Matthew Aucoin: Risking Generosity
Among the recurring themes of our conversation with composer-pianist-conductor Matthew Aucoin was generosity and risk-taking, something that is in abundance in Aucoin’s own music as well as his personality. Over the course of an hour we talked about his opera Eurydice which was just performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the first commercial recording of his music, his just released new book about opera, The Impossible Art, which was also just released, his desire to develop new musical repertoire that addresses climate change, and much much more.
Although the Metropolitan Opera House gave the first American performances of then new works by Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and other works that are still in their repertoire, an opera by a living composer has been a rarity at the Met for decades. Yet this year, the Met opened its season (after being closed for over a year due to the pandemic) with Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. And currently on stage at the Met is a second recent opera, Eurydice by Matthew Aucoin, who additionally just had his first book published, The Impossible Art, as well as the first commercially released recording of his music, the two CD set Orphic Moments on BMOP/Sound.
Despite this extraordinary amount of activity these past few weeks, the 31-year-old composer-pianist-conductor took some time out of his overextended schedule to have a wide-ranging conversation with me about opera, myth, climate change, poetry, and many other topics. Among the recurring themes during the course of our talk was generosity and risk-taking, something that is in abundance in Matthew’s own music as well as his personality.
“I do think that I tend to risk generosity, even messiness, in my music,” he admitted. “It’s scary. And I don’t always succeed. But I would rather err in this direction.”
Yet despite a child prodigy and now leading a life completely immersed in music making, when he was an undergrad at Harvard, he considered permanently abandoning music and pursuing poetry instead.
“I got really hung up on this idea that music was too good for us and we were better off communicating to each other in language, which really felt to me like the human medium,” he remembered. “So I felt for the first time in my life a little bit distant from music. Then around the time I graduated college, it all rushed back. I really felt like I had to do this, and I felt that for a few reasons. One was that I sensed that if I didn’t dive in and commit myself to music, the musical muscle was at risk of atrophying, because it does take constant practice and upkeep. Whereas, somehow words, maybe it’s because we all use words every day anyway, I had this instinct that maybe that muscle would not atrophy. And it would be okay to leave it be for a few years, and come back to it.”
But of course, words remain extremely crucial to Matthew Aucoin’s creative endeavors, whether he’s setting poetry by Dante or Walt Whitman, writing about his own music or the work of other composers, or using words with music to tell a story in operas for which he has often written his own librettos. The other crucial thing for him is community, which is partially why he so deeply loves opera which is something that can’t exist without a community. It is also a key reason for his co-founding of the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC).
“It’s an attempt to build a better and more agile model for an artist-centric company or collective,” he explained. “There’s no such thing as art that’s for everybody all the time. We’re all dealing with communities. I think that’s going to become clearer and clearer over the course of the 21st century. A big part of what AMOC is doing is we’re trying to build our own community, which is open. Everybody’s welcome. You can all join. But we’re not trying to pretend that it’s literally for everyone. I think that is going to become clearer as the way that we experience art continues to be ironically both more mediated and more kind of listener driven. And I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. If you think of it as the building of communities, it can actually make for a better experience.”
There comes this moment when you either engaged with what the trio in Vienna were up to, or you didn't. And it's curious to me that mainstream opera in America just didn't. It almost seems like a conscious decision.
I think history is more recursive than it is linear.
Nobody asks the members of the Rolling Stones to play Slavic folk music. They play Rolling Stones songs. But if you play in one of these orchestras, never mind choruses sing in all these languages, you might be playing Handel one day, and Janáček the next, and Philip Glass the next. I do sometimes think that there are virtues in specialization
We would never talk about the one audience for the Met Museum. We recognize that because there is this vast array of different kinds of art, that people gravitate towards different things.
If you write an instrumental piece, even a substantial one, you're still prey to juxtapositions of programming that you might not like.
Music is better than us in a certain way.
I tend to risk generosity, even messiness, in my music. It's scary. And I don't always succeed. But I would rather err in this direction.
Music was my first love... It was the thing that taught me life was worth living before I knew how to ask the question.
Music opens us up for communication, even if it can't solve the problems directly... It speaks to people directly in a way that they don't have words for. And strangely, that can actually open up a space for dialogue.
We all need to realize that no matter what we do, whether it's Kanye West or Chaya Czernowin, we're all dealing with a niche audience.
Everybody's welcome. You can all join. But we're not trying to pretend that it's literally for everyone. I think that is going to become clearer as the way that we experience art continues to be ironically both more mediated and more kind of listener driven.
The need for in-person connection is not going away. We may have to take occasional pauses, when things are bad in a particular place, but we're not gonna stop trying.
Special Thanks to:
Colin Manjoney and Amanda Ameer at First Chair Promotion;
April Thibeault at AMT Public Relations;
Michael San Gabino at the Metropolitan Opera; and
Andrew Stein-Zeller at G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers/Wise Music Classical.
Read the Full Transcript
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Matthew Aucoin
Monday, November 29, 2021—6:00 p.m.
Via a Zoom Conference Call
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: First off, wow. Congratulations on the Met premiere. That is huge.
Matthew Aucoin: Thank you, Frank. Huge is the word. Huge is obviously not the same as good, but it’s a huge stage.
FJO: What’s really exciting is it’s been waiting for a full season. The lights were dimmed for over a year because of the pandemic. And they’ve come back, and they opened the season with a work by a living, American composer, and now, lo and behold, a second work by a living, American composer. Two in one season, which is more than we’ve gotten in some decades.
MA: Yes, and if you count Akhnaten next spring and Brett Dean’s Hamlet, though Brett is not American, you’ve got four relatively recent works, which I think is unprecedented for them.
FJO: Well, it’s not unprecedented if you go back a hundred years. I was actually looking this up. I was having fun with this. I was thinking, “Is Matt the youngest composer ever to have an opera premiered at the Met?” It turns out that Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana premiered there when he was only 29.
MA: And also, I’m told that Menotti had possibly a one-act. It might have been one of his early pieces, done there, when he was a couple years younger. Hey, it’s not a title I’m vying for. Composers get better with age, so I think the youth fetish is always a little bit off the mark.
FJO: Well, it’s exciting though because that was a time when new opera was everywhere.
FJO: Within a period of a few years, they premiered Cavalleria Rusticana, some of the later Puccini pieces, plus Pagliacci, Andrea Chenier, works that are largely still played…
MA: It’s really mysterious the way that the repertory kind of got frozen in amber around that time. I do think of all those composers as having such a visceral connection to the previous generation, and then there comes this rupture. There comes this moment when you either engaged with what the trio in Vienna were up to, or you didn’t. And it’s curious to me that mainstream opera in America just didn’t. It almost seems like a conscious decision.
FJO: Right. And of that trio in Vienna, one of them was a fabulous opera composer, whose two operas were among the only 20th century operas done at the Met. So yeah, very strange. So all in all, really kind of awe-inspiring to have a work done on that stage and be alive.
MA: Just to be part of this moment which does feel like a kind of flowering. I think history is more recursive than it is linear. The story of a lot of the 20th century in mainstream classical music was this rather linear sense of history. Now I think we figured out that that’s not the most fruitful way to think about things. I really feel like we’re in this moment where music, including operas, can sound like so many millions of things. If you just look at this one slice of the operas that are coming to New York this season, none of the four really sound like each other, I don’t think anyway. And that to me is thrilling. Because it sends this signal that the artform can be so many different things.
FJO: Indeed we are living in this wonderfully pluralistic moment. Certain repertoire gets done in certain institutions because of audiences or certain groups of musicians, because of experience, feel comfortable with certain kinds of stylistic idioms and maybe less comfortable with others. The fact that we’re in such a pluralistic moment means you have to be so many different kinds of musician to play, to really do justice to the variety of music of the 21st century.
MA: That’s true. I sometimes think it’s not a fair thing to ask a single human being to do. I think about the folks in orchestras and choruses. Nobody asks the members of the Rolling Stones to play Slavic folk music. They play Rolling Stones songs. But if you play in one of these orchestras, never mind choruses sing in all these languages, you might be playing Handel one day, and Janáček the next, and Philip Glass the next. I do sometimes think that there are virtues in specialization, or least in empowering musicians to say, “These are the things that I think I can do really, really well. And if I go beyond this, I’ll be overstretched.” But, in my case, I sort of feel like I’m playing with performance techniques that range across the centuries. There are some very 21st century things in there. There are also things that harken back to previous centuries. So I think an orchestra like the Met Orchestra, both finds themselves stretched to a certain limit, playing this piece, and also that they’re able to do certain things that are in their wheel house. Which I hope is also fun. I hope it’s not just a chore.
FJO: Right. Of course, the other part of it is the audience for these different styles is not always the same audience. You go to the Met to see Akhnaten, it’s a very different audience than when you go to see La Forza del Destino.
MA: I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. We would never talk about the one audience for the Met Museum. We recognize that because there is this vast array of different kinds of art, that people gravitate towards different things. That’s why there are different wings and you can pick what you do in a day. I do think opera houses and orchestras can, and maybe should, embrace that model. I’ve had the same experience of going to Fire Shut Up in My Bones, and Boris Godunov, and now Eurydice and, how to put this, it feels like people from multiple communities are finding reasons to be attracted to the artform. And I think that’s great. We need as many doors in as possible.
FJO: Yeah, but the tricky thing is of course a museum can show all these works all the time. Whereas, music exists in time, so you can only do one piece at a time.
MA: That’s true. If you want to show a Monet, you don’t have to ask a hundred people to perform it.
FJO: Right. And it’s bigger. You can do a chamber music concert of six 10-minute pieces in very different styles and get variety that way. But if you’re doing an evening-length work, that’s a real commitment.
MA: It is. I think that’s part of what attracts me to the form as a composer–the sense that you can create a world. If you write an instrumental piece, even a substantial one, you’re still prey to juxtapositions of programming that you might not like. You’re subject to the atmosphere of the concert hall. The lighting is what it is. The look is what it is. Whereas, with an opera, you can really open a portal into your own universe, which I think is why I’m a bit obsessed with it. But for that reason, for the reason that it’s a universe, there are only so many universes that you can bring to life in a given space. So it’s always a trade off.
FJO: I want to bounce off something you said in passing, that this is the third opera you attended at the Met so far this season, and it’s interesting because this time you were in the audience for it. At the premiere, before the pandemic, you were on the podium. So I’m wondering, how it’s a different experience for you to actually get to see and hear your music.
MA: I have to say, it’s been kind of a revelation. I’ve been so much less stressed out and I’ve felt that I have quite a clear perspective on the piece, from being able to sit back and hear it. Especially when it’s in such sensationally good hands as Yannick’s, and this orchestra, and this cast. When you conduct, or play, or sing your own music, it can be a very intense experience, but I also think that you don’t necessarily confront your music because you’re in the act of performing it. In other words, if I’m trying to cue the violas, I’m not necessarily thinking about whether I wrote the best possible note for the violas, because my head is in a more active space. So it has been really wonderful to sit back and just think about the sonorities and think about the pacing, with a modicum of distance. I remember John Adams saying to me once that he tries to avoid conducting premieres because he likes to have some perspective on it the first time around, and then conduct it later. I think there’s some wisdom in that.
FJO: Another thing about perspective and distance–we’re in this weird moment. In a way, having a story about somebody who loses a loved one is very poignant because at this moment, almost everyone has. But of course, you wouldn’t have known that going into creating this piece because it was right before the whole world went nuts.
MA: It’s true. Though I did realize even before the pandemic, that I think Sarah Ruhl’s play, Eurydice, which the opera is based on, is not at its heart a setting of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. I actually think it’s telling a different story, which is about the loss of loved ones and what will you say to the person you love, or a person you love if you could encounter them in this liminal space. And in the case of Sarah’s play, and our opera, the people involved are not really Orpheus and Eurydice so much as Eurydice and her father. The heart of the drama is this long sequence where Eurydice has passed through the river of forgetfulness and becomes a kind of blank slate and encounters her father who has predeceased her but who has somehow kept his memory.
There’s this long process of her learning who she is again with his help. It’s a quite slow moving, I think, sequence, at least in the play. So I’d already realized that the core of the story is this encounter. And I think that became ten times more poignant in the midst of the pandemic, because I do think a lot of us feel our experiences with loved ones were cut short, and I’ve come to think of this opera as hopefully a portal through which you can connect with someone you’ve lost, whoever it may be. We’re dealing with specific characters, but there is something–I don’t want to say universal, cause that’s maybe grandiose, but I think there’s something open about these characters that hopefully people can connect to.
FJO: Well, in terms of universality, this definitely gives a different perspective because it’s really her side of the story. But this narrative, this idea of the wife dying and the husband trying to bring her back and not being able to, that’s one of the ur myths that actually was at the very beginning of this genre. The earliest surviving opera is an opera called Euridice by Jacopo Peri, and the first opera that’s still in the repertoire is also this story—Monteverdi’s Orfeo. And you look through every century, there’s a Haydn Orpheus and Eurydice opera, there’s a Telemann, there’s the Offenbach operetta, in the 20th century there’s Henze, there’s Philip Glass’s Cocteau version, and there are two Harrison Birtwistle Orpheus and Eurydices. Ricky Ian Gordon did a song cycle on Orpheus and Eurydice when his lover died, and it was a very poignant thing to tell this story. This story really resonates.
MA: It resonates. It has a great acoustic. I have a chapter on this in my new book, The Impossible Art, which is about opera. It’s so funny because I only did a deep dive into a lot of the pieces you mentioned after Eurydice premiered, because I didn’t want to clutter my mind with those other musical takes. But I do think that it’s the foundational story of the artform because it makes the claim that music can conquer death, and it also says that humans will always screw things up. Music can conquer death, but we can’t because we’re so flawed. And that feels really right to me. Music is better than us in a certain way. Also I think pretty much every opera consists of loss and grief being alchemically transmuted into music. In the Orpheus story, that is the case in this egregiously literal way. Where it’s just loss and then a lot of really gorgeous singing, and then more loss, and even more gorgeous singing. Almost as if the former were an excuse for the latter, which is my own kind of dark reading of the myth.
That’s why it’s catnip I think for composers. I also love that the story of how that first opera Euridice, came to be is very confusing and shrouded in a lot of mystery. You probably know the story, Frank, but in case any listeners don’t, it seems that Jacopo Peri was invited to create this opera, but he couldn’t stage it without the participation of a rival composer, Caccini, who was the leading voice teacher in Florence. And Caccini would only let his students participate if he also wrote music for it, so it ended up being both of their music and then it seems that Caccini then wrote music for the rest of the libretto and published his own version before Peri did. So there are actually two Euridice operas with different music set to the same text from the same year—one by Peri and one by Caccini. It’s very confusing, and I think it’s probably a very apt omen that this bizarre, backstabbing drama took place throughout the production of the first opera. It’s only gotten hairier ever since.
FJO: I love it. That ties into something I was thinking about with this. When you do a new opera, especially at a place like the Met, which is really so much about its traditions and its history, there are two ways you can go about this. You can bring a totally new story there, which is what Fire Shut Up In My Bones is. There’s never been a story like that at the Met. Or something like Nixon in China, Klinghoffer, any of those John Adams operas. Or you can try to add to the tradition, like The Ghosts of Versailles of Corigliano, which takes characters that that audience would know and do something different with them, which is in a sense what you’ve done. You’ve taken characters that people know, and have done something different with them.
MA: That’s true, though I might question the idea that the more social realist operas don’t have precedents. Whether it’s Boris or–I’m trying to think of a good sort of gritty, of-its-time–Puccini’s Trittico, Il Tabarro. Whatever. Pieces like Fire Shut Up In My Bones, or Nixon, feel new because they deal with events that have happened recently in a relatively social realist way. But that is itself a longer tradition. I’m having trouble thinking of a ton that have really succeeded, but Menotti’s pieces that are set in contemporary settings. That’s a tradition that also continues to be refreshed, if that makes sense. But nevertheless, yes. We are dealing with characters named Eurydice and Orpheus, and people think they know who they are, but I think one of the slightly playful, maybe subversive is too strong a word, but playful things that I think Sarah and I are trying to do is to make them very different people. They happen to be named Eurydice and Orpheus, but they really don’t bear much similarity to the mope you know from Gluck.
FJO: Yeah, right.
MA: So, it is a way in. But for me, that opens up a very new space. And also I love this thing that W.H. Auden once said about how for him mythical stories invited more what we would today call relatability, not my favorite word, but that when a character has an archetypal quality, then they’re dealing with aspects of the psyche that we do share. And that we can identify with. Whereas, as Auden put it, if you see a character who’s recognizably in a contemporary setting, you immediately read their class, their status, that you immediately see them as not you. And there’s a risk of less identification. I’m not sure I agree with it a hundred percent, but it’s a really useful provocation. Because I think in our time, the tendency is to say audiences can only relate to people who look and dress like them. I think there’s something to be said for characters who might seem kind of mythical, or magical or distant, embodying aspects of the psyche that can only be embodied in music.
FJO: But of course, the other part of this, and this is something John Adams would say: With Nixon in China, he was dealing with something that’s become modern mythology. That’s mythology of our time and taking those characters who’ve become archetypes. The historic Richard Nixon–I lived briefly in his lifetime. I was a little kid during his presidency, but I don’t know what that meeting in China was like. We have these reports that survive. Mao Zedong had a whole cult around him in China, which still exists. So he’s sort of a mythological figure too. And the same is true for those other operas. Akhnaten also is certainly about a new character who hasn’t been in opera. We have Aida, which had ancient Egyptians, but nothing this far back and dealing with the invention of monotheism and all of that. That’s further back in history than any of this stuff, yet it’s newer. So you know, what’s old is new, what’s new is old, and at some point it all kind of blurs together.
MA: It’s such a great point. I do think the success of the Adams-Sellars operas does depend on their picking these inherently mythological figures. Dr. Atomic has the same dynamic because you’re dealing with questions of elemental destruction. This power that formerly only belonged to god figures and came into the hands of mankind. So I think that’s a brilliant move, and it makes me think for future projects: what are the myths, the changing myths of our changing world? For me, the central one is the climate and what’s happening to the Earth because forever, humans have defined nature as the thing that doesn’t change. And human life as the thing that does, and kingdoms rise and fall, but nature stays the same. So many of our stories are based on that. About there being this unchanging realm on Earth that we participate in, but cannot change. And that’s been overturned. And that demands new stories, new myths, and that’s something I’m really interested in engaging with, in the next round of pieces. I’m not totally sure what form it’ll take yet, but that feels to me like the necessary stories for our time.
FJO: Well this is a perfect segue because it’s something you have already dealt with in the opera you wrote right before this, Second Nature.
FJO: What’s so fascinating to me about that piece is that you’ve created this world and once again, this is six years ago. No pandemic, yet. Yet there’s a real currency to this thing about people not wanting to be trapped in this space. Wanting to go back outside. With 2021 eyes and ears, it’s a whole other experience. Then again, it’s also this parable, you described this in an interview you did with somebody, but I caught this before I read that, that it’s this kind of reverse Garden of Eden, too. Once you eat the fruit, you can’t go back.
MA: That is really brilliant, Frank. I didn’t think of the connection to being stuck, that we’ve all experienced these past 18 months. But totally the characters in Second Nature, who live in this dystopian, former zoo in a climate-ravaged future, totally. They’re stuck there. They’re scared of the outside world, and it takes in that case some kids to dare to eat the fruit and see what’s out there. I’m glad you brought up that piece, too. It was kind of my first step into engaging with the whole universe of climate change questions.
It somehow felt inevitable that it had to be a fairy tale. Had to be a kids’ piece. It’s billed often as a children’s opera, though I’ve had the experience of doing it on consecutive days for an audience of children and an audience of adults and maybe thinking the adults had more fun. But I did want to introduce young listeners to this question of what do we do. This idea that you’re gonna eat the fruit of knowledge that you wish you didn’t know. We all go through that in the 21st century or at least we should, of going deeper and realizing: “Well, I wish I didn’t know that, but now that I do, can I keep living the way that I have been?” For kids to be aware of that as a factor of human life early on is kind of important.
FJO: And of course, once you eat a good piece of fruit, say, from a farmer’s market, you never want frozen pineapple ever again.
MA: Or a strawberry in England somewhere. And you’d never want to–absolutely.
FJO: So that work was originally done at a zoo. Right?
MA: It was.
FJO: Wild. Is there footage of the original zoo production? I know there’s footage of another production which was sort of a makeshift zoo. That’s the one I saw.
MA: That’s a good question. I remember that the space we did it in at the zoo was pretty acoustically problematic. So I’m not sure if footage survives. It was through Lyric Opera of Chicago and they then took it on a tour of many schools in that area. So I think the acoustic was a lot better in many subsequent spaces. I was picturing that we might be next to the baboons, but we were actually in a kind of vaulted ceiling café, quite removed from the animals. So, a bit of a disappointment.
FJO: It would be great to take it to other zoos I think.
MA: One thing that was really fascinating was the folks at the zoo took issue with some aspects of the libretto that depicted the dystopian zoo as a place of confinement. And they were basically saying we don’t confine our animals. And I was thinking well that’s not an easy argument to make, but we found a middle ground that felt honest on all sides.
FJO: Wow. The other thing it reminded me of, I don’t know if you know this movie, have you ever seen Logan’s Run?
MA: I haven’t.
FJO: It’s one of my favorite bad movies of all time. My favorite cheesy ’70s, sci-fi movie. It’s this post-holocaust world. You can do anything you want until you’re 30. And then you get sent on this thing called carousel, and they shoot you, and you get disintegrated, but you’re reborn. There’s this whole mythology. And finally, you have this thing on your hand that says how old you are, and it starts flashing like six months before so that when you’re 30, that’s the end. And this guy who’s about to turn 30, he escapes, and they discover the outside world. And there’s like this whole thing about what’s beyond the bubble. You’ve got to see this thing.
MA: That sounds terrifying as someone who turned 30 during the pandemic.
FJO: It’s amazing. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.
MA: There’s also this Lois Lowry kids’ book The Giver.
FJO: I don’t know that.
MA: It’s similar. It was sort of the dystopian classic when I was growing up. Similarly a society where everything’s great ’til it’s not.
FJO: So in terms of blowing up things and the end of the world. This seems like a perfect point to talk about the man who tried to blow up the world of music through his polemics, but was very much entrenched in that world. Pierre Boulez.
MA: Ah, Mr. Boulez. Oh gosh. Well, it should be said that I was reviewing a specific book when I wrote that essay on Boulez. My feelings about him are deeply mixed. There’s a lot of good mixed in. I do want to emphasize that. I revere some of the recordings, and some of his pieces. And the rigor of certain aspects of his work. But, with a bit of distance, I do think it’s important to ask whether certain figures had an essentially repressive or liberatory impact on their colleagues, on their field. And I wonder if Boulez’s legacy leans toward the repressive.
When The New York Review of Books asked if I might write about his collected lectures, I thought this a great opportunity to revisit Boulez and hopefully get some insight. And I found myself just shocked that in essay after essay, he is just railing against unnamed enemies, and idiots, and people who improvise, and people who do this, and people who that. I just remember thinking this is really boring, and probably, as I said in the essay, probably merciful that he doesn’t name people. But if you’re not going to be specific, then really what are you talking about? I’m conscious that I open myself up when I criticize someone like Boulez, but I think that when someone like Boulez spends 80 percent of his time attacking others, it means that the other 20 percent of the time he has to be on the defense. He has to be saying well what I’m doing is great because of this, this, this, and this. And let’s just say, it invites a certain kind of scrutiny when you spend so much time attacking others.
FJO: Yeah, well, I agree with you. I just came out of doing this giant research project on the 1952 ISCM festival in Salzburg. Boulez was early on in his career, and he had a performance of a piece of his there. And three years later, the premiere, of Le Marteau Sans Maître, which is essentially what put him on the map worldwide as a composer was done at an ISCM festival at Baden-Baden. And he was so incredibly ungrateful and ungenerous to everybody. I mean, that’s the thing I keep coming back to. The lack of generosity. And I’m gonna go out on a limb here. I’ll get castigated along with you as a detractor. But I feel that lack of generosity is something you can hear in the music, and you can hear it even more so in his interpretations. This really kind of cold, pallid, and the best word I could use for it is ungenerous. I’m going to really make you uncomfortable and put you on the spot here. But, as I was reading that essay, I kept thinking to myself, whatever you may say stylistically about it being apples and oranges, but I could never imagine Boulez writing a piece that’s as generous as, say, your piano concerto. It is this expansive, big, generous piece that gives so much to the soloist, that gives so much to the orchestra, and that gives so much to the audience.
MA: Thank you for saying that about the concerto, Frank. I do think that I tend to risk generosity, even messiness, in my music. It’s scary. And I don’t always succeed. But I would rather err in this direction. I will say that. I also tend to think when we’re talking about figures who had a lot to offer as Boulez did, their priorities. It’s interesting to me that Stravinsky never had much interest in running institutions. Neither did Benjamin Britten. I think he was offered the directorship of Covent Garden at a certain point. And he said, “How would I have time to compose?” which is a perfectly reasonable thing for a composer to say. Boulez wanted to control institutions and make them over in his image. And I suppose I’m a touch suspicious of that impulse. But I think the thing that’s most risky, and I felt this really acutely in the book, is this sense of this is all there is. These are the parameters. You could look at sound this way. You can organize things in all of these different configurations, which can be various and diverse and in some case very illuminating, but there’s always this sense that it’s a perfectly sealed, air tight room with him. And that nothing else may be admitted. And I just want, the wonderful Keats phrase, negative capability, the potential to hold contradictory things in mind without saying they’re good or bad. Without saying that one can’t exist feels to me like such an essential creative property. And it’s one that I don’t find in him.
FJO: It’s the world of Second Nature. You want to get outside that bubble and eat the real fruit.
MA: It sure as hell isn’t nature.
FJO: But we should get back to your music, because this is about your music. As long as we’re talking about the Piano Concerto, I mean the other big event of November 2021 for you, aside from the premiere at the Met, which is a really big deal, is a first-ever commercial recording devoted exclusively to your music. It was released this month. A two-CD set, done by Boston Modern Orchestra Project—BMOP Sound, which very prominently features that piano concerto. How did that all come about?
MA: I’ve been hilariously slow to release recordings of my music. In my early- to mid-’20s, I really just thought nothing was good enough yet. And I wasn’t ready to commit anything to tape. But for the past five years, I’ve been accumulating recordings in a slightly unorganized, desultory way—with the ensemble that I co-founded, the American Modern Opera Company, AMOC, which is not just an opera company, but it’s really a collective of friends. Of singers, instrumentalists, and dancers. Among our many activities, most of which involve staged productions, we started recording some chamber pieces.
I had started by that time a dialogue with Gil Rose at BMOP about recording orchestral music. Then in the past year or so, I realized that every BMOP track featured an AMOC member as soloist. Conor [Hanick] in the piano concerto, Anthony Roth Costanzo and Keir Gogwolt, the violinist on the Orphic Moment, and Paul Appleby in Exodus. So I called Gil and said, what if we make this a double album, and make it a real collaboration between BMOP and AMOC. I mean our acronyms both have M-O in the center, too. He was really into the idea. I have to say I’m thrilled because every track features artists who are very dear to me. People that I’ve known for a long time in most cases, people for whom the pieces were written or at least they’re people who’ve been playing the pieces for a long time by now. It really feels like a portrait of what I was up to in my 20s, apart from the operas. So I think it is especially well timed with this opera.
FJO: What I love about it is, just like with opera you’re dealing with this long history, you have pieces like Dual, a cello and double bass duo, that’s very unusual. But at the same time, very unusually structured, you have a violin sonata, which is a genre that has hundreds of years of history, going back to the Baroque. Ditto piano concerto. Those are two things where the ghosts of Beethoven, Brahms, Janáček, and all these people are hovering over you. Or even a composer I discovered recently, whose music I love, Jaroslav Ježek wrote an amazing violin sonata and a great piano concerto. This is such a history to be throwing yourself in the ring with. And I think it’s wonderful that you’re engaging that history rather than wanting to blow it up.
MA: To a degree, there’s always a question, do you call it a piano concerto if it’s a piano concerto? And in that case it did feel right. I think these forms are great points of departure. As you said, this piece that is kind of a violin sonata is structured in a slightly unusual way in that there are these two outer movements that are both kind of skittish and unstable and brief. And then there’s this gigantic middle movement based on these repetitive chord structures. I sort of think of the form of that piece as being like a crater that’s surrounded by a kind of rim. The middle movement is this huge, reflective crater. So it’s not exactly sonata form, but it is a three-movement piece for violin and piano. I tend to think at the cellular level of what are these harmonies want to do. Starting with a very small rhythmic cell or harmonic progression. Something very micro when I’m writing instrumental music. And then kind of letting it expand like DNA. Replicating. I’m really not a scientist. I hope that analogy works. The forms that they take are rarely the first thing I think about, but they usually reveal themselves fairly early in the process.
FJO: Interesting. In a way that’s sort of using music as metaphor, which probably explains why you like John Donne so much.
MA: How do you mean?
FJO: He’s the master of metaphor in the English language.
FJO: And taking a concept and creating a whole text around it.
MA: I do love me some John Donne. Donne also lives at this very unstable border between the sacred and the erotic; a lot of my pieces have lived there, too. Parts of my opera Crossing, I think lived in that space, and certainly This Earth, the Dante setting I wrote for Anthony Roth Costanzo lives there. I think this question that seems to torment Donne of what is the difference, is one sin and the other salvation? Or are they all the same thing? And reading him hundreds of years later, it really feels like the energy is absolutely the same in the sacred poems and the erotic poems. But it’s so poignant that for him that was not clear and in fact was maybe the central wrestling ground of his life.
FJO: You have not set Donne. Right?
MA: I have not ever set Donne. I think that’s been done rather prominently in the past couple of decades in a fairly memorable way.
FJO: We’re both thinking of “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God” obviously, but also “Negative Love” in Adams’ earlier Harmonium.
FJO: The other poet who’s had a great impact on you, who you have set and you not only have set, but you weaved an entire opera around an episode of his life, is Walt Whitman–Crossing.
MA: And to that, I would add the poet Jorie Graham, who was my teacher in college, and whose poetry workshops taught me as much about music as any musician has. And I never thought I’d be able to set Jorie’s work, partly because in a very Whitman-ian way, her lines tend to spill over the edges the page, and to be kind of unsingably long. But I finally did engage with her work this summer. I set her poem Deep Water Trawling, for the forces of AMOC as well as the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco. That is a poem that is spoken by the voice of the bottom of the ocean floor talking up to humanity about what is happening down there, and what we have wrought. It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever read. It felt for me like an opening into this new climate mythology—where do we go from here space, that I’m hoping to live in for the next few years of my life. So I would say Jorie is maybe the third really essential poet whose voice has informed the way that my music behaves.
FJO: I love that you set it for a Baroque period instrument orchestra, too. So you have these sort of lost sounds configured into now. We throw things away and destroy our world and destroy these very fragile, precious sounds, but they’re still there if we can only listen.
MA: That’s beautiful. I was also thinking that the Baroque contrabassoon which features in this piece sort of is a terrifying, deep sea monster. It’s about ten feet tall and makes the most extraordinary buzzing sound. I’m married to a Baroque bassoonist, so I was familiar with the incredible, subterranean buzz that this thing can produce and it features pretty hugely in this piece.
FJO: Oh wow. I can’t wait to hear this thing.
MA: We premiered it over the summer. But we haven’t posted any video or audio yet. We hopefully will in the coming months. So I will be sure to send it to you.
FJO: Oh, I’ve got to hear it. I want to see a score for that contrabassoon part, too.
MA: Well that can be arranged.
FJO: Of course, the writer who you’ve set more than any of these others who we talked about is a writer called Matthew Aucoin. You’ve set your own text.
MA: I suppose. Ooh, yikes. Probably true.
FJO: There was a period in your life where it seemed for a while that music was kind of taking a back seat a little bit, and literature was in the forefront. When you were an undergrad, you pursued writing poetry, studying poetry, and sort of put music on the back burner a little bit. And I’m wondering now that music has become so totally important for you, and you’re so busy immersed in music if there’s a space for you to write things beyond texts that you set to music or essays about music. If you’re still writing poetry and if there’s room for that still.
MA: I’ve had a long, winding journey on this front. Music was my first love you know. It was the thing that taught me life was worth living before I knew how to ask the question. But I did go through a period in my late teens to early 20s when I had a kind of crisis about it. We talked earlier about how in the Orpheus story, music can conquer death, but humans aren’t really worthy of it. I had this odd feeling. It’s funny now to think of getting so hung up on it, but I got really hung up on this idea that music was too good for us and we were better off communicating to each other in language, which really felt to me like the human medium. And that there were things we needed to say to each other in language.
So I felt for the first time in my life a little bit distant from music. Then around the time I graduated college, it all rushed back. I really felt like I had to do this, and I felt that for a few reasons. One was that I sensed that if I didn’t dive in and commit myself to music, the musical muscle was at risk of atrophying, because it does take constant practice and upkeep. Whereas, somehow words, maybe it’s because we all use words every day anyway, I had this instinct that maybe that muscle would not atrophy. And it would be okay to leave it be for a few years, and come back to it. But also, I think I’d realized that when I tried writing poetry, I was really just trying to write music. The music in the words was so strong that Jorie, my teacher, sort of gently told me, “I think there’s something that’s just trying to burst out. And it probably should be music.” And she’s right. It kind of hurt at the time, because it felt like: oh, do you not think these poems are any good?
She was actually saying something much deeper, which is that they wanted to burst through the containers of the words themselves and become scores. So I shifted my focus back to my original focus of composing. And I haven’t ever regretted that, though I have missed writing words in various forms, and when the pandemic hit, I did see an opportunity to write this book about opera as an artform, which I did manage to finish over the past year, and which is coming out December 7. That was really a treat. It felt like a part of my brain that I hadn’t really been using, but as I expected, it had not totally died. It was possible to wake it back up.
FJO: Very, very interesting. Before we end this, I do want to talk a tiny bit about Crossing, because once again, it’s another one of these things, where it’s six years ago, but so pertinent to the current moment because here you have this scene in a Civil War hospital, and this impenetrable divide between two sides that was the American Civil War. So much so that this Confederate soldier pretends to be a Union soldier, pretends he’s from Boston, and he’s upset the war is over when it’s declared to be over. And we’re in this place now again, our country is so divided. You see it with how people are responding to the pandemic. You see it in our politics. It’s so distasteful. It’s so extreme. It’s like there’s no way to cut through the schism. It was funny hearing you say when you were younger, you thought we need to have language because we need to communicate with each other. But music cuts through the schism. You can bring somebody over to your side through music because since it doesn’t have direct syntactical meaning, you’re not gonna turn off because you assume you know what it’s about because you recognize the words.
MA: That is so true. I mean, I do think music opens us up for communication, even if it can’t solve the problems directly. You in no way were saying this, but there is obviously the slightly risky version of you know, it’s universal, it solves all problems, but I think what you’re getting at is really true, which is that it cuts through, it speaks to people directly in a way that they don’t have words for. And strangely, that can actually open up a space for dialogue. If you’ve ever experienced music with someone that you didn’t know, and then afterwards, you turned to them and go, “Wow. What was that?” And all of a sudden it’s like you know them. That to me is one of the most magical experiences because you realize that you’ve been in this very deep place with the person who you never exchanged words with before. And suddenly you can exchange words with them. That to me is a totally vital function of it. And you’re right. I was pretty wrong about language being the medium. We really need it, ’cause clearly it has not done a heck of a lot to unite us these past few years.
FJO: No. So a final question about AMOC, which is about re-envisioning opera, what opera can be, and could be, and should be in the 21st century. Well, over the course of the last 20, now 21 months, the 21st century has become yet another time period. We’re in this other space. So, what happens now? Are there lessons from this very strange time that we’re in that are going to affect what you do with this company, and with the artform going forward?
MA: What we’re trying to do with AMOC is to empower artists in roles that they don’t always get to play when they are just the singer for hire, the dancer for hire, even the conductor for hire, within the framework of big institutions. It’s rare unless an artist is a kind of crossover, mainstream star, for a singer to be able to originate projects, for them to be able to pick their colleagues, and do things with the people they want to on their own terms. And what we’ve tried to do with AMOC is to create a company where anyone can bring an idea forward. The ideas are digested collectively. People really consider do we want to take this on as a company. There’s a whole process for bringing ideas forward and a multi-stage process for considering them, and welcoming feedback from everybody. It all sounds very groovy, but let me tell you, it’s also very complicated. You found a family, and all of a sudden there are all those family dynamics.
So it’s something that requires constant checking in. This is all a roundabout way of saying that it’s an attempt to build a better and more agile model for an artist-centric company or collective. I think that mission remains unchanged even with the impact of the pandemic. We’re a very young company, and we don’t have a space of our own where we present things. We don’t have a ton of overhead. We didn’t have to make radical adjustments during the pandemic. We were basically able to very slowly, steadily keep supporting the projects that we were supporting. And I say we, Zack Winoker is currently the artistic director. I’m really just a co-founder and composer in the company. But I do think that, looking ahead, we all need to realize that no matter what we do, whether it’s Kanye West or Chaya Czernowin, we’re all dealing with a niche audience.
We’re always dealing with the community that we’re dealing with. And it’s not the whole world. There’s no such thing as the mainstream. There’s no such thing as art that’s for everybody all the time. We’re all dealing with communities. I think that’s going to become clearer and clearer over the course of the 21st century. A big part of what AMOC is doing is we’re trying to build our own community, which is open. Everybody’s welcome. You can all join. But we’re not trying to pretend that it’s literally for everyone. I think that is going to become clearer as the way that we experience art continues to be ironically both more mediated and more kind of listener driven. And I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. If you think of it as the building of communities, it can actually make for a better experience. And that’s what AMOC is trying to do.
FJO: We’re now in this weird place for a year we’ve had all of these virtual concerts and now we’re going back to live performances, but there’s something we gained. Yeah, you have this niche audience. Say you’re in San Antonio. Suddenly you can have this new music concert in San Antonio and reach people in Baltimore. Or reach people in Tokyo, or Tallinn, or Perth, you know. Now you can have your audience and theoretically have some kind of hybrid where you can reach even more people. I don’t know if that’s something to aspire to or if it’s something you’ve consciously thought about. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot.
MA: Certainly AMOC’s artists like, like many artists, produced work in new forms that could be experienced more widely during the pandemic. Bobbi Jene Smith, the dancer and choreographer, made an astonishing work called Broken Theater. That will be a live work that hopefully we’ll do at next year’s Ojai Festival, which we are collectively curating. But it started out as a film, and was able to have this amazing first life as a film because of the pandemic. So it did have that effect. But to be honest, my practice hasn’t changed that much. Our way of supporting projects hasn’t changed that much. We’re not operating at a scale where we think, “Oh gosh, will people feel comfortable going to 30,000-seat indoor arena concerts?” We’re doing things that we hope we’re going to be able to keep doing. And, as many have said, the need for in-person connection is not going away. We may have to take occasional pauses, when things are bad in a particular place, but we’re not gonna stop trying.
FJO: Great. Well, thank you. Thank you for your time and your wonderful comments and your generosity. There’s that word generosity again.
MA: I appreciate it, Frank. And you’re a generous and wise interviewer. So thanks for having me.