Go back in time with Turner Matthews' 'Memory Traveler'

Joel Oliphint
Turner Matthews

When Athens native Turner Matthews was a composition major at Ohio University, he initially struggled to find his own sound — something that was uniquely him. Then he realized he could create brand new sounds, quite literally, by making his own instruments.

“I grew up building things with my dad. He’s an architect, and he would always be like, ‘Let's build an addition on to this house,’ and I would help him,” said Matthews, a multi-instrumentalist with an emphasis on percussion. “Modern percussion pieces require these found objects, or cutting a pipe to be a specific pitch, and I was like, ‘I'm going to take this idea and explode it out, because I know how to make things.’”

Matthews made a mallet instrument, the bell plate marimba, out of 4-inch-wide pieces of welding steel cut to different lengths and arranged like a traditional xylophone. “It’s very heavy, probably 200 to 250 pounds, and you have to disassemble it,” he said.

While the bell plate marimba is a riff on an already-existing idea, the Turner Winch is its own thing. More accurately a series of three instruments, the Turner Winch features piano strings of various lengths tightened over a board and amplified using a guitar or bass pickup. When Matthews hits the strings, he can change the pitch by cranking a boat winch up or down.

“You can get this big glissando up and down,” Matthews said. “They're really dramatic, but they're also really percussive, and you can tune them to specific notes and incorporate them. They're good for making these abstract textures, but they also can fit in and play the roles of more traditional instruments like a bass guitar.”

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Both the bell plate marimba and the Turner Winch appear on Matthews’ recently released debut album, Memory Traveler, which begins with a dense, instrumental descent that settles into a minor chord on first track “Welcome, Traveler.”

About half of the album's songs feature modified melodic ideas from pieces Matthews wrote during a recent residency with the Fuse Factory — a local art and technology initiative that proved to be a saving grace for Matthews during a difficult time.

“It was a little rough when I first moved here, because I was super broke and working two jobs,” said Matthews, who came to Columbus from New Jersey in the summer of 2017, after getting a master’s degree in music composition from Rutgers University. “I decided to find an outlet where I could perform and write regularly, so I reached out to a bunch of places all over Columbus.”

Matthews eventually linked up with Fuse Factory and began a series of performances at Clintonville venue It Looks Like It’s Open as Fuse’s artist in residence. The concerts would typically feature Matthews, a guest artist and then a collaboration between Matthews and the visiting musician. “I’ve always been a performer,” Matthews said. “I’m a composer, but my identity is tied to performing.”

The collaborations and performances were a creative boost for Matthews, and the rewarding experiences also helped to fuel some of the ideas on Memory Traveler, which transforms ambient pieces into more traditional song structures. Matthews wrote, performed and recorded the album himself, and, as the title suggests, he thought about the record as a way to revisit moments from the past.

“The songs transport you to a specific moment in time,” he said. “But it doesn't even have to be travel through time. It can emotionally transport you somewhere. That first track off the album, ‘Welcome, Traveler,’ is telling the listener, ‘These are your memories,’ because I wanted to keep the lyrics not ultra-specific so that people could transport my own memories and make them their own.”

The lyrical aspect of the songs proved to be the most challenging for Matthews, who had trouble committing to the typed words and then sharing them with the world. On “Body Back,” for instance, Matthews recounts harrowing moments during sleepless nights, singing, “There is much that calls before the coming of the dawn/Thoughts of natural causes sanction my bathroom walls.”

“I would wake up in the middle of the night … and immediately be like, ‘Oh, my God. I'm going to die one day,’ and just be completely terrified. And I’m in this half-sleep state, where your emotions are even more heightened,” he said. “But by writing it down, it helps make it more tangible. It makes you own it a little more. And it doesn't make it as scary.”