Tag: MATA Festival

Constantly Missing Randy (Endless Bummer)

[Ed note: One of the highlights of this year’s 20th anniversary MATA Festival will be a repeat MATA performance of P(l)aces by Randy Hostetler (1963-1996) during the April 13, 2018 concert called MATA’s Greatest Hits. The posthumous world premiere performance of that composition, the score for which MATA co-founder Lisa Bielawa reconstructed from manuscripts, computer files, and videotapes rehearsals of the work in progress that she found among effects of his that his parents kept, took place during the very first MATA Festival in a concert on January 13, 1998 at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Its extremely strange mix of metrical complexity, appropriated riffs from reggae, salsa, and many other styles of music, taped sounds of barking dogs, power tools, and lamps made it one of the legendary events in American music history as did its illustrious cast of perfomers: Bielawa and MATA’s other co-founder, Eleonor Sandresky, the Talujon Percussion Quartet, trumpeter Susan Radcliff, trombonist Monique Buzzarte, trombone, guitarist Oren Fader, Jack Vees on electric bass and washtub bass, percussionist Frank Cassara (who served as a timekeeper), and conductor Beatrice Jona Affron, music director for the Pennsylvania Ballet. Since in addition to performing in that premiere, Jack Vees had an unusual relationship with Randy Hostetler, we asked him to share his memories about him and that premiere.—FJO]

It has been twenty years since the performance of Randy Hostetler’s P(l)aces on the first MATA festival. Randy was a composer whose works lit up our world—for many of us starting in the early 1980s—and that glow continues on through today.  His life was cut short (probably by Addison’s Disease) in 1996. His death left a huge tear in our community—not just because of the brilliance of his own works, but also because Randy’s generous spirit brought people of all sorts together.  Shortly after he moved to California, he established the series Living Room Music, which gave opportunities to many composers and performers and provided a much-needed outlet for alternative new music in the Los Angeles area.  It was through a network of friends and colleagues that I began to know of this extraordinary person.

One of the factors that makes writing this remembrance especially difficult is that Randy’s is one of my first and deepest friendships with someone that I never met in person.  OK, this will take a little explaining, but I think it will point out what a remarkable presence Randy is (not was) in this proto digital era.

Randy and I maintained an almost perfect symmetry of being on opposite coasts at exactly the same time.

Randy and I somehow maintained an almost perfect symmetry of being on opposite coasts at exactly the same time.  While I was at CalArts (official student-hood starting in the early ‘80s) Randy was an undergrad at Yale. When I came East in the summer of ‘86, landing at Yale as a spouse-in-tow of a grad student (Libby Van Cleve), Randy was heading toward CalArts. I like to think we passed each other somewhere in Kansas.

Shortly after arriving at Yale, I began to hear stories from Martin Bresnick about this really cool, young composer I should have met, but who had just graduated and left to continue his studies at CalArts.  These included some of the escapades of Sheep’s Clothing, a student performance art group, under Martin’s direction.  That group has left a legacy of antics from its members, which included Randy, Jeff Brooks, Scott Lindroth, and David Lang.

And the Randy-related stories didn’t stop there.  Pretty soon I was hearing more about this “kid” from Art Jarvinen, one of my closest longtime friends and accomplices. Art and I had been involved in a number of Dadaist and Fluxus performances, so we were used to seeing and hearing things that most others don’t just happen across in their travels.  This is just to say that for Art to remark about something or someone, it really had to be truly remarkable on a grand scale, and apparently Randy was.

I would go back to Southern California pretty frequently in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, usually to take part in performances or the Monumentally Bad Poetry Soirees at Art’s house.  Although Randy would certainly be part of this crowd, it seemed every time I came west, he’d be on a trip somewhere else.  I was constantly missing Randy. Bummer.

Mel Powell, who had seen a lot in his lifetime (and had learned to let our silliness just wash over and not perturb him), knew that the “catchiness” of the surface of Randy’s pieces was a reflection and link to deeper truths, not just icing to hide the lack of them. If I would bump into him during my visits back to CalArts, Mel would often bring me up to date about the latest batch of crazy kids.  Even in this milieu, Randy stood out.  Mel commented about “that Eight-Ball piece” (actually titled 8) as being particularly memorable.  There was something about it that Mel knew was much more than witty novelty.  If you take the time to watch Randy’s performance of it, the experience is enthralling, and Mel knew it was brilliant.

Somehow as the late 1980s became the ‘90s, my trips to L.A. became less frequent, but the common use era of email began to open up other possibilities. Art Jarvinen was instrumental in connecting Randy and me.  We traded a few emails, and I believe that somewhere in a landfill in Connecticut there’s a NeXT cube with the extent of our correspondence on it.   In 1996, things seemed about to change.  I would be headed out west again, and this time Art was planning on setting up one of his incredible dinners for us to finally meet in person.

Then in February I got “the phone call” from Art.  Randy had passed away after what seemed to be a very brief illness.  Art was devastated.  Though being of stoic Finnish stock, Art could be tremendously impacted by friends’ deaths. In response to Randy’s passing, he wrote the beautiful Endless Bummer, a gentle and poignant turn on the surf music of “Endless Summer”.

A graph paper page from the original manuscript score of Randy Hostetler's P(l)aces.

A graph paper page from the original manuscript score of Randy Hostetler’s P(l)aces.

What I remember about the first MATA festival and the process of bringing Randy’s P(l)aces together is this: Lisa Bielawa and Eleonor Sandresky had both gone to Yale around the time Randy was there. As they began the huge task of programming the festival, it was clear that P(l)aces would be an important element both aesthetically and emotionally.  To be honest, I don’t remember if they first asked me to play bass on it, or if I insisted that I had to.

If we try to put it into a particular box in terms of style, P(l)aces is uncatagorizable.

P(l)aces shines a light on at least two important aspects of Randy’s work. First, if we try to put it into a particular box in terms of style, it is uncatagorizable.  However, it does have certain attributes of both modernist and post-modernist styles (and probably Classical and Romantic too, but that’s calling for a wider paint brush than I brought today).  I think it has something to do with Randy’s sense of how to take primal elements and to find how they relate in complex ways instead of taking the easier route of just being complicated. This has a benefit for the players.   As part of the ensemble, it always felt like individual parts were rooted in a familiar tradition, but all the parts together were unlike anything I’d ever heard.

Similarly, in Randy’s electronic works he manages to sculpt the familiar into the unique with the use of only the bare minimum of studio frippery.   A prime example is Happily Ever After. It has no robust algorithms, no elegant Max patches, maybe even no reverb.   What it does have is a collection of very human-sized stories told by many of his friends and recorded by Randy.  They all start the same way (“Once upon a time”) and all end the same way (“happily ever after”).  What happens to the individual threads in between is up to each storyteller, but the resultant whole is an exquisite tapestry woven by Randy that gives dignity to each of those threads.

Randy’s generosity towards other composers and performers carries through to all of us who listen to his work.  He never directs our attention to his own skill as a composer, but subtly shifts our attention to have us reconsider our own selves—and each other—in a more favorable and generous light.

A page from Lisa Bielawa's digitally engraved score for Randy Hostetler's P(l)aces

A typical page from Lisa Bielawa’s digitally engraved score for Randy Hostetler’s P(l)aces showing his penchant for dense polymetric textures.

MATA at 20

[Ed note: It has been 20 years since the first MATA Festival. Since that time, it has been an annual New York City showcase for new music by early career composers selected from a free global call for submissions. Originally held at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan’s East Village, hence the acronym (which stands for Music at the Anthology), the Festival has subsequently been held at Le Poisson Rouge, the Brooklyn Lyceum, Roulette, and The Kitchen where most of this season’s concerts will take place. (Details for each of the concerts on this year’s festival can be found here.) Since MATA has been such an important stepping stone for so many significant composers, including many who served in an administrative capacity for the organization, we wanted to celebrate the MATA Festival’s 20th anniversary with a series of vignettes from some of the folks for whom it has meant so much. Time forced our hands in capping this at 32 before it went live (we had to have at least 20!), but we invite additional reminiscences in the comments.—FJO]

So much of what makes MATA what it is, is the community around which it has grown and continues to thrive. In the early years, back when we were still at the Anthology Film Archives, our indefatigable tech team, composers and founders alike would carry music stands and amps and instruments up that long flight of stairs and into the hall. One such memorable event was the premier of P(L)aces by Randy Hostetler, which is being performed again at the MATA Festival (on April 13, 2018). For that concert Lisa and I went around the East Village to the second hand furniture shops and borrowed lamps. Spoiler alert! Most players in the ensemble play lamps, switching them on and off in a rhythmic pattern. To facilitate this, our TD at the time, Dan Dryden, made special switches for each lamp, hand wiring them all. Everyone helped to carry lamps, chairs and stands up the stairs. It’s absolutely amazing to me that our little idea, hatched over breakfast with Philip while on tour, has not just blossomed, but flourished and spread, giving NYC the benefit of music from all over the world that has not been heard anywhere else. … yet! From those planning breakfasts around Philip’s kitchen table 20 years ago we could never have imagined this MATA. Thanks to you all for joining us in making it what it has become. I can’t wait to see where we go next!

Eleonor Sandresky (MATA Co-Founder and Artistic Advisory Board)

“Now I count hundreds among my MATA family.”

I remember like it was yesterday: a handful of us young composers struck out on a new path together, seeking community and a chance to be heard side by side, in joyful camaraderie regardless of our backgrounds and fascinations. Now I count hundreds among my MATA family, and I couldn’t be more proud of the role we have been able to play in the musical lives of so many—composers, performers, audiences. Thank you and congratulations dear friends!

Lisa Bielawa (MATA Co-Founder and Artistic Advisory Board)

The MATA New Music Festival was founded in 1996 by Eleonor Sandresky, Lisa Bielawa and myself. From the small beginnings (in the living room of my New York home) and the first concerts at the Anthology Film Archives in 1998, the MATA festival has become today one of the mainstays of New York’s new music world, with its annual festival, a board of directors and, thankfully, a substantial budget made possible by many patrons of the arts. I am very proud of our accomplishments and I am pleased to be honored as a part of the festival’s 20th Anniversary.

Philip Glass (MATA Co-Founder and Executive Producer)

A postcard from the very first season of the MATA Festival in 1998.

A postcard from the very first season of the MATA Festival in 1998.

The first few concerts I attended after moving to New York in 2008 were related to MATA. One in particular, Ne(x)tworks at LPR, left a huge mark. Truly inspiring concert, I hadn’t heard or seen anything like it, the event made me feel so lucky to be a musician in this city. A few years later, I had my own music performed at the festival. Music that I have written here. Music that in many ways couldn’t have happened without MATA. It was written originally for Cornelius Dufallo’s string quartet. Cornelius was one of the musicians of Ne(x)tworks who played that MATA concert at LPR a few years back. MATA is giving access to music that is at the forefront of music making. MATA is connecting people. And for that, we should be grateful. Congratulations MATA for 20 inspiring years, and cheers to 20 more!

Guy Barash

Details for each of the concerts of the 2018 MATA Festival can be found here.

MATA’s existence and continued success has always amazed and moved me. To see a scrappy artist-founded festival not only survive, but do incredible work, presenting such a range of musical work (and beyond!) at such a high level, and doing right by young creative artists from around the world, is a tremendous thing to experience. As a composer, performer, and audience member, and working behind the scenes, I’ve always been really proud to be associated with MATA.

Gordon Beeferman

As a veteran of the second festival (still at the Film Anthology), I have many memories of the splendid, audacious concerts curated by Lisa Bielawa and Eleonor Sandresky in the early years. So many unusual and inspiring sounds first alighted on my ears at MATA events. Twenty years later, it’s thrilling that MATA continues to be a trailblazer!

Derek Bermel

I was very grateful to have my music presented at MATA. Over the last 20 years MATA has been such an important launch pad for so many young composers working in so many different styles, and it was wonderful to have my work showcased as part of that. Here’s to 20 years and to many, many more.

Oscar Bettison

Being asked to present work at the MATA Festival was a pivotal moment for my career. As a composer and artist with an intermedia practice that is often hard to frame, MATA facilitated an outrageously supportive, legitimizing public platform for my work. At every step, I always felt like someone was right behind me, ensuring that my ideas were presented with zero compromise and I am still feeling the positive resonances of that exposure years later.

Seth Cluett

Having my videos screened at the MATA Festival six years ago was incredibly important for me in my development as a multimedia artist, encouraging me to continue down that path with a renewed enthusiasm. I attended all three concerts that year, and remember being struck by how well the evenings were curated—vibrant, inspiring pieces that were incredibly eclectic yet together formed a gratifying, cohesive experience.

Jacob Cooper

“Who on earth would ever produce this?”

I’ll always be grateful to MATA because they gave me my first show in New York City!  My friend Brad and I wrote a psychedelic orchestral hip hop re-imagination of The Rake’s Progress despite the thought: “Who on earth would ever produce this?” Well, MATA did. And I still sometimes meet someone who says to me “Oh, you’re that guy!”  Thanks y’all.

Elliot Cooper Cole

I am delighted to join the celebration of MATA’s bold, fearless, and vigorous championing of the new. When I was invited to perform my Electric Guitar Etudes over ten years ago, MATA already had such a reputation for presenting works of wild newness that nobody blinked an eye to see such a piece on the program. I arrived at the festival ready to perform and came away with my mind expanded. Thank you!

Mark Dancigers

The year is 2018. I am glad we are now talking about diversities in our society, because social and cultural change needs to start from somewhere.

I am proud of having worked at MATA, an organization that for twenty years has been built on this dialogue. For the most part, I think curiosity drives MATA and this curiosity guides MATA as it champions and stands behind the young voices that will ultimately change our cultural landscape.

Ever since I moved to New York City in 2004, I have been a loyal audience for MATA each year. I remember witnessing Missy Mazzoli and David T. Little running around on its behalf. I remember having invigorating conversations with Yotam Haber; hearing his visions for MATA electrified me. When he stepped down, I was inspired to apply for his position, simply because I wanted to be part of that vision.

MATA has given me a tremendous four years to get to know all its composers, musicians, and collaborators, and for me to learn from my peers and my colleagues, Todd, Alex Weiser, and Loren. Our team at MATA has worked hard to realize our composers’ visions, highlighting their voices as much—and as extensively—as we could.

“Social and cultural change needs to start from somewhere.”

This is my last year serving as artistic director for MATA. I want to take this space to thank MATA for having me as part of the family. I will continue to serve on its artistic advisory board; and whatever I will do next, I assure you, will have the stamp of MATA. I also want to thank the massive pool of fellow composers who have served on the rotating MATA panels throughout the years. Thank you for having open ears to all the composers from around the world who submit their work to MATA. Each of us is working hard to be part of this conversation: to have more voices heard and seen.

The time is now. To this present moment, and to our future.

Du Yun (MATA Artistic Director, 2014-2018)

My favorite MATA moment…

From: Yotam Haber <[email protected]>
Date: Tue, 17 Apr 2012 21:28:32 -0400
Cc: Garth MacAleavey
To: R. Luke DuBois

Hi Luke,

Can you please call me As soon as possible with a desperate max question regarding an Oscar Bianchi piece on tomorrow’s mata festival. It was created at ircam years ago and is now causing serious problems that we can’t seem to solve… Thank you

By the end it was MATA 1, IRCAM 0

Happy anniversary, you all.

R. Luke DuBois

Having my music presented at MATA was an amazing opportunity that came at just the right time. While I had already had performances in New York City, MATA felt like an especially good fit for my music, and I loved the energy of the festival. My friend and musical colleague saxophonist Brian Sacawa performed my work Tourmaline, and we both received extremely positive press from The New York Times, which was an amazing added bonus! A few years later I served on the panel making programming decisions for that year’s MATA, and that remains my favorite panel experience. The wonderful diversity of music presented, and the focus and enthusiasm of the festival organizers continues to be a huge inspiration. Happy Birthday, MATA!

Alexandra Gardner

Congratulations to MATA for twenty years of being such an important force in new music, and supporting young musical voices. I vividly remember Lisa and Eleonor contacting me to invite me to write for the Harry Partch instruments for the 2000 MATA Festival. I was in residence in the factories of Nuremberg, Germany, at the time. I was thrilled and taken aback; it was a musical fantasy come true! Although the instruments have been moved, I still carry the key to the old studio in Montclair, NJ, on my keychain to remind me of the incredible opportunity that MATA gave me to touch a part of musical history and work with the instruments that Partch, one of my heroes, built with his own hands. It’s an honor to be invited to write a new piece for Liminar, a dynamic young group, to commemorate two decades of MATA.

Annie Gosfield

MATA’s open call says: We accept all music from fully notated to improvised, sound art, video, electronic, found instruments, toys, installations and everything in between. That phrase really made me very happy.  I’m celebrating the 20th anniversary of MATA like many other composers who like to walk there: in between. Very few experiences in my life have given me so many satisfactions as having been part of MATA. Happy Anniversary! And many more years!

Carlos Gutiérrez Quiroga

MATA gave me my first proper, paid commission 12 years ago, when I was just out of school. I felt like someone special, professionally uncompromising, and absolutely committed had noticed my music and cared deeply about bringing it to light. When I served as Artistic Director, I carried that mission with me: to help composers not only present their best work on an international platform, but to also introduce audiences to electrifying, essential music of our time. I am proud each moment I hear of the superb achievements of our ever-expanding MATA family. To another 20 years of inspiring sounds!

Yotam Haber (MATA Artistic Director, 2009-2014)

It is a tremendous thing to look back at the history of MATA and its important mission through two decades of featuring young, emerging composers. As a young composer, when I was just starting out, I was honored to have my music featured. It was an important stepping stone, and one for which I am extremely grateful.

Jennifer Higdon

MATA asked me to perform my early voice/violin songs before I even had any inclincation that they were more than my own private etudes, and that perhaps they were worth listening to. Their faith in me and what I had to offer was a really an important stone in the path that brought me to where I am today. Thank you MATA, for being visionary, generous and so incredibly supportive of a generation of composers and musicians! Mwah!

Carla Kihlstedt

“I showed up at the MATA office in Williamsburg to find an eviction notice on the door.”

A story of the indestructible MATA: I was appointed as Executive Director of MATA in 2010, taking over from my good friend Missy Mazzoli, and joining Artistic Director Yotam Haber at the helm of the organization. On the first day of what was to be a three week-long transition period, I showed up at the MATA office in Williamsburg to find an eviction notice on the door: the building had been condemned by the city, and all tenants had to leave immediately. All of MATA’s stuff was inside: archives, computers, and most importantly, all of the recent score submissions. We managed to remove everything, loaded it into Nathan Koci’s pickup truck, and tried to figure out what to do next. After a brief stint in Missy’s living room we moved to Exapno, where we camped out for a week or so while frantically looking for a new office. Yotam found the new space—the current office on West Broadway—and we moved in right away. It was an adventurous start to my tenure as ED.

David T. Little (MATA Executive Director, 2010-2012)

My MATA commissioned piece in 2008 was my very first performance in New York. This fact alone was thrilling on its own yet I was even more taken by the high level of musicianship and ingenious programming of the festival. On the night of the premiere, one surprise happened that took my breath away: after the last sound of the piece when the clapping started, The Knights chamber orchestra conductor Eric Jacobsen gestured in my direction inviting me to the stage. And then I heard a chorus of orchestra musicians saying my name out loud. Louder and louder with each repetition! And they were pronouncing it correctly, which is quite hard to do with such an unusual Lithuanian name as Žibuoklė. Chills were running up and down my spine because at that very moment, I felt not only a part of the MATA family, but also validated and accepted as a part of the New York music community.

Žibuoklé Martinaityté

Looking back, it is perhaps the vision of MATA’s founders that is most remarkable to me. At the time, performance opportunities were scarce for young composers, but the MATA model has now been replicated far and wide. That MATA continues with its mission essentially unchanged is evidence enough that what Eleonor, Lisa and Philip started was rooted in something vital and important.

James Matheson (MATA Executive Director, 2005-2007)

Missy Mazzoli performing on a grand piano at the 2006 MATA Festival.

Missy Mazzoli (MATA Executive Director 2007-2010) performing at the 2007 MATA Festival.

“MATA continues to be an important model for inclusiveness in our increasingly divided world.”

I came into the MATA fold, first as guest curator under co-founder Lisa Bielawa and then as Artistic Director from 2008 to 2010, after several years of searching for my place in the NYC music world. I was fairly active as a player, was becoming more so as a composer, and had recently discovered a skill set for producing and curating. Joining the MATA community provided the necessary space I needed to fully engage all three directions simultaneously. That is one of the organization’s greatest strengths, the creation of a common space and network for artists to come together and share their Work. Not the dreaded “boundary crossing” of press releases but that of direct one-to-one connection through the larger project of music making. While it didn’t necessarily invent that space, MATA continues to be an important model for inclusiveness in our increasingly divided world.

Chris McIntyre (MATA Artistic Director, 2008-2010, and current MATA Board Member)

Running riot in New York in my 20s punctuated by subversion into the depths of the red basement of Le Poisson Rouge for MATA was both informative and formative! The energy of the place and the festival wound up the creativity machine, setting in motion for months and years to come! Every year when it’s time for the festival I lament not being present. And to relive those early times in my memory keeps things real! So thanks MATA for your kick start and awesomeness!

Kate Moore

MATA was my first window into the exciting new music community in NYC. It allowed me to discover new paths, explore new possibilities, connect with other inspiring sound makers, and to develop my own voice. It’s an incredible honor to be a part of the MATA family and to see it continue to develop in a way that attests to their deep commitment to the young voices of our generation.

Angélica Negrón

In my years with MATA, I have heard every kind of music being produced by emerging composers everywhere. I attend every concert, and each MATA Festival tells me where “contemporary classical music” is right now, and where it’s going. There’s nothing like it.

—Jim Rosenfield (MATA Board President, 2005-present)

“MATA provided some of my earliest live exposure to new music.”

MATA provided some of my earliest live exposure to new music when I first moved to New York in the late ‘90s and hadn’t yet decided to become a composer. The diversity of the programming struck and inspired me, and gave me a sense of where in the world my music might belong. Nine years later I was enormously honored to be programmed by MATA, sharing a program with music every bit as diverse and eclectic as I’d heard almost a decade earlier, from young composers all around the world. There is no other contemporary music festival in New York as broad-mindedly supportive of young talent as MATA; may it continue to support and inspire emerging composers for many decades to come.

Sarah Kirkland Snider

I guess I should have known better when I took the job of Executive Director of MATA in 2012, because since then my days—and sometimes nights—are one long, seemingly intractable, problem solving session: last minute hotels, emergency visa applications, letters to consular officers around the world, back-up contrabass recorder players, renting and insuring an event in a swimming pool, finding money where there is none. All this on top of more grant applications than I can count, budgets, programs, marketing, trying again and again to find time to organize the archives and clean the office.

“A cosmopolitan vision of what music should be…”

I joke to myself that I’m the hardest working person in new music. Through it all are the things that make it worthwhile. I have had the thrill to have my hands on the pulse of the world’s contemporary music, guide one of New York’s most vital cultural organizations, and promote a cosmopolitan vision of what music should be.

Todd Tarantino (MATA Executive Director, 2012-present)

So Percussion got a chance to do a MATA show at LPR a while back and had the awesome chance to commission a new piece from Nicole Lizée, Dystopian Suite, that we toured the next couple of years and led to another work with Nicky playing with us called White Label Experiment. On that show, we also premiered Proximity by one of my best friends of all time, Cenk Ergün. MATA makes it happen and does it right! Congrats on birthday number 20!

Jason Treuting

John Barth describes life as a river and you encounter and re-encounter people as the boat comes ashore from time to time. MATA has been the shore of my musical timeline since 2002. Back then, I remember getting the call from Lisa Bielawa that my piece was being programmed, and how exciting that was. I was home on break at my childhood home, still a graduate student. After the concert, there was a big review in the Times featuring a glorious photo of Taimur Sullivan and Matthew Gold playing my piece. The festival was electric. I met so many composers from around the country and abroad, many with whom I am still in touch.  In 2008 on MATA, I got to perform my vocal concerto in NYC.  And, now, I am honored and happy to be performing again on MATA 2018. Life is different, I’m a grey-haired professor now, but just as excited. Thanks, MATA, for all these years.

Ken Ueno

I spent about five wonderful, fascinating years filled with learning and discovery helping to run MATA from Fall 2011 to Spring 2016. Every year I was astounded by the incredible diversity of artistry and thought represented in the music we would receive from around the world, as well as the kindness and generosity of spirit brought to the festival by the visiting musicians and composers. As a composer I deeply value the chance to imagine what music can be and what music can say, and there is no organization devoted to as international and eclectic a platform for posing these question as MATA. For this MATA is indispensable. I continue to enjoy MATA’s incredible work as an audience member and as a member of its Artistic Advisory Board, and I look forward to the discoveries that each new concert brings.

Alex Weiser (MATA Director of Operations and Development, 2011-2016)

Being a part of MATA’s composer and performer community has been critical to my career! MATA gave me an early start in NYC in 2003, kept up with my growth and commissioned me for 2016’s Festival. Long Live MATA!

Matthew Welch

 Pico Alt and Amie Weiss (violins), Miranda Silaff (viola), and Jane O’Hara (cello) rehearse Matthew Barnson's composition Sibyl Tones for a performance during the 2007 MATA Festival at the Brooklyn Lyceum.

Pico Alt and Amie Weiss (violins), Miranda Silaff (viola), and Jane O’Hara (cello) rehearse Matthew Barnson’s composition Sibyl Tones for a performance during the 2007 MATA Festival at the Brooklyn Lyceum.


Making Something Work vs. Doing Whatever You Want

Chalk it up to some strange celestial alignment, if you’re into those sorts of interpretations, but over the past couple of weeks I have spent a disproportionate amount of time listening to orchestral music. It’s somewhat ironic considering that, as a composer, I have had little to no interest in writing orchestra music for a variety of reasons—a personal disinclination to tell people precisely what to do, the lack of rehearsal time, a seeming resistance to experimentation among orchestra players and administrators. But what gets me into a concert hall most of the time is a premiere, and there have been quite a few orchestra premieres this month. Luckily, much of what I have heard at these orchestral concerts has been specifically about defying expectations. You may recall my post about attending the American Composers Orchestra’s extremely inspiring concert, coLABoratory: Playing It Unsafe at Zankel Hall back on April 5. That program, in which the composers were given free reign to re-imagine the orchestra however they saw fit, seemed an ideal model for how to approach this medium.

The following week, the New York Philharmonic presented an all-American program: Christopher Rouse’s brand new Prospero’s Rooms—an exciting concert opener with a particularly powerful ending—was paired with Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (a de facto concerto for violin and strings) and what might still be my all-time favorite symphony after all these years, Charles Ives’s Fourth. The work is a massive sprawl of a piece, defiant in its impracticality. It had to wait for eleven years after the composer’s death to receive its first complete performance, and at that 1965 premiere by the American Symphony Orchestra Leopold Stokowski shared podium duties with two assistant conductors in an attempt to untangle the labyrinthine layers of cross rhythms in the score. The symphony is practically a text book of how not to write for orchestra: cryptic instructions (the score includes a chorus but it is marked “preferably without voices”), impractical passages that are impractically notated (in the second movement the strings are required to play passages in quartertones which are notated with square note heads), under-utilized instruments (the piece requires an organ but it only plays for a few measures in the third movement, there’s a trumpet part that has just a single note in the final movement, etc.). But nevertheless, the NY Phil totally nailed it and miraculously—though it rarely surfaces on concert programs—Ives’s 4th is being done in New York again next month: the Detroit Symphony will play it as part of a Spring for Music program featuring all four numbered Ives symphonies at Carnegie Hall. So while the piece seems to go out of its way to make matters difficult for orchestras, it is somehow finally entering the repertoire.

Of course, the accepted wisdom (at least here in the United States) for getting music in front of an orchestra—and getting the players to do an effective job with it—is to streamline what you write: make it relatively easy to sight-read, avoid pitch and metrical things that are out of the ordinary, etc. That message got drilled into my head most of last week when I participated as a moderator for the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) readings by the Buffalo Philharmonic. (The event was the second phase of JCOI, a project initiated by the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University and the American Composers Orchestra in cooperation with The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, and EarShot, the National Orchestra Composition Discovery Network; more details can be read here.) Five composers with predominantly jazz backgrounds—Gregg August, Anita Brown, Joel Harrison, Ole Mathisen, and David Wilson—got to hear their first pieces for symphony orchestra during two days of readings. Although if any generalization can be made about the music (it was quite a varied lot) it is that most of the time it was not particularly apparent that these composers came from jazz backgrounds. This sparked a bunch of lively debates with the participating composers, as well as with mentor composers Anthony Davis, Nicole Mitchell, and James Newton, plus Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel with whom I co-led the discussions.

BPO Composer Panel

BPO Composer Panel (left to right): Howard Mandel, conductor Matt Kraemer, Ole Mathisen, Anita Brown, Gregg August, David Wilson, Joel Harrison and FJO.
Photo by Greg Evans, American Composers Orchestra.

Before I heard a note of anyone’s music, I thumbed through the five scores and was very excited to see quintuple and septimal meters in several of the pieces. Sadly, this detail was one of the aspects of the scores that section leaders in the orchestra were quick to point out made the proceedings more difficult for the players than they needed to be: “You’d save a great deal of rehearsal time if you rewrote those bars of seven into alternating bars of three and four.” I was crestfallen. What would those players have said about Ives’s Fourth? I hope these composers ultimately decide to keep their scores the way they originally wrote them, although it’s difficult to resist the lure of making something more navigable, especially when you’re dealing with a medium in which every second of time spent on a new piece of music is something of a luxury.

BPO Feedback Session

Following the first day of the reading sessions, section leaders from BPO met with the participating composers and the mentors for a feedback session in which the musicians suggested ways to make each of these scores more suitable for orchestral performance.
Photo by Greg Evans, American Composers Orchestra.

Before I trekked off to Buffalo, I attended the three nights of the 2013 MATA Festival at Roulette, which was much more in keeping with my own personal compositional aesthetics and a performance practice that allows for such aesthetics to be effectively realized. Each concert was a non-stop rollercoaster ride of challenging new works that defied practical considerations. The players of the various invited ensembles—including Israel’s Meitar and NYC’s own Talea Ensemble—seemed to completely revel in it: whether it was making a variety of sounds on the backs of their instruments (as in Mexico-born and Netherlands-based Hugo Morales Murguia’s Tonewood), creating an effective counterpoint for the sound of rain (as in Seth Cluett’s ambient Cloud-to-Air scored for three clarinets, water-filled metal tray, sine tones, and projections), or attempting to convey what it’s like to live on the planet Mercury (as in Christopher Bailey’s fascinating Mergurs Ehd Ffleweh Bq Nsolst).

Meitar Ens plays Chris Bailey

The Meitar Ensemble with Sukato navigating through Christopher Bailey’s Mergurs Ehd Ffleweh Bq Nsolst during the 2013 MATA Festival at Roulette. Photo by Alex G. Knight/courtesy MATA Festival.

Rain Piece

Seth Cluett finds the music in rain in Cloud-to-Air. Photo by Alex G. Knight/courtesy MATA Festival.

While admittedly there’s a huge range between making something work and doing whatever you want, I’ve always been more of a “do whatever you want” kind of guy—and I’ve been usually lucky in finding fellow travelers who have been willing to try things that might appear to be impossible. Last Thursday, I flew back from Buffalo just in time to hear clarinetist Michiyo Suzuki play a solo piece of mine from 2009 that I had previously been convinced was actually unplayable. She not only played it, she made it musically compelling. But that’s because she devoted a ton of time to making it her own.

The current working model for orchestras does not allow musicians to spend a great deal of time on anything, not even the tried and true orchestra standards that they usually sound great playing—those pieces sound so good most of the time because the players have had numerous experiences playing them as well as listening to them over the course of their professional lives. Yet there’s something really exciting about hearing a live orchestra perform a new piece of music. Until we find a way to create more time for composers and orchestra musicians to experiment with new ideas, however, the possibilities for new orchestra music will ultimately be stillborn.

Later this week, I will travel to Cleveland to be the master of ceremonies for two Cleveland Orchestra concerts at the Cleveland Museum of Art featuring music by maverick California composers. One program will pair Henry Cowell’s unrepentantly gnarly 1928 Sinfonietta (a work that was once conducted by Anton Webern) with Dane Rudhyar’s 1982 Out of the Darkness (a world premiere 31 years after it was originally composed and 28 years after its composer’s death!) and Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin with String Orchestra. The other concert joins John Adams’s career defining Shaker Loops (in the version for string orchestra), Terry Riley’s 1990 string quartet concerto The Sands, and James Tenney’s indeterminate 1972 Clang, which has never been commercially recorded. As a grand finale, I have been asked to participate in a performance of John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s wild HPSCHD, in which a group of amplified harpsichords is pitted against a barrage of electronically manipulated sounds. Of course, all of this will only further my commitment to all these crazy, recalcitrant sounds!


Basically all I want to do is mess around with the backs of instruments after hearing Hugo Morales Murguia’s Tonewood at the 2013 MATA Festival. Photo by Alex G. Knight/courtesy MATA Festival.