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Davis, California

Thursday, July 18, 2024

Couch Concert: Platonic Duets for Lovers

Best friends sing love songs to each other

Emma Ryan, a third-year political science major, and Matthew Gilbert, a third-year musicology major at UCLA, are best friends. And it’s quite obvious. They tell the story of how they met with clear fondness, not afraid of banter while describing its possibly embarrassing elements.

“You can tell the story, but I will simply correct you,” Gilbert said.

“You can correct me, but you’re going to correct me incorrectly,” Ryan said.

“I knew of Matt back in sixth grade, but he didn’t know me then — our best friends grinded together at a Catholic sixth grade dance,” Ryan said. “I had seen him before because he was tall, had a mop of hair and was awkward. But so was I.”

Eventually, the two sat next to each other in homeroom their freshman year of high school in Oceanside, California. While Gilbert asked Ryan to be his girlfriend on multiple occasions — Ryan said no each time — a solid friendship emerged as a result. They bonded over friends moving away, hating the same people and empathizing with the annoyances of high school dating.

“I have so much that I like about Matt. I adore Matt,” Ryan said. “I talk about him a lot. He’s so intelligent, creative and really funny. He’s been around so long that he really gets me, and he’s one of the only people that can make me feel genuinely understood and appreciated.”

Gilbert has similar words of admiration to say about Ryan.

“She’s very earnest,” Gilbert said. “She is very honest with herself, what she wants with herself and the world. She works really hard to be that person that she wants to be. People are not perfect, and Emma is no exception to that, but she works really hard to transform herself. She’s really aspirational to be the person she wants to be.”

While also in high school, Gilbert began the early stages of his musical career. During his junior year, Gilbert got in the habit of songwriting, writing music that he was “proud of and [he] thought represented [himself].” Of course, Ryan had to be included in Gilbert’s emerging passion.

“Matt and I went to Guitar Center my junior year, and on a sporadic decision, he bullied me into buying a ukulele,” Ryan said. “I didn’t learn to play it for a year. I don’t even want to claim I know how to play it now.”

While Ryan does not hold the same passion for music in comparison to Gilbert, who claims he will be singing and making music for the rest of his life, she participates in Gilbert’s music creations as method of introspection and an embodiment of their friendship.

“I want to preface that I don’t think I’m a good musician or a good singer, but I do it because it’s fun to push myself out of my comfort zones,” Ryan said. “Singing with Matt and in general is so terrifying to me, but the gratification in being uncomfortable makes me proud. It’s not about me expressing my creativity, but doing something that makes me proud to be me.”

Despite the different motivations to perform, the best friends began singing together their senior year in a school talent show. Last year, the two released a four-song ukulele EP titled “Platonic Duets for Lovers” in their sophomore years of college as part of Gilbert’s music project titled “Social Art Project.”

“The idea of the project was to remove myself from my music, not calling my music ‘by Matthew Gilbert,’” Gilbert said. “I don’t want to know the one associated with these songs. I want to the songs to be the purpose, and I want my friends and the people the songs are about to be the purpose. The name itself removes me, the male singer and songwriter living through the glory of everyone knowing their name. And it is ironic that is really is a social art project, where people are involved in the making of the art.”

The concept of the project is simple in theory, complex in practice: capture the essence of Gilbert’s friends, loved ones and things he cares about in a song. Whether the lyrics pertain to the person who the song is written about or said person participates in the recording process, Social Art Project celebrates who and what Gilbert loves.

“I write songs to one person, and that song can only be addressed to them,” Gilbert said.  “I’m trying to preserve that person. I think what gets lost in history is the common person. I want to give that person a name and identity in a song. I want to work with them and record them. Emma’s voice is always going to preserved, maybe not in 400 years when we don’t use MP3s anymore, but it will last longer than her life. There is a song written about her, for her and it’s her voice. Part of it is love. Right now I’m working on this project where I’m cataloging this guy’s old collection of recordings. A lot of is worthless trash that he recorded one day, like a TV. commercial that he found funny. But he found it important. Who is to decide who is talented and who is important?”

It begs the question then if Gilbert is writing love songs, or redefining the musical tropes that are common in love songs.

“You could sing about the ‘touch of her hair’ and use it for everyone,” Gilbert said. “I don’t think my songs are only love songs, but I only want to write about the people I love and care about. Sometimes I want to challenge them. I want them to feel like I love them, but I also want them to think of something different I think they are love songs, but maybe that’s a little too romantic.”

To prove this point, Ryan mentioned songs separate from that album that Gilbert wrote for her in high school with the first line reading, “Emma doesn’t wear a bra sometimes, Emma gets what she wants.”

“It cracked me up,” Ryan said. “It was love and it was challenging because the rest of the song made me think about my relationships with men. It made me feel recognized because I can get kinda simpy, and Matt reminded me through the song that I shouldn’t let people treat me in a bad way.”

As the first recordings on Spotify for “Social Art Project,” “Platonic Duets for Lovers” follows the same music ideology. Gilbert wrote the songs to capture his friendship with Ryan as well as their platonic love for each other.

“It wasn’t a project that I started, but it eventually formalized,” Gilbert said. “They are duets and they are love songs and they are for lovers, but me and Emma are very much platonic. But the overall idea and feeling that I love and appreciate Emma can carry through. I’m writing to Emma, but I think a lot of these themes are universal.”

The first song “Intro” is a back-and-forth between Ryan and Gilbert. Gilbert asks Ryan to sing a song with him, telling her “the words are on the table, it’s a very simple melody.”

“I wanted to introduce the idea of platonic songs for lovers to people, what they are supposed to listen for,” Gilbert said. “It was a fun, cute idea of saying ‘hey, sing a song with me,’ and literally the lyrics were right in front of us because Emma didn’t know the words.”

“Cute Song #1” role plays between Ryan and Gilbert as the lyrics describe them taking a road trip through California and eventually settling down in San Diego together. Intimate memories can be made and genuine love can be expressed without romanticism.

“Are you trying to foreshadow something, Matt?” asked Ryan.

“Yeah, you wish,” said Gilbert.

The next cute song, named “Cute Song #2,” plays with the idea of doing anything for the people we love in a simultaneous sentimental and tongue-and-cheek way. Followed by innuendos only Gilbert and Ryan know the full meaning of, the song begins with the lyrics “this song is for Jodie Foster, I would shoot the President for you.”

“There was a guy who tried to kill Ronald Reagan, and then he went to jail and started writing all these letters to Jodie Foster telling her that he loved her and tried to kill the president for her,” Gilbert said. “So that’s where it started — I would do anything for you. I am writing from the perspective of someone who is crazy, but you would literally do anything for the people we love.”

The EP ends with the song “Wash” performed solely by Ryan. With the most abstract lyrics of the EP, Gilbert wanted to write Ryan an empowerment song for her to reflect on when she needs it most.

“I wanted Emma specifically to sing it,” Gilbert said. “It’s a song about feeling like you don’t have to feel tied to a person or tied to what the world thinks of you. You can let it wash over you like the tide and you can still be standing there. I wanted Emma to have something to sing if she feels powerless.”

“Platonic Duets for Lovers” is rooted in a real friendship and gives the listener an insight into that friendship. Despite its ability to speak to the various humans and things people love, it is simply a manifestation of Ryan and Gilbert as a unit and their love for each other.

“In all my times singing with Matt, there is a fond memory attached to Matt,” Ryan said. “As long as Matt is in contact with me, we will continue to record more songs. Music isn’t my career or primary passion, but it is something I love as a shared experience. It is one of my favorite things to do with Matt.”

“Platonic Duets for Lovers” will be performed in an upcoming Couch Concert for The California Aggie.

Written By: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org


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