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Basement Medicine

The student-run community news site of Vermont State University - Johnson

Basement Medicine

The student-run community news site of Vermont State University - Johnson

Basement Medicine

Johnson’s own rock guy

Heike Chaney
Greg Matses has been teaching the Funk Fusion ensemble on campus since around 2010.

Greg Matses, part-time music professor at the Johnson-VTSU campus, has been working here for over 22 years. His first professional gigs were in Massachusetts over 50 years ago, where he grew up. He’s currently one of the few remaining faculty members working in the Music department. If you are at all musically inclined, funk fusion is open for registration for the fall semester.
“We would love to have you here! We are still making music.” – Greg

What’s funk fusion?
That’s a really good question, actually, because we’ve used that name for a long time. And it’s almost not accurate to what we do now. The ensemble predates me. It probably started in the 90s, as a performance vehicle for more contemporary music for music majors. Instead of playing traditional jazz, they can play more things like Stevie Wonder, James Brown, stuff that had a dance beat that was funkier and more contemporary. And 10-12 years ago, I opened it up more into the rock idiom. We would do things like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Led Zeppelin, things that people were relating to a little bit more. As the department evolved, I started getting a lot more vocalists because the music/instrumental majors were waning, so I turned it more into doing a lot of pop music, soul, Motown, but there’s still a groove and a funk to it. Now we’re doing Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel, which goes back to the 1980s. There’s still an underlying current of funk, but we also have horn players, alto sax, tenor sax, flute, and trumpet this semester. So it’s a vehicle for those instruments to be able to play some fun stuff.

Matses later explains how he teaches the ensemble:
I arrange for the whole band. I usually take one showcase piece, and I’ll chart it all out every semester. I wrote the arrangements for the flute, two saxophones, a trumpet, keyboard part, the drum part, bass score, all of that gets written out. The great thing about this ensemble, to me, is that it is a space to explore. There are several students over the past two semesters that didn’t play bass or drums that are now trying it. There are singers that are like, “Oh, I’d really like to try drums,” so I’ve been getting them to sit at the drum set and giving them a simple beat, and watching that progress take place over the course of a semester or two. It can be a little stressful at first because it doesn’t sound great, but it’s more about the process than the end result in many ways. But the end result is usually pretty good, because people are enjoying the process and learning something, and it’s motivation to practice.
And I think that’s a big part of the appeal.
I want people to step out of their comfort zone in a space where they don’t feel like they’re going to be judged. It’s okay to make mistakes in here, and it’s okay to push yourself in areas where you might not be comfortable. But the flip side, I’m very honest. I’m nice. But if something’s not working after a little bit, I’m like, “Look, I appreciate you doing this or trying this, but we need to switch things up or simplify your part, or get another auxiliary person to help you make this part work.” I don’t dictate necessarily, I facilitate. At the end of the day, I’ve got to make the call because we have one semester to learn five or six tunes and present them to an audience.

How many classes do you currently teach, what are those?
Really, it’s just the Funk Fusion ensemble right now. I haven’t taught “Jazz in America” in probably three semesters, same with “Social History of Rock and Roll,” just because the numbers aren’t there. They’re fun classes. When I first taught “Jazz in America,” it was probably around 2018-2019, and I had 27 people. The last time I taught it, I think I had four or five. The numbers came down a lot in that short period of time.

I’m sure you have thoughts about what’s going on with Dibden?
Yeah, the writing was on the wall 10 years ago. I think some people realized it and some people were in denial about it, I’m sure.
There are big cultural shifts happening in education, so there are many layers to this. To me, it’s just sad. I’m not angry. I think some people, like students, are rightfully angry. But I’m appreciative that I got to do this for this long. It’s been a lot of fun. I enjoy teaching music, but I wish it was gonna last longer. When I first started, I thought: “Oh, this will be my last gig. I’ll leave on my own terms.” But now, at some point, I think I’ll get a nice little push out the door. But I hope we can keep it going for a few more semesters.

What instruments do you play?
My main instrument is guitar. I play bass on a tune. I won’t call myself a drummer, but if I had to play a drum beat, I could do it through a tune. I’m not a great keyboard player, though I can show people stuff they have to play.

Do you play in any bands or stuff like that?
Not really right now. I was doing my own trio before COVID, and then that kicked in, and everything got cancelled. I tried to put a gig together the next summer, but the same thing happened – booked gigs, and everything got shut down again. I was just very frustrated.
So in the interim, I’ve been working on a solo thing, but I haven’t brought it up yet, which is partly because I’ve been really busy teaching, which is good.
The flip side of that, it is a little stressful not knowing what’s ahead, and the last few years have been that way. I don’t know if I will have enough people in the fall to run this course. But again, I’ve got my fingers crossed because I like doing it and I think the people here like doing it. But people are graduating, and we have no performance arts majors coming in, and there’s not a lot of people outside the people that come to this building that are interested in doing that.

That’s kind of a shame. Why do you think that is?
I think part of it, there’s some real big cultural undercurrents that have been moving over the last decade plus. There’s less interest with the K-12 students getting involved in music as well, as those numbers are down. There are less kids interested in playing concert band in high school. And even contemporary rock band in high school, there are students, like there are numbers, but there’s just not as many.
Not to sound old, but I am, but when I was growing up, you had two choices for extracurricular activities. You played sports, or you did band. There were other small clubs, but those were the two main ones, and sometimes you did both. But now there’s a lot of pull towards other things, like the internet and people getting sucked into their cell phones. There’s just another world outside the one we occupy spatially, that people are intrigued by, and for good reason. But I would love to see some balance come back. [The Internet’s] not going to go away, there are too many positives, but there are a lot of negatives. And part of that is we lose these other enriching activities, because we’ve lost balance.
These are all things that any educator, administrator thinks about or talks about. And I’m no expert, I can only comment anecdotally on what I see. I haven’t seen any studies or run numbers, but any astute observer will look at this, and go, “Yeah, there’s just things that have shifted.” I would just love to see more people get involved at an earlier age with music.

What is your favorite band and your least favorite band? From like, 20 years ago, compared to now?
I can’t ever [choose who] my favorite band is, because I grew up with certain bands that I just loved. The band that I idolized, when I was growing up in the 1970s was Led Zeppelin. They just seemed mystical to me. Then there are newer bands like The Mars Volta, which has vibes of that [older] era to me, but they have a more progressive element of that sound. I’m a rock guy, deep down. I studied jazz, I play classical music, but I’m a rock guy. That’s what I’m going to gravitate towards.
I’m not into a ton of electronic augmentation. Some I’m okay with, like Pink Floyd, and they used a lot of synthesizers in the 70s. And some of the newer bands like Radiohead or The Mars Volta I really like.
The bands that I dislike … that could be even tougher of an answer. Growing up, I hated disco. So, what’s funny is that the ensemble did a Bee Gees tune last semester, which is a classic disco hit. And I laughed when someone suggested it because I hated this band. But I always try to appreciate some element of whatever it is I’m listening to. It’s hard for me to say that there are certain bands that I really hate. I try to stay open-minded. But growing up, disco was a tough sell. But I’ve learned to grow, and even embraced it in this ensemble a couple of times.

So I’m going to probably guess that your favorite genre is rock?

Do you have a least favorite genre?
Okay, so I won’t go back to disco. But yes, I do. It’s opera.

Really? Okay, why opera?
There’s just something about the way that it emotes that is inauthentic to me. And I love classical music. I mean, last week, I went to St. Mike’s to see an orchestral performance, and it was tremendous. I love going to see classical music because I love the sounds. I can’t really do it, but it’s very intriguing to me. But if you start to add that overly emoting vocal style, like opera, I can’t do it. So if opera comes on the radio, I just like – and not even think about it – switch the station.

Okay, um, I guess one last question would be… do you… oh Gosh, I’m trying to think –
Do I yell at my students?

Yes! I constantly yell at them and humiliate them in public.

Bystander: Very funny, Greg.


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About the Contributors
Sage As8bakw Selec
Sage As8bakw Selec, Staff Writer, Art Director
Sage "As8bakw" Selec (they/them) is an Indigenous and Bosnian artist and writer. They pride themselves on being critically honest and being passionate about their endeavors. They are currently living in Vermont, have a cat named Jiji, and enjoying being broke.
Heike Chaney
Heike Chaney, Staff Writer, Arts & Entertainment Editor
Transfer Student, Interdisciplinary Studies (Theatre & Communications) Based in Hartford, VT Fall 2023-Present SLAP Coordinator & DANCELAND Club Member I can do a shockingly good Judy Garland impression, and I have been in over 22 Theatre productions since the sixth grade! ;) Favorite Roles: Adela Van Norman (THE IT GIRL); Martha Cratchitt (A CHRISTMAS CAROL); Chutney Wyndham (LEGALLY BLONDE).

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    Greg LoebenApr 11, 2024 at 2:25 pm

    The world needs more educators like this guy! What a thoughtful and fun interview.