Classical compositions and contemporary connections: An interview with the Matrix Duo

In the clamour of downtown Vancouver and the hectic scurry of a film crew on July 28, a soothing classical performance by two UBC music students juxtaposed the rush. Third-year pianist Mina McKenzie and violinist Jack Campbell perform together as the Matrix Duo. They played a public concert at Robson Square as part of UBC Connects, an initiative to break down the barriers between the university and the wider city.

McKenzie has received first place and top prizes in numerous competitions and festivals. Currently, she is pursuing her Bachelors in piano performance at UBC. Meanwhile, Campbell is involved with the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and UBC Connects. He’s won an award at the UBC School of Music, and is working towards a degree in advanced violin performance

The Ubyssey spoke to the Matrix Duo about their musical careers, inspirations and connections to each other.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Gloria: How was today's performance?

McKenzie: It's interesting to play in different venues. Normally, I would play on a stage, but then this one was in more of an intimate atmosphere. I used to volunteer at a senior recreational centre. People would be on couches and just enjoy the music. This really reminded me of that. It's always kind of nice to play in different types of atmospheres because the state is very different; When playing on stage, you feel physically detached from the audience. But this kind of atmosphere is so nice because I feel like we're all in the same space, enjoying music together at the same time.

G: Your musical summaries are very impressive! Yet, throughout one’s career, there's not always going to be these extravagant successes...What was a time when you felt stuck or that maybe music isn't for you?

Campbell: There's never a day where I pick up the violin where at some point I don't feel stuck. The happiest I have ever been was in relation to music; the most unsatisfied I've been was in relation to music. Every time I pick up that pen and write a note, I have to think about relevance, zeitgeist, history, meaning, connection, individuality ... and it's paralyzing. But the thing that keeps you going is that love.

M: During the COVID-19 pandemic, when everything ... stopped, a lot of my competitions got cancelled. During high school, I was very much always on the go, almost on autopilot. COVID-19 gave me a lot of time to reflect on things. Without having a live audience, I started to feel more discouraged, because what brought me into music was performing. Something that felt second nature was suddenly ... alien to me. I think that time really showed me that avoiding this fear around music is not the solution. Even if it feels uncomfortable in the moment, I really need to go for it and try to overcome those fears.

G: What makes performing personal for you?

M: I would say conveying a message, even though I play wordless classical music. What I found really fascinating is that I can convey so much with just sounds. I always use this analogy or metaphor: if I have words, I feel like I'm honing into one object, but I feel like when I'm playing, it's like this whole soundscape. It's like I'm painting a world. And that was what I really liked about performing. It felt like I had a message. And I had someone to say it to.

“Music holds us together, it provides a soundtrack to our lives, it provides a foundation for our memories, and provides a method with which to connect the utmost depths of our soul.”

— Jack Campbell

G: So how did you both meet and decide you wanted to collaborate together?

C: It's a really good tale. We went to university [during] COVID-19, right? We are the COVID-19 first-year generation and nobody had a clue what was happening. When you are a young musician who is hoping for success, you always have a dream that you will find a similar creator, like what I was talking about earlier, somebody you can bounce things off, somebody you can perform with, somebody you can rehearse with.

My first introduction to Mina was just in the first week of school when she followed me on Instagram. We ended up in a Zoom breakout room in our history class. And we were with another man, who we'd be absolutely sinful not to discuss right now. And that is Mr. Daniel Ketter, who is the best clarinetist I've ever heard in my life.

Now you must understand that the clarinet is not something that inherently is meant to sound good … God put the clarinet on Earth to give life more joy! But Daniel Ketter turns it into an instrument of the most tremendous beauty and allure. And apart from that he is the most phenomenal man. [So] we ended up in this history Zoom room together. And it was one of those moments where you can kind of sense ... a collective consciousness that was unspoken, where you can tell that all three of us are going, "Oh, my God. We met other young musicians we like! This is really fun!"

And then Daniel goes, "I just got here from New Jersey. Do you guys want to play something together,"and then Mina turns on her microphone, which is rare. And Mina goes, "Yes, I’d really like that." And then I pulled up Google and I'm like "violin, clarinet, piano." Turns out, there's a lot of repertoire going for it. We chose a piece. Daniel said, we'll meet at school in a week.

M: We'd never met before! It really was a random opportunity.

C: We walked into that rehearsal room. And the moment we started talking, I could tell something ... clicked instantly. And that turned into a very long rehearsal, which turned into getting food, and then a hike to the beach and then we realized we were going to form a trio. This has led to multiple rehearsals to tremendous friendships for me, and Mina composing us pieces. She featured us at her recital ... outside of school.

Mina is the musical partner which I found I have the most in common artistically. It started with, in one week, Mina saying to me, since we both have this interest in pop music, that we need to start writing songs together. And I said to Mina, since you're my favourite piano player, I need to start playing Beethoven sonatas with you. The rest is history.

G: What do you bring out in each other?

C: Mina makes me good! Apart from being one of my favourite humans alive, there are two things that I take from playing with her. One is, she has the best phrasing. You've just heard her concert! The emotional journeys are incredible.

M: I really admire not just how Jack plays, but also him as a person. I'm going to get sentimental now. His presence and company is something I've never had before. Before, I was primarily experiencing competitions and solo performances. He talks very eloquently and it's so nice, because when you're a soloist, a lot of your thoughts about music are kept to yourself. With him, I can bounce off ideas. For example after performances, we discuss how we felt about different parts and things like that. Playing with him has given me a new appreciation for music.