UMBRAS AND ILLUMINATIONS
PEACE TALKS (2014), for chorus (with soloists) and orchestra
Commissioned by Swarthmore College in honor of its Sesquicentennial in 2014
Libretto by Jared Green
Instrumentation: SATB chorus with SATB soloists; 2222 4231 timp 2perc harp pf strings
Premiere: December 5, 2014, Swarthmore College Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Hauze, choral preparation by Joseph Gregorio
The libretto for Peace Talks, brilliantly compiled by my longtime friend Jared Green, comprises a variety of excerpts from speeches given at Swarthmore College over the course of the college's history. The excerpts come from such diverse sources as Albert Einstein, Adrienne Rich, LBJ, William Taft, Courtney Craig Smith, John William Nason, Clair Wilcox, Rebecca Chopp, Phil Weinstein, Frank Fetter, and Raymond Wilson, and are interleaved with Edward Hicks's poem The Peacable Kingdom, a paraphrase of Isaiah 11:6-8.
The passages address peace and war, and the very human struggle against the elements of destruction that threaten not just our way of life, but our existence itself.
The bulk of our work on Peace Talks took place during the spring and summer of 2014, a time when Clair Wilcox's phrase "things look as though they might blow apart" felt particularly resonant. The rise of ISIS/ISIL, the threat of the ebola virus to West Africa, the resurgence of intense conflict in Gaza, the continuing collapse of reasoned discourse in American media and politics - this was the backdrop against which Peace Talks was composed, and the context in which these emphatic voices of courage and reason in the face of monumental challenge spoke to and through us.
FOUR FANFARES (WITH ASSORTED NIGHTMARES) (2011), for orchestra
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director
Instrumentation: 3333 4331 timp 2perc hp cel strings
Premiere: April 23 and 30, 2011, Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by David Afkham
UMBRAS AND ILLUMINATIONS (2004), for orchestra
Commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, David Alan Miller, Music Director
Instrumentation: 3322 4231 strings
Premiere: April 23, 2004, Albany Symphony Orchestra
During a trip to Albany in 2003 for the premiere of a work for chamber orchestra work I wrote for the city’s symphony, I spent a few hours wandering through (and under) the Empire State Plaza. I was struck by the austere power of the block-like buildings, and intrigued by the notion that while (during winter, at least) the plaza itself is virtually empty of people, life proceeds at a rapid pace beneath it, in the subterranean complex of passageways that connect the buildings. I find this inversion of what we ordinarily take for granted (i.e., that the illuminated depths are where human activity is most apparent, and the surface, darkened by winter clouds, comparatively desolate) enormously appealing, and kept these notions much in mind when I sat down to begin work on what became Umbras and Illuminations.
Umbras and Illuminations is essentially an exploration of these contrasts. It has an overtly dramatic shape, and is full of emotional nuance, but is guided by the notion of moving in and out of shadowy places and bright ones. The emotional range of the work is therefore quite broad, and puts into play the metaphorical implications of light and darkness: it is variously bright, yearning, melancholy and fiercely angry, and its textures range from the kinetically charged to the virtually motionless. Ultimately, the work’s impetus derives from three things: the working out of these apparent contrasts, the discovery of their connection as opposites, and the exploration of the notion that these opposites mirror the dynamic equilibrium of life, with its both tragic and euphoric dimensions.
RIVER, RIVER, RIVER (2001), for orchestra
Commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the Civic Orchestra of Chicago
Instrumentation:3333 4331 3perc hp pf/cel strings
Premiere: February 11, 2002, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, conducted by Cliff Colnot, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
Although the original impetus for writing River, River, River was purely musical, as I completed it became clear that the particular flow and energy of the piece was highly suggestive, to me, of the rhythm and pace of the river. I then came across T. S. Eliot's poem Virginia, which thematicizes the river, finding in its phenomenology tensions and paradoxes, which struck me as remarkably similar to the music. As one would expect from one of Eliot's images, the river in Virginia is a highly personal one; he does not create a mere naturalistic evocation of the river, but is concerned more with its effect on human consciousness. Through the image of the river Eliot conjures a sense of timelessness and one of paradox: the river is both still and full of a deep motion, and manifests both life and degeneration (“White trees, wait, wait,/Delay, decay./Living, living, Never moving. Ever moving”).
The title of my work comes from the final line of the poem (“Red river, river, river”). In the work, such paradoxes are manifest through ideas which are often harmonically static but full of an inner textural intricacy and activity. While the overall sense of pacing is often slow, each of the piece's four principal sections proceeds on the basis of a continuous flow of ideas, which move with a clear sense of direction and intensification. Thus while, like the Eliot, River, River, River does not depict riverness naturalistically, it does evoke a similar sense of riverly flow, current, and inevitability of destination, while at the same time evoking the broad palette of emotional textures and images which we, with Eliot, have come to associate with this phenomenon.
BURN (2001), for wind ensemble
Commissioned by the Cornell University Wind Ensemble
Instrumentation: 2 Piccolos, 3 Flutes, 2 Oboes, English Horn, Eb Clarinet, 3 Bb Clarinets, Bb Bass Clarinet, Bb Contrabass Clarinet, 2 Bassoons, 4 Saxophones (SATB); 4 Horns, 3 Bb Trumpets, 2 Trombones, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba; 2 String Basses; Piano, Timpani, 5 Percussionists
Premiere: 2001, Cornell University Wind Ensemble, conducted by Mark Scatterday
Duration: 8 ½ Minutes
"Burn," in its use as a metaphor, transforms into physical sensation a state of intense emotionality. Interestingly, the metaphor of burning is used in the seemingly opposite cases of fervor and pique; within our language, one “burns” with both rage and desire, both envy and love. When we feel an unrequited longing for another’s presence we “carry a torch” for him or her, while our current romantic interest is our “flame.” In addition, the volatile, destructive force which fire symbolizes underlies a whole web of metaphors within our discourse on the emotions: we are “consumed” by love or anger, or “ruined” by virtually any of our emotions, while a fire itself “rages.” And when we find ourselves emotionally drained, having labored at an exhausting task, we are, like a house in which destructive fires have raged, “burned out.”
Thus, when we “burn” with an emotion we experience it at its most intense, at the peak of its ability to affect us. Because it is these moments at which we feel most “alive,” there is an interesting reversal here: “burning,” with its overtones of destruction, is simultaneously life-affirming, and works toward our total engagement with the world.
It is this sense of intense emotional involvement which I have sought to capture in this work. Consequently, I have deliberately avoided what appear to be the cliches of the band repertoire, and have approached this medium with the same emotional palette, degree of expressiveness, and seriousness of purpose one more typically associates with the orchestra.
GLISS (1999), for orchestra
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director
Instrumentation: 3333 4331 3perc time hp pf/cel string
Premiere: Augist 17, 1999, Hartwick College Summer Festival of Music and Dance
“Gliss” is the commonly used abbreviation of the French/Italian hybrid word glissando, meaning sliding. In the work, this technique of sliding from one pitch to another is woven into the sonic fabric of the piece. Part of the strangeness of the timbral world of Gliss derives from the pervasiveness of the glissandi and from their employment in instruments rarely called upon to produce them; in Gliss, these slides are required of the flutes, clarinets, and timpani no less than of the trombones and strings.
The general idea of sliding governs the structure of each of the three principle sections of the work as well; within each, ideas are presented and repeated with subtle variations. The changes in timbre, harmony and melodic material emerge gradually as the product of more minute alterations of instrumentation or of the lengthening or contraction of musical ideas.
The first large section consists of the repeated alternation of two rather simple ideas: a short glissando motive presented initially by the first clarinet, and a somewhat mechanical melodic fragment introduced by the bass clarinet. But for the intercession at two points of a third idea of chromatically shifting major triads, the two ideas are continually repeated and continuously varied. There is a gradual process of intensification throughout this section culminating in the abrupt introduction of a fast but heavy music underneath one iteration of the second idea. Orchestral outbursts cut the music off just as it has gained some forward momentum, and the slow process of intensification begins again.
The middle section of the piece is based on a slow, winding melody presented at first in the winds and punctuated by bell sounds and pizzicato strings. As in the first section, the constituent material is repeated over and over, and again the changes from one repetition to another are gradual. Here, however, the transformation is primarily cumulative: with each repetition new elements are introduced which add to the complexity of the overall sound. The tension condenses into an explosive fast music that surges and then eases its way into the final section.
Markedly shorter than the first two, the third section reintroduces material from the beginning. Rather than simply recapitulate, however, this section continues and brings to a conclusion the process of gradual transformation introduced at the outset.
VIOLIN CONCERTO (2011), for violin and orchestra
Co-commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ricardo Muti, Music Director
Co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philhamonic, Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director
Instrumentation: solo violin; 3333 4331 timp 3perc harp pf/cel solo vln. strings
Premiere: December 15, 16, 17 and 18, 2011, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Baird Dodge, violin, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; March 2, 3 and 4, 2012, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Martin Chalifour, violin, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado
"Matheson's concerto is a supercharged showpiece for virtuoso violinist and orchestra that connects with the listener on a visceral as well as intellectual level. It keeps the soloist extremely busy as he negotiates a maze of vivid, colorful orchestral effects that ultimately are the most interesting aspect of the piece. While neo-romantic in overall flavor, Matheson is original enough to shun the feel-good bromides that constitute so much of today's 'new' classical music."
—John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune
"Unlike many younger composers who have a basic idea and then try to orchestrate it, Matheson writes in full orchestral 3-D. Waves of tonal sounds moved across the stage, and sections had individual voices and even voices within the sections."
—Andrew Patner, The Chicago Sun-Times
TRUE SOUTH (2010), for chamber orchestra
Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, Music Director
Instrumentation: 2022 2110 2perc hp pf/cel strings
Premiere: December 17 and 18, 2010, New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert
"James Matheson's True South... used the orchestra to make surprising sounds, if less enchanting than astonishing. Matheson hears [the South Pole] as a landscape ripe for strange and fascinating guttural and esophageal instrumental effects carried on for 17 raucous minutes."
—Mark Swed, LA Times
"True South demands an astonishing array of orchestral effects. In True South, one hears the promise of Matheson’s future as a major composer."
—Ahdda Shur, LA Classical Music Examiner
"The sound-world of True South piece is truly remarkable, with deeply reverberant, hard-charging strings set against percussion and vivid, dancing melodic figures from the woodwinds. [...] This chamber orchestra plays with the depth of an ensemble twice its size and the strings especially can dig in in a way that is almost gasp-inducing."
—J. Anthony Macalister, Note x Note
SHARP OBJECTS (2008), for student string orchestra, with or without basses
Commissioned by Phillips Academy
Premiere: February 29, 2007, the Corelli Ensemble, Phillips Academy
COLONNADE (2003), for 12 instruments
Commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, David Alan Miller, Music Director
Instrumentation: Flute, Oboe, Bb Clarinet, Bassoon; Horn; Vibraphone/Marimba; Harp; 2 Violins, Viola, Violoncello, Contrabass
Premiere: March 8, 2003, Albany Symphony Orchestra, conducted David Alan Miller
Colonnade is inspired by Albany’s majestic New York State Board of Education Building, and written on a commission from the Albany Symphony Orchestra. Colonnade's composition was an intriguing task, in part because in order to accept the commission I had to agree to write a work “inspired by” a building I had not yet seen. This problem was compounded by the fact that, for me, the very notion of extra-musical inspiration is a complex one, particularly with respect to literary or visual sources. I generally find ideas and abstracted notions more generative of musical ideas than specific ones (a poem, an experience, a painting). So when I went to see and tour the building, I looked for fundamental formal aspects which I could process into musical ideas. In the end, two characteristics of the building stood out as noteworthy and undiminished by time (compared with, for instance, the building’s rotunda, which contains a series of quaintly outdated allegorical paintings): the exterior colonnade and a beautiful interior vaulted ceiling, designed by Rafael Guastavino.
For me, a colonnade is an apt metaphor for the tension between knowledge and perception. We all know, for instance, that the columns are of the same height and are equidistant from each other. Nevertheless, while the mind comprehends this, it is also the case that there exists no place—no standpoint or viewpoint—anywhere in the universe—from which one can perceive this; the columns always appear to be of uneven height and spacing. If one then adds motion to perspective—a walk along the colonnade, for instance—the fixed, even, rigidly identical columns acquire elasticity, and begin to change kaleidoscopically—they shrink, grow, become closer, and then further apart. Further, the details of the building’s façade behind the colonnade shift into and out of visibility, with different portions obscured by the columns from each vantage point.
These considerations underlie the outer sections of Colonnade, in which a continuously repeated, continuously varied rising figure—suggestive of a column—dominates. The iterations of this elastic, evolving figure are interspersed with other music—suggestive of the building’s façade.
The second feature of the building that caught my attention was Guastavino's vaulted ceiling in one of the building’s largest rooms. The ceiling enhances the room's spaciousness, giving it an openness and lightness that is quite captivating. The middle section of Colonnade has this openness at its core, and is dominated by long, arching lines that, to me, suggest the ceiling's refined beauty.
THE PACES (2003), for piano and 10 instruments
Commissioned by the Stott Fund
Instrumentation: Solo Piano; Flute, Oboe, Bb/Eb Clarinet, Bass Clarinet; Percussion; 2 Violins, Viola, Violoncello, Contrabass
Premiere: April 25, 2003, pianist Charles Abramovic and Orchestra 2001, conducted by James Freeman, Kimmel Center, PA
The Paces is a single-movement concerto for piano and chamber ensemble. It is comprised of several sections, all of which in some form or another develop the piano's initial melody, heard at the very beginning of the work. The work, on several levels, puts the soloist, ensemble and audience “through the paces.” The pianist bears the bulk of this challenge, articulated in its clearest form: although it generally eschews conspicuous flash, the part is both virtuosic and relentless (over the course of the work's twenty or so minutes, the pianist never rests for more than a few measures).
The challenge to the listener is more subtle. Although the work's several sections are derived from the piano’s opening bars, there is great variety to them, and transitions are often sudden and unexpected. Within the work, there is often the sense of approaching a corner, which hides something unexpected but which, when revealed, is sensical. My hope is that these events displace one’s expectations, not quite satisfying them, but not quite frustrating them either. As the work moves from place to place, never quite arriving where it seems to be going, the challenge to the listener is, put simply, to keep pace.
SLEEP (1997), for violin and 14 instruments
Instrumentation: Solo Violin; Flute/Piccolo, Oboe, Bb/Eb Clainet, Bassoon; Horn, Bb/Piccolo Trumpet, Trombone; Percussion, Piano; 2 Violins, Viola, Violoncello, Contrabass
Premiere: March 29, 1997, Baird Dodge, violin and Festival Orchestra, Cornell University, Mark Scatterday, cond.
Sleep is in three movements, the third proceeding from the second without pause. The first movement, Twitching, is dramatic in character, full of contrasts, and pits the violin against the orchestra in more or less romantic fashion. The second, Breathing, is comprised of overlapping layers of simple harmonies (almost entirely major 6-4 chords), which accompany a freely evolving, lyrical melody in the violin. In the third movement, Sweating, the soloist and ensemble initially work together to create a rising line. They soon diverge, and an increasing layering of multiple lines throughout the ensemble leads to a very high point of density which is then abruptly cut off by the virtuosic frenzy in the violin which ends the work.
Sleep was written for violinist Baird Dodge.
piano & 10
violin & 14
CRETIC VARIATIONS (2013), for solo piano
Commissioned by Nadia Shpachenko
Premiere: May 22, 2013 by Nadia Shpachenko
VIOLIN SONATA (2007), for violin and piano
Commissioned by Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music
Premiere: April 20 and 22, 2007 by Tereza Stanislav and Roberto Giordano
LA SEINE (2007), for solo english horn or alto saxophone
Commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra
Premiere: March 2007 by Nat Fossner as part of the Albany Symphony Orchestra's American Music Festival
Premiere of Alto Saxophone arrangement: September 2007 by Tim McAllister at the University of Arizona Museum of Art
A virtuosic tour de force, after Joan Mitchell's expressionist painting La Seine.
CONTACT (2005), for alto saxophone and piano
Commissioned by a consortium of nineteen saxophone/piano duos
Premiere: Various locations, 2005–6 season
I find it mysterious that human beings continually seek new ways of connecting with each other that, paradoxically, have the collateral effect of distancing them in other ways. Etched stone tablets, books, letters, phones, faxes, e-mails, online chat rooms—even the printed music that makes tonight’s performance possible—all of these are means of disembodied communication. They allow for the possibility of reaching out across great distances, across national borders, even across time. What they supplant—or try to—is the actual magical, physical presence of another living being. So while they are bridges for discourse, they are also obstacles for physical interaction—they simultaneously, and profoundly, connect us to the world and distance us from it, in the sort of dynamic equilibrium that fuels so much human endeavor.
Contact is an exploration—in music—of this impulse to connect, and of the tensions and paradoxes inherent in our desire and efforts to make the world “smaller.” It is by turns lyrical and severe, gentle and brutal—in short, a microcosm of the various modes of our interactions with others. As a both physical (through live presence) and disembodied means of communication, Contact is ultimately a short reflection on one of the most fundamental aspects of being human.
A final, related, note: ours is a time in which recordings have come to vastly overshadow live performances as the primary means by which people experience music. The advantage of recordings is, of course, that anytime, anywhere, each of us has access to an astounding variety of music. For me, though, the drama of live performance, the excitement of watching virtuosos struggle with a demanding work, and the irreproducible sound of live instruments will always trump the convenience of recordings. Contact is an extraordinarily difficult work that requires performers of the highest technical and musical caliber—I invite you to truly relish the opportunity to see and hear it brought to life.
FALLING (2000), for piano trio
Premiere: June 11, 2000, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Chamber Music Series)
Falling represents the coming together of a variety of influences which affected me at various points during the course of its composition. First, the death of the pianist and composer Leo Smit, with whom I had come to have a rather unique relationship. Despite working as his copyist for several years, I had met Leo face-to-face only once, at a concert devoted to his music. We nevertheless came to know each other well, through many letters and countless hours logged in phone conversations. As might be expected, these conversations, at first focused on the work I was doing for him, developed a very personal side as well, as he coached me, with his nearly infinite patience and generosity of spirit, through some very difficult times. Falling is dedicated to Leo’s memory.
The inspiration to try my hand at a set of variations comes from the second major influence during this time, the music of John Harbison. A frequent composer of variations, Harbison has approached the form in a variety of ways, arousing enough interest on my part over the years that his use of variations became the topic of my doctoral thesis. Although Falling differs markedly in its approach to the form when compared to most of Harbison’s sets, the piece owes a great debt to his music, as to me these works demonstrate the continuing ability of such a form to bear the weight of modern musical materials.
Falling is a comparatively loosely-structured set of variations, a fact underscored by the absence of a theme per se. The opening, for piano alone, introduces a very simple descending sequence (the simplest form of musical process), distributed throughout the range of the instrument. It is this notion of process, conjoined with the idea of descent, which governs the structure of these variations, more than a tune or harmonic progression as is more traditionally the case with such works.
The title refers, of course, on the one hand to the descent inherent in the piano’s introduction. But the piece draws its emotional impetus from the idea of falling as well. As metaphor, “falling” generally represents a degeneration: we fall from grace, fall apart, or have a falling out. The expressive world of Falling reflects very much this sense of progressive degeneration, which reaches its lowest point toward the end of the work. Almost as if to suggest, however, the truth of the notion that at some point there is nowhere to go but up, the final variation presents a brighter twist on the idea of falling (after all, we also fall in love); while the musical material continues to fall, the expressive content of this material takes on a decidedly more optimistic tone.
POUND (1999), for solo piano
Premiere: Xak Bjerken, May 4, 1998, Barnes Hall, Cornell University
Pound is in three movements, played without pause. The first movement is meant to suggest the illusion of two pianos. This illusion is accomplished through the use of two simultaneous layers of music. The first is a simple pulse that begins with one note and builds to massive chords by the conclusion of the movement. The second layer is both more complex and more melodic. By separating these two layers registrally, the movement becomes virtuosic not because it of its notiness, but because of the difficulty posed by the wide leaps across the keyboard required of the performer. The overall shape of the first movement is that of an outwardly expanding wedge; it begins softly, with a single note and expands outward to the extremes of the piano’s register, while simultaneously building in intensity and volume until the climactic chords, which bring it to a close.
The second movement is somewhat more traditional, at least as regards its construction. At the outset, an ostinato in the bass accompanies a simple tune in the treble. This combination of melody and accompaniment undergoes numerous transformations, eventually leading to a rhythmically driving climactic passage. A brief allusion to the opening of the movement brings it to a dramatic and exhilarating end.
The final movement is comprised of three basic sections. The first juxtaposes two ideas—sharply articulated chords at the outer extremes of the instrument, and dense, outwardly expanding chords toward the middle. These ideas alternate, gaining in momentum, and lead to a second, rhythmically lopsided but more lyrical section. This too gains in intensity and leads to a final section, closely related to the first, but more explosive in character.
PULL (1995), for alto saxophone and piano
Commissioned by Samuel Lorber
Premiere: March 29, 1995, Samuel Lorber and Ossie Borosh, New England Conservatory
Pull—light, hot and virtuosic—is a brief but intense struggle between two groups of musical material. Pungent, pounding chords open the work, followed by fleet, cascading arpeggiated figures which enter about a minute later. These blocks, and a few structurally related offspring, are repeated and varied, but retain their essential characteristics throughout the work. They tug at each other, try to influence each other, vie for preeminence. But in the end neither dominates and there is no resolution of the internal conflict. There is only the push and pull of contrary, though complimentary, forces.
violin & piano
TIMES ALONE (2012), for soprano and piano
Commissioned by Kiera Duffy
Premiere: February 26, 2013 at Rockefeller University, Kiera Duffy and Roger Vignoles
A song cycle comprising five settings of poems from Spanish poet Antonio Machado's Soledades, Galerias y Otros Poemas, as translated and reworked into English by American poet Robert Bly.
1. I have walked along many roads (He andado muchos caminos)
2. Last night, as I was sleeping (Anoche cuando dormía)
3. Clouds ripped open (Desgarrada la nube)
4. The wind, one brilliant day (Llamó a mi corazón, un claro día)
5. Is my soul asleep? (¿Mi corazón se ha dormido?)
Antonio Machado's early poems are imaginative, deeply personal observations on being and spirituality in early 20th century Spain. They are urgent, modern, and sometimes devastating in the sheer loneliness of their perspective. As with many great poets, Machado's existential predicament gives rise to works that are rapturously beautiful and deeply moving in the level of their personal exposure.
Thankfully for English-speakers, Robert Bly, the iconic and quintessentially American poet and guru, has reworked Machado's early works into versions that retain the potency of Machado's purpose and vision. They soar above mere translation—and they are, unquestionably, of lasting relevance to those among us who search, but are not lost.
CRADLE SONG (2008), for SATB chorus
Commissioned by Phillips Academy (Andover)
Premiere: March 7, 2008 by Fidelio, Christopher Walter, director
Setting of William Blake's "Cradle Song," from Songs of Experience
Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
Dreaming in the joys of night;
Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep.
Sweet babe, in thy face
Soft desires I can trace,
Secret joys and secret smiles,
Little pretty infant wiles.
As thy softest limbs I feel,
Smiles as of the morning steal
O'er thy cheek, and o'er thy breast
Where thy little heart doth rest.
O the cunning wiles that creep
In thy little heart asleep!
When thy little heart doth wake,
Then the dreadful light shall break.
SONGS OF DESIRE, LOVE AND LOSS (2004), for soprano and
mixed chamber ensemble
Commissioned by Carnegie Hall
Instrumentation: Soprano, Flute, Bb Clarinet (doubles Eb and Bb Bass Clarinets), Percussion, Piano, Violin, Violoncello
Premiere: October 10, 2004, Dawn Upshaw Perspectives Series, Carnegie Hall; Weill Recital Hall, New York
I came to Alan Dugan’s work through one of those sets of circumstances that in retrospect seems almost fateful. During a day spent browsing at a bookstore, two friends, one of whom had grown up with Dugan for a neighbor, bought me a copy of Poems Seven. As we sat and read them together I was pulled in by Dugan’s combination of emotional directness (often rawness) and complexity, apparently contradictory impulses that impel my work as a composer as well. It occurred to me that I might set a few of these to music at some future point, not suspecting that the Carnegie Hall commission would come only a few months later.
Part of what appealed to, and resonated with, me about Dugan’s work was the brute (and brutal) anger to which much of it gives voice, and which has drawn the most attention to him. In the end, though, I chose poems that show another side of his poetic persona. Although his trademark anger is often present, if only through an underlying tension and the suggestion of violence (eg. “blowing/monarchs to pieces” in the third song), these poems have, for me, a haunted-ness and occasionally even bitter-sweetness that makes them, for me, more conducive to a moderate-scale vocal work.
Poems Seven is a complete anthology of Dugan’s published work, which came out two years before his death last year. The poems I chose therefore span decades in their composition ("Argument to Love as a Person" stretches back to Poems Two, published in 1963), and were not originally intended to appear together. That said, they share similar themes (eg. the mutation of the spiritual to the fleshly—“the dove itself come down / to be the pigeon” in the first song, the soul as guest–at–an–inn in the second, the souls’ “fall to flesh” in the fourth), and images (eg. flowers, whether roses or rhododendrons) that made them fit together for me. In fact, it was ultimately possible—as well as being musically and dramatically advantageous—to arrange them into a quasi-narrative. It is a non-specific, generalized sort of narrative—outlining a development from desire, to love, to loss—and one with contradictory (or at least paradoxical) and “off-topic” branches and implications. Nevertheless, it gives structure and definition to the ordering of the songs, and is something I bore very much in mind while composing them.
STRING QUARTET (2014)
I. All leap and no faith
II. Y 'heart' X—
III. Pure chocolate energy
Commissioned by Justus and Elizabeth Schlichting
Additional support from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation and Premiere Commission
Premiere: February 20, 2014, St. Lawrence String Quartet, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Orange County, CA
"Matheson’s String Quartet is an impressive piece of work. Thirty-two minutes long, it is brimming with ideas; the richness of their number is palpable. It is also composed in an accessible style, but not a dumbed-down one.
"Matheson, who recently composed a violin concerto for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, obviously has a talent for writing for strings. The String Quartet is, perhaps first and foremost, beautifully orchestrated, the combination of instruments used to create one wondrous color after another. Motor rhythms and repeated patterns juice forward progress; these ideas move through tonal progressions, reaching plateaus of more static material (at least in the first two movements) – meditative, starry-skied, rapt. The quick finale is a syncopated romp. "
—Timothy Mangan, Orange County Register
BAGATELLE (2012), for 3 pianos, 12 hands
Commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival
Premiere: September 16, 2012 at the International Beethoven Festival, Chicago. The pianists were James Giles, Matt Hagle, George Lepauw, Daniel Schlosberg, Anthony Molinaro and Mischa Zupko.
Bagatelle is based on materials from the end of the final movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony as part of a larger collection of works commissioned by the International Beethoven Project to celebrate and elucidate the the theme of Revolution in Beethoven's milieu. Beethoven's themes are pulled apart, recontextualized and ultimately put back together again—stacked and layered, louder, somehow more, illustrating, simply and directly, the simultaneously destructive and synthetic nature of the spirit of revolution.
"The most absorbing was a James Matheson bagatelle enlisting all six participating pianists[...] The piece alternated material from the final movement of the Eroica with spectral and torrential washes of sound—think Franz Liszt playing Beethoven on hallucinogens."
—John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune
BORROMEAN RINGS (2010), for string quartet and piano
Commissioned by the Cheswatyr Foundation
Premiere: August 29, 2010, the Borromeo String Quartet with Judith Gordon, piano, Maverick Concerts, Woodstock, NY
A key element in the emotional and structural world of my piano quintet is the idea of the Borromean Rings—a chain of rings in which all rings are connected as a unit, but in which no two individual rings are connected. Thus, if one link in the chain is broken, the entire structure crumbles. The metaphor of mutually dependent connectedness, of a chain of relationships in which every nodal point has equal importance in maintaining the survival and integrity of the whole, has powerful musical and spiritual implications. Fundamental to our experience of the world—and of music – is the paradox of the simultaneous importance of unity and multiplicity, of the individual and the community, of the simplest musical idea and the structure in which it resides. Borromean Rings explores this paradox with sensitivity to the fragile connections that make life and music sustainable and rewarding, and which generate the most fundamental meanings of life.
FAULT LINES (2009), for violin, viola, violoncello and piano
Commissioned by Mayfest
Premiere: May 21, 2010 by Nicholas DiEugeno, violin; Roberta Crawford, viola; John Haines-Eitzen, violoncello; and Xak Bjerken, piano; Barnes Hall, Cornell University
I composed most of Fault Lines while living briefly in L.A., where the continuous buzz of activity coexists with one’s constant half-awareness of the earth’s underlying tectonic discontent. Life in that great city, so often associated with sunshine and frivolity, glamour and wealth, hard bodies and the pursuit of eternal youth, attains a unique and surprising—and perhaps ironic—richness when considered in the context of these occasional subterranean rumblings. Quaking earth might be a gently threatening reminder from the gods that beneath L.A.’s extravagant façade, massive, ground-shaking movements—capable both of toppling buildings and forging mountains—are at work…
Fault Lines shifts between various emotional and textural landscapes, while remaining more or less fixated on a few underlying ideas. The opening, for piano alone, is sparse and melancholy, and soon becomes bright, visceral and vigorous; such contrasts pervade most of the music’s 10 minutes. Despite these contrasts, the work as a whole is constructed from subtly shifting, descending chord progressions—as if, like tectonic plates, the music were slowly but persistently struggling toward a rooted stability that, as in life, seems always to elude us…
QUARTET FOR OBOE AND STRINGS (2008), for oboe, violin, viola
Commissioned Winsor Music, Inc., for Peggy Pearson. Made possible by a grant from the Jebediah Foundation: New Music Commissions
Premiere: September 20, 2008 by Peggy Pearson, oboe; Gabriela Diaz, violin; Mark Berger, viola; Rafael Popper-Keizer, violoncello
The musical ideas of my Oboe Quartet are generated largely from a question that arose as I began working with this fundamentally odd instrumentation: how do I write for three string instruments that are roughly homogenous, and the oboe, which has a totally different character? So, the piece begins with the instruments in unison, with different instruments gradually splintering off. The rest of the piece explores a variety of ideas textures and expressive modes that highlight the uniqueness of this strange but also strangely beautiful combination.
THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY (2008), for Bb clarinet, violin,
violoncello and piano
Commissioned by Antares
Premiere: February 8, 2008, Antares, Ravinia Festival
The Anatomy of Melancholy, like Robert Burton's 1621 book of that name, dissects and explores some of the darker areas of human experience as a means of expressing and understanding them, while at the same time striving to rise above them. As Burton noted, "I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy."
The principal musical idea of the work is a simple, spare descending scale, heard at the outset in the piano. Contrasting ideas—brighter and more energetic—begin to intrude and, eventually, to dominate. Formally the work proceeds as a loosely structured set of variations. The opening, spare and desolate, sets the stage for an emotional trajectory of regeneration and growth and features each of the quartet's members in soloistic episodes along the way.
ON SPACES (2007), for piano, 6 hands
Commissioned by Phillips Academy (Andover) for the dedication of the Academy's new Steinway D Grand piano.
Premiere: November 29, 2007 Phillips Academy. The pianists were Christopher Walter, Sophie Scolnik-Brower and Andi Zhou.
BUZZ (2001), for Bb clarinet, violin, violoncello and piano
Premiere: September 22, 2001, Ensemble X , Merkin Concert Hall, New York City
Buzz is built from two ideas—one slow, meditative and perhaps a bit melancholic, and one fast, frenetic, and overtly “buzzing.” To my mind and ear there is the subtle (or maybe it’s not so subtle...) underlying suggestion of an updated, “crunchier,” more muscular and acerbic Flight of the Bumblebee, and like that classic encore, Buzz is often light on the wing and virtuosic. There is also, however, a hint of something both darker and weightier, particularly in the slower passages but also in some of the denser areas of the fast ones. Such plays of contrast—fastness and slowness, lightness and gravity, virtuosity and expressiveness—impel the work, generating both its substance and impetus.
Or, “Buzz”—‘cause it does.
SPIN (1998), for string quartet
Premiere: May 16, 1999, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Chamber Music Series)
Spin was composed early in 1998. Each of the work’s three movements assumes the task of exploring a different meaning of the title. The first movement, Gyre (as in gyroscope), has the character of a whimsically spinning object in a sort of arena - spinning and bouncing off the walls (like a spinning penny, which bounces off of an object unpredictably and with somewhat explosive force). The primary musical idea consists of high harmonics in the violins set against a rocking pulse in the lower strings. This basic texture is explored in various guises as the movement progresses.
Web is essentially a slow movement. It explores a nearly static, sinewy texture comprised of slowly undulating chords. Snippets of melody emerge from the notes held while the chords disappear. The music intensifies, leading to an expected climax (or anti-climax) of pizzicatos, before returning to the opening material and winding gently to a close.
Like Gyre, the third movement, Spiral, explores a kinetic notion of spinning, this time in the form of rapidly rising scales. The formal idea of this movement, however, has the character of a spiral, with its tendency toward implosion.
Spin was written for violinist Baird Dodge.
– James Matheson
ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY
cello & piano
piano, 6 hands
cello & piano