Usually, improvisation brings to mind bluesy saxophone solos or long guitar riffs. But Matthew Cardinal pushes boundaries and brings the same level of experimentation to his solo work, especially in his debut album, Asterisms
Cardinal’s music checks a lot of boxes, and even he has a hard time categorizing his style. He says that broadly speaking, his musical style is ambient electronic music. The mood is what’s easiest to nail down: Cardinal’s music almost always has a dreamlike and vague quality to it, something that’s easy to zone out to, he says good-naturedly.
This mood is especially evident in his debut album, Asterisms, which has been more than three years in the making. “It was mostly unintentional,” explains Cardinal. “I wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to make a song.’ It was just sitting down to play, plugging in a synthesizer, playing around and finding something that I liked, and recording it. So it comes from a lot of experimentation.”
The album, which includes songs like “Dec 31,” “May 25,” and “July 23,” makes use of quieter minimalist pieces that swell into full-fledged synthesizer compositions. “You can really sculpt and shape and do many things that are unintentional (with a synthesizer),” says Cardinal. “It gives you unexpected results.”
Asterisms also acts as a kind of audio journal.
“I was making these recordings and saving them as the date,” says Cardinal. “And I realized I was making a kind of audio journal and so I just kind of kept doing that. And once I had enough that I felt worked together, it felt cohesive, it belonged together, I made the album.”
Cardinal is most comfortable playing guitar, but he’ll pick up other instruments as needed, whether that’s keyboards, trumpet, or random percussion instruments here and there. Asterisms features a decent amount of guitar, but Cardinal says, “I’ll usually play with a lot of pedals, and I really process the sound and maybe make it sound not so much like a guitar.”
Visuals are also an important part of Cardinal’s music and his performances. Over the summer, Cardinal played shows with visual artist Stephanie Kuse, who created visuals inspired by Cardinal’s photography as an accompaniment to Asterisms. “It can make it more of a show, be a bit more engaging,” he notes.
Although Cardinal appreciates the control that comes with being a solo artist, he also loves playing music with others. He’s a member of Edmonton-based bands, including nêhiyawak, Slow Girl Walking, and Cantoo.
“It’s nice playing with other people and being able to be inspired by each other and bounce ideas off of each other, and just being like, ‘Hey, play this,’ instead of having to record (something) and play over it and sequence a drum pattern…. You can move a lot more organically when there are other people.”
Cardinal has also created the scores for documentaries like Heather Hatch’s Wochiigii lo: End of the Peace and Cassie De Colling’s Precious Leader Woman. He also created a score for one of Cole Paul’s animations.
“Sometimes people will tell me the mood they want, and I’ll just create some pieces for them and they’ll fit it to the video, or sometimes they’ll send me the picture, the scene they need the music for…, and I will just go off of the visuals and kind of be inspired by that,” says Cardinal. “It feels like it’s different for every project I work on… but I like working to picture; I really love scoring and making music for things.”
As an Indigenous musician, Cardinal says that it can be weird being in the Edmonton music scene. “There’s not many of us,” he says. “Many of the Indigenous musicians are playing rock music or folk music and I’m kind of on the fringe and I’m playing a lot of weird shows, experimental music programs that are filled with a lot of classical music and new music people, and it’s different. But I am seeing more Indigenous composers in those spaces.”
Currently, Cardinal is working on a second album, getting a band together, and continuing with various scoring projects. Check out his album, Asterisms, on Bandcamp or Spotify.