet. It was like I was inside an organ. It was an out-of-body experience.”

a man sitting on a chair, holding a clarinet
Matthew Svec

In addition to his music studies, Svec is pursuing a biology degree here at UNC. With so many possibilities, he’s not sure what his future will look like yet. “I’d love to end up playing professionally and teaching on the side, but I’m also considering paths in healthcare or global health,” Svec mused. 

No matter what is to come in the future, one thing is for certain: music has been a vehicle for him to get involved with a wide variety of different experiences, from traditional polka bands in Munich to early music ensembles right here at UNC. And who knows what experience is in store for him next. However, there is one thing on his bucket list that he is eager to cross off: to watch the entire Ring Cycle in one weekend at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany which for Svec, would be a “religious experience.”

Intimate Distance – A unique spin on a musical warhorse of Greek mythology

As a music major and Kenan scholar at UNC’s Department of Music, Svec not only participates in the music ensembles offered through the department, but he creates musical opportunities for himself and his peers. 

The idea for Intimate Distance began by way of conversations with fellow student Julia Holoman (‘23), the mezzo-soprano on this project. The pair then chose to incorporate a string quartet as that would allow the ensemble to have some mobility. Svec explained, “It’d be much harder to have a pianist or harpist on the project when the players must walk through the performance space!” After deciding what sound they were looking for, Svec and Holoman assembled their team of musicians and composers, many of whom are colleagues from various performances or classes.

Svec and Holoman

Telling the story of Orpheus was an obvious choice for Svec because Orpheus is known as a legendary musician in Greek mythology. In fact, many renditions have interpreted the story as a symbol of the power and strength of music. In addition to the symbolism behind this myth, Svec felt that the subject matter was very apropos to today’s world: “this story from antiquity confronts feelings of isolation, loneliness, and distance, yet it is still relevant to the pandemic today.” He says that this rendition of the celebrated myth puts a “modern and unique spin on a musical warhorse of Greek mythology.”

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot 1861

Because the myth takes place in both the living world and the Underworld, the team behind Intimate Distance wanted to represent that dichotomy through the space in which they performed. The Hill Hall rotunda offered them the perfect stage for their story, with the first floor representing the Underworld and the second floor representing the living world. Svec explains, “Parts of the performance will feature all musicians on the second floor, the living world, while all characters are still alive. Later in the story, when Eurydice dies and is eventually damned to the Underworld, our singer will be by herself in the first floor while the rest of the musicians accompany her from the living world.”

a girl laying on a round carpet. image taken from above
Holoman, as Eurydice, on the first floor of the Rotunda, the Underworld.

Creating a performance in this space did not come without its difficulties. Svec made note that “the rotunda is a very live space. Combined with the unusual spacing our ensemble is using, it can be difficult to hear everyone’s parts and maintain rhythm while dealing with the reverberations of the room.” However, the very same challenge of the room’s reverberations also added positively to the music as the resonance of the space helped create a more eerie and atmospheric quality to the music.

Putting on a production like this does require resources, and Svec is thankful that the Arts Everywhere Student Arts Innovation Grant allowed him to “commission three composers at UNC to write completely new music, support the performers for their time and effort in rehearsal and performance, and purchase props (and costumes!) that we’ll use for the live performance.” Undertaking this project has been a unique and informative experience for Svec, who believes it would have been “impossible without Arts Everywhere’s support.”

A lasting impact

Svec hopes the unique setting of this performance will have a lasting impact on the audience. He wants listeners to “gain a new idea of how music ought to be performed and consumed.” Svec believes that “music in a specific space and time can mean a lot more than can be conveyed on a concert stage with a clear line between audience and listener.”

With an age-old story that confronts feelings of isolation, loneliness, and distance performance, Svec hopes that this performance will leave the audience “with a better knowledge of what it means to have lived through a pandemic and the physical and emotional damage it entails.” Furthermore, he hopes that audience members will see the same stresses and anxieties experienced in our own lives through performance” and that it can help “heal and deepen the understanding of our own emotions.”

Intimate Distance premieres on November 19th at 12 pm in the Hill Hall rotunda as part of Arts Everywhere and the Department of Music’s First Fridays concert series. View more program information.

To help prepare for the performance, check out Carolina Performing Arts’ Compose Carolina episode with Matt Svec, Julia Holoman and Alex McKeveny, David Green, and James Larkins as they discuss how they created a new telling of the classic story.