Paula Matthusen’s Pieces for People


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This is the first disc devoted entirely to the music of Paula Matthusen who as of July is a newly minted associate professor at Wesleyan University where she walks at least partly in the footsteps of emeritus professor Alvin Lucier whose course Music 109 she inherited from him.  I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Matthusen at Other Minds 18 where she was one of the featured composers.  In our all too brief conversation she was affable and unpretentious but certainly passionate about music.

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Paula Matthusen performing her work, ‘…and believing in…’ at Other Minds in 2013

 

She holds a B.M. from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. and PhD. from New York University.  She announced her recent promotion to associate professor on Facebook as is, I suppose, customary for people of her generation.  It is on Facebook that I contacted her to request a review copy of this CD to which she quickly and graciously agreed.

This CD contains 9 tracks representing 8 works.  They range from solo to small ensemble works, some with electronics as well.  Her musical ideas seem to have much in common with her emeritus colleague Alvin Lucier but her sound world is her own despite some similarities in techniques, especially her attention to sonic spaces and her use of electronics to amplify sonic micro-events which might even include her heartbeat.

 

sparrows in supermarkets (2011) for recorder looks at the sound of birds in the acoustic space of a supermarket and their melodic repetition.  It is for recorder (Terri Hron) and electronics

limerance (2008) is another solo work, this time for banjo (James Moore) with electronics.  She says she is working with the concept of reciprocation here but that seems rather a subjective construct.  Like the previous piece this is a contemplative and spare work with some spectral sounds as well.

the days are nouns (2013) is for soprano and percussion ensemble and electronics.  Here she is concerned with resonances within the vibrators of the instruments as well as the acoustics of the room.  It is a dreamy, impressionistic setting of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye whose poem supplies the title but the text is fragments of a Norwegian table prayer.  A very subtle and effective work.

AEG (2011) is represented by two movements (of four?) all of which were written for the Estonian ballet.  It is similarly concerned with resonances and words at times.  Of course it would be interesting to hear those other movements but perhaps another time.

of architecture and accumulation (2012) is the first of two purely acoustic compositions on this disc.  This one is for organ solo (Will Smith) and explores long tones within the acoustic space.  It is a very satisfying work even if one doesn’t go into the underlying complexities.

corpo/Cage (2009) is  the longest and largest work here and is the second purely acoustic piece on this recording.  It has echoes of Stravinsky at and it is an enticing example of Matthusen’s writing for orchestra.  This reviewer certainly looks forward to hearing more of this composer’s works for larger ensembles.  Very effective writing.

in absentia (2008) is the earliest work here.  It is written for violin, piano, glasses and miniature electronics (not quite sure what that means).  Like many of the works on this disc the concern or focus seems to be on small events and sounds.  This is a rather contemplative piece that nicely rounds out the recording.

Matthusen resembles Lucier in some of her techniques and focus on small sounds otherwise missed and she certainly owes a debt to people like Pauline Oliveros.  But in truth she sounds like no one as much as Paula Matthusen.  The composer presents a strong and intelligent voice and one wishes for more from this interesting artist.  Thank you for the opportunity to review this.

Music 109, Alvin Lucier’s personal view of the post 50s avant garde


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This little volume is an endearing record of an undergraduate course, a music appreciation course designed for students with an interest in the music of the avant-garde of the 1960s, 70s and 80s taught by a man who was an integral part of that era as a composer, performer and teacher. The class, which he taught at Wesleyan University was reportedly very popular continues to be offered today. And this book is required reading for fans of new and experimental music.

In just over 200 pages Professor Lucier takes the virtual class of readers through a very personal journey of the music, experiments and performances of some of the highlights of some of the major works and composers of this time period. And he manages to navigate all this wildly experimental music in a way that is understandable to a general audience (remember that this is an undergraduate course for non music majors).

What makes this book so special and unique is its personal nature (Lucier was a composer, performer, organizer and interpreter of much of the music) and the particular networks to which he connects. Few historians save for Kyle Gann pay significant attention to the techniques which arose from the orbit of Ann Arbor, Michigan and composers like Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and Lucier himself among many others. But this group is indeed an orbit and not a universe unto itself. David Tudor, for example, crossed paths with these composers as well as, more famously, with John Cage and the New York School.

This delightfully readable volume narrates Lucier’s vast experience with and love for a variety of experimental trends. Lucier writes of his own works and places them within the contexts of fellow innovators including the above mentioned artists as well as diverse voices such as Pauline Oliveros, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, Roger Reynolds, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Christian Wolff, David Tudor, Karlheinz Stockhausen and many others. This personal inside view makes for entertaining and compelling reading which provides a historical context as well as insights to the “method behind the madness” of a diverse and innovative time in music history.

Except for Kyle Gann’s fine volume on Robert Ashley this is the only book length treatment (known to this reviewer) of artists connected with the ONCE festival and the Sonic Arts Union. Lucier’s place in music history is connected across east coast academia as well as far less academically connected groups like these. This book connects some of those dots placing an important perspective on this era.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking with Paula Matthusen, a composer who now teaches at Wesleyan. In fact she has inherited this delightful and inexplicably popular course. She told me that not only does the course continue to be popular, many of the students come in with some level of experience of this music and a desire to know more. How cool is that?

Matthusen shares many of her teacher (Lucier’s) concepts in her own work but she is clearly the next generation in experimental music reminding us that art of the era documented is receding into the past yet we hardly know it. And how can we appreciate the latest work without some understanding of how we got there? Lucier’s book provides a great introduction and hopefully will encourage more attention to this important and fascinating time in American music history.