Matthew Evan Taylor is a Vermont artist we’re beyond grateful to have crossed paths with. A saxophonist with extensive touring experience, Matthew is also a composer and an Assistant Professor of Music at Middlebury College. In 2019, Matthew wrote a score to accompany a new film on our Made in Vermont Statewide Tour, and we’re lucky enough to be collaborating with him again this year. We will premiere his new work from despair…Light! at our Epic Mozart concerts on March 21 and 22.
It’s not every day that we get to premiere a piece—let alone a work for our orchestra and the VSO chorus—so we’ve really been looking forward to these concerts and are full of curiosity about the piece. Our Marketing Manager, Margot Van Horne, caught up with Matthew to ask a few questions about the piece and his composition work in general.
MV: Composers vary in their workstyles—some work in bursts whenever inspiration strikes, and others chip away more methodically. How would you describe your composition process?
MT: I would say that my process is intuitive. When I begin a project, you’d be forgiven for thinking I am procrastinating or goofing off. I draw, sing, listen to podcasts, read. I often take walks up on the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail or at Texas Falls; the flowing water has an effect on me. Most importantly, I improvise. I can’t really tell you how all of this relates to the piece I am writing at the time, but my process almost always starts as a storm of, perhaps inefficient, activity. At some indescribable point, I start to commit music to paper. Once that begins, I am very methodical. I strive for peak intentionality with my additions and subtractions. I think of some friends of mine in the visual art world, and I think I have a similar love of messy beginnings that they do. This new piece, from despair…Light!, is a bit of an anomaly: I was struck with a bolt of inspiration for the text, and the music followed. The structure and direction of the piece were really clear to me from the text I had written.
MV: What do you do when you’re working on a composition and get totally stuck?
MT: When I am stuck on a piece I am writing, I look for things I can cut back on. Do I really need a gesture I have written? Does my commission allow me to reduce the instrumentation? These are questions I ask myself. I will also move elements around to see if maybe I was wrong about the placement. If I am in a really tough spot, I stop writing for a little while and improvise. The thing I’ve learned, and I believe there is even neuroscientific research to back this up, is that my brain will continue to stitch things together while I take a step back.
MV: How do your background and interests influence your compositions?
MT: I am normally not very conscious of my influences and how they inform my music. Sometimes I will make a concerted effort to emphasize particular things I have been studying. This is true of pieces in my African American Requiem Series.
MV: Will there be any examples of this in from despair…Light?
MT: In fact, there are examples of this in from despair…Light. This newest piece is the latest in my African American Requiem series, which I began composing in 2017, the year my grandmother, Earnestine Colvin Taylor, passed away. The pieces I write for this series draw inspiration from my childhood memories going to church with my grandmother. The black church is a true melting pot of traditions, which manifests in the type of music you can hear in a service. At my grandmother’s church, I would sing hymns from the United Methodist Hymnal, listen to the choir sing gospel, watch the church musicians improvise in the name of the Lord, and listen to elders of the church lead the congregation in a call-and-response tradition known as hymn-lining. From despair…Light includes allusions to all of this, though this is the only piece in the series that doesn’t require improvisation. The most obvious example of what I am talking about is the 2nd movement (“we learn to move on…”), written in the style of hymn-lining. For people that want to understand what I mean, they should listen to the Fairfield Four’s performance of the song “Lonesome Valley.” It can be found on the soundtrack for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou.
MV: What else can audiences expect from from despair…Light?
MT: This piece is a reflection of my own path from grief to acceptance of the loss of my grandmother. But, I hope that my specific journey can be point of commonality with everyone who hears it. I often avoid telling people what my pieces are about exactly, because I want them to make their own connections and not look for one-to-one correlations between the program note and a musical gesture.
MV: What are some of your favorite artists and works to listen to, at the moment?
MT: Oh man! I could go on forever talking about this! I absolutely love Nathalie Joachim’s album with the Spektral String Quartet, Fanm d’Aiyiti (trans. Women of Haiti). It’s remarkably fresh and poignant. I have also gotten into the music of Ranky Tanky, a band out of South Carolina that adapts songs from the Gullah Islands into jazz arrangements. I am always listening to Nina Simone, in fact I am giving a lecture on her song “Mississippi Goddam” on March 4 as part of the Vermont Humanities Council’s First Wednesdays series. I recently bought countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s album ARC, which I have enjoyed. Finally, I really love Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Igor Stravinsky’s ballets Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps (trans. The Rite of Spring) with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.