This Composing Life: Composer Dylan Mattingly

Composer Dylan Mattingly (Photograph by Dávid Adam Nagy)

Composer John Coolidge Adams describes Dylan Mattingly as: “a hugely talented young composer who writes music of wild imagination and vigorous energy.” I agree. I’ve spilled a lot of ink about Mattingly and his music over the last two years. For now, suffice it to say, I’ve played my CD of Contemporaneous performing Stream of Stars, Music of Dylan Mattingly, so many times I’ve worn it out. I’m delighted to feature Dylan Mattingly on This Composing Life.

Q: This past August, you were one of the composers-in-residence at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. As part of the Festival, you participated in a Meet the Composers forum, moderated by Marin Alsop, Music Director and Conductor for the Festival. At Cabrillo, you told a couple of wonderful stories about what led you to start writing music. Here’s one of them.

I’m curious about what was on those CDs, if you remember. Beyond that, thinking back on that time, can you talk a bit about the kind of music you envisioned, and perhaps describe for us an early composition?

The very first CDs that I remember listening to were of English string music, that sort of beautiful and pure almost Renaissance-y music that I imagine was evocative of some great vast, grey landscape (think Wuthering Heights…). Composers like Gustav Holst, later Ralph Vaughan Williams, Peter Warlock (whose real name was Philip Heseltine), along with Benjamin Britten and Frederick Delius (who would one day become the inspiration for the character of Vivian Ayrs in my favorite book, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). I actually just found that first CD with a short google search.

It’s worth noting that the Holst on that CD, and the Holst that I originally knew, was St. Paul Suite, and not The Planets, which I discovered later and fell in love with as I went into a more Copland-centric musical world. When I reached the age of ten or so, Copland was my number one composer, and then Shostakovich and Bob Dylan in middle school, Stravinsky and a larger spectrum of ’60s rock by 9th grade (Firebird, particularly the end, I’ve always thought of as one of the greatest things there is), etc. But that first kernel was that weirdly disassociated moorscape that came from English string music.

The first piece I ever wrote was called Hana Highway and Hamoa Waters, and it was for solo cello, since that was about the only way I was going to hear something I wrote as a 7-year-old cellist. It was named for what was my favorite place in the world then (and what is still my favorite place now), the little town of Hana on the East side of Maui, where the temperature is always between 79 and 85, it’s always raining, and the rainbows come straight down from the always shrouded peak of the massive Haleakala (House of the Sun, because there must be something above the clouds) across the baseball field that time forgot and into the Pacific. The only way to Hana is via the Hana Highway, 52 miles of cliffside road with 620 curves and 46 one-lane bridges, where sometimes the road is so skinny that the speed limit is 5 miles an hour to keep you from falling into the water (or the bamboo forest on the other side). It was something about this place that really sent that first shaking through my body, that there was something so beautiful, this emotion so sublime, that I needed some way of preserving it beyond memory and beyond time, which to borrow from David Mitchell, is the “speed at which the past decays.” Unsurprisingly, the piece sounded a bit like English string music, but it was a beginning.

Q: I’ve previously written that your music roams deep into the by-ways of American music. (To give readers an idea how deep, my mother, a long-time jazz aficionado, lists as her musical associations to your big piece, Atlas of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island, Bill Evans, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, the Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess albums of Miles Davis, and Aaron Copland.) Among the varieties of what I’ve termed the “American vernacular” from which you draw inspiration, you’ve noted “old American blues and folk field recordings of the Lomaxes.” What drew you to those field recordings, and what about them inspires and informs your musical thinking?

The Lomaxes made recordings of music that can be hardly described as being performed. Most of that music is nothing but self (and communal) expression. It is not adorned, it is hardly even created, mostly it just is. In terms of music as this ultimate form of emotional expression, you would be hard-pressed to find anything which speaks to that more than these incredible cross-country snapshots. Improvisation can exist in the same world, where those who are best at it can fluently send their own emotions flying out into the world, and it is at those moments when you know the magic is flickering around. That was what first pulled me in, the magic of something so direct. From there through the years I’ve drawn musical inspiration, in addition to just that goal of direct expression. I began to use microtones when listening to recordings where part of that magic came from notes that weren’t “in tune.” That led me down the much longer road into the history of tunings and temperaments, and what it actually means to have a natural interval.

Living in a world of equal temperament (where there is the same distance between each half step in the 12-tone chromatic scale), our ears hear something that may be naturally in tune, say a perfectly tuned major third, as being “out of tune” because it’s not what we’re used to. (In this example, a major third, if seen as a ratio, like on a vibrating string, should be 5/4 of the root. This would be approximately 386.3 cents (out of 1200 cents in an octave). The equal tempered major third is 400 cents.) Kyle Gann gives a great history of tunings and temperaments here. Beyond microtones and emotional impact, the Lomax recordings feel to me a part of my own musical history. Growing up with Bob Dylan as the local musical deity (I was named after him, after all), folk music and a sort of aversion to music that sounded too glossy, too smooth, were an important part of my musical training. The Lomax recordings are the mythological period of the American music that informed me.

Q: You’ve been known to use butcher paper and post-it notes, among other materials, in conceptualizing your compositions. Here’s another clip from Cabrillo.

Can you talk a little more about the things that make up that emotional map and how you go about translating it into sound?

Personally, I don’t want to write music unless I have something to say with it. I’m not willing to go so far as to make that a prescriptive statement, as there’s plenty of great music that isn’t meant to be about anything at all, although I would argue that that music is an all-encompassing act of expression, rather than a specific one. If Mahler writes a symphony about being in the forest, or a movement about Alma, it’s simply more specific than Beethoven writing a symphony (well, excluding #6 in my “absolute music” example) that is clearly about the entirety of his life, or perhaps not even about, but something much closer to it, as music has that ability to be something beyond our understanding, something more than language can do.

The linguistic coffee house

To truly break into the nitty-gritty of why music seems more connected to emotional experience, I find it necessary to go a bit into its linguistic properties, but if this doesn’t interest you (and I imagine it might not!), feel free to skip ahead a couple paragraphs! If you’re still reading, here are my thoughts: perhaps there is a real connection between the signified and the Signifier in music (this seems possible to me, in that particular chords and particular contexts of chords really do seem to elicit similar universal emotional reactions). So then if you accept that as a creator of music, you are creating a series of emotional reactions in another person, there is some awesome and almost frightening power, this idea that there could really be a way to bring down that Great Negative Space between people. If you could make other people feel something from inside you, if you could really bring them to feel the same as you, not just hope that their understanding of language isn’t too dreadfully different from yours and meeting them in the proverbial linguistic coffee house where we’re all hanging out in search of neutral ground, what would you want other people to feel? If you could create something that would not just inhabit people, but would bring them together in this same emotional journey, this ultimate effervescent sameness, what would you create? The emotional map for each piece is my answer, a chronological prescription of these shared emotions, sometimes a journey, sometimes more of a story about something particular. Every piece always ends up with a different method of map, and I think this relates again to the idea that everything is controlled by the idea (sometimes even just a peripheral idea of an emotion), including the way that I write down that idea.

Translating the map

Translation then becomes the great problem. If you accept that music could really bring emotions straight from one person to another, then the issue is to create the music that truly is the desired emotion. And to that there is no key. Db major will mean different things every time it is used, so there’s no just looking at a map of chords corresponding with emotions and using them as you would use words. The Db major chord signifying that final theme at the end of Götterdämmerung is sadder and more painful than anything in any minor key, even if people typically consider minor keys “sad” and major keys “happy.” In fact, I would posit that most (if not all? I’d actually love to hear some examples) of the saddest music comes from major chords. Think Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. I don’t think that I can think of anything sadder than that climax near the end, made up of major seventh chords. This is why composing can never be anything but a learning experience, as the context of the chord (to say nothing of rhythm and timbre, etc.) within the set of musical experiences is what truly creates the emotional response (in much the same way, I hesitate to say, as how the meaning of words exists in their relationship to the rest of a language . . . perhaps there’s more to understanding what you’re saying in all the things that you’re not saying, in both cases).

When even the snow breathes jazz

In short, the emotional map exists as a series of emotions that I want the audience to feel while listening to the piece. Often instead of describing those emotions, I’ll simply use keywords that I know will remind me of a particular experience or thought that is more certain to maintain the emotion I’m looking for. For instance, in the first movement of Atlas, I have a heading which is marked “when even the snow breathes jazz” which is referring to a wonderful poem by my father, George. That line serves as a better memory marker for the feeling it produces when I read it than any particular word or definition would, so I’ll use it and things like it as the checkpoints on the emotional map. Then comes the music writing. Usually involving an unending amount of trial and error, perhaps with some educated guessing (but perhaps not), you have to attempt to create the music that is the feeling. There’s no secret to it, you just try, you fail a lot, and hopefully if you have enough time, or a strong enough feeling, you hit on something eventually.

Q: In addition to writing fully scored music, you’ve written “structured improvisations” like Gravity and Grace. What place do you think improvisation has in contemporary classical/new music? What are the challenges in introducing improvisatory elements into a piece, and what do you think is essential for their inclusion to be successful?

Improvisation lends itself to potential. With the greatest improvisers, there’s that sense that not only could anything happen, but if the stars align, if the wind blows just right, if the right people are in the room, the right thoughts come into your head, something perfect and transitory can be created, a little like the world, and there can be a level of being in touch with a present moment that is both rare and fleeting. Particularly, this is the appeal of being an improviser – it tells you a lot about who you are and what you’re feeling, things that you don’t quite notice become readily apparent. And before you start, you know you might just be about to create something perfect.

On the other hand, that’s not the type of music that I choose to write. And that’s because my very favorite stories are the ones with perfect arcs, where every single moment leads into the next fluidly, and where the end is inevitable, even if it’s unpredictable. There is a sort of perfection, like a cathedral, or even a complex mathematical equation, which cannot be created through instantaneous creation, because it requires all the moments in sequence to be viewed from above, to stand without the piece as it moves through time and see it like a labyrinth from the sky. A great improviser can visualize where he or she is headed, can construct an arc, even an unplanned one, but a great composer can use that ability to not be constrained by time, to make something not just as good as life as it passes by, something better. Obviously these are all ideals, but just the dream, the possibility that you could create something that would send its audience through such a journey – that makes it all worth it.

Q: You noted that Polaris, by Thomas Adèsmade a big impression on you while you were writing your piece, I Was A Stranger (commissioned by John Adams and Deborah O’Grady and premiered at the Cabrillo Festival). Here’s the clip.

Can you tell us a little more what struck you particularly about Polaris?

There’s something that happens when you hear something undeniably beautiful that just doesn’t sound like anything else. It’s like what I imagine it would be like to see a new color. That’s sort of what we’re doing here, we’re trying to invent new colors. Polaris immediately struck me as something unearthly but beautiful, consonant even when it’s not. The music essentially rotates along one theme, mostly in the brass, and yet it always feels so harmonious, even in its meandering. It takes the audience to such extremes, it is all the things it wants to be to such an extent, that you cannot help but feel it under your skin, from the unbelievably low tuba to the piercing piccolo. It is all-encompassing, and I love when music surrounds me.

Q: You and David Bloom co-founded and are co-artistic directors of Contemporaneous. You’ve also participated in many Contemporaneous concerts as a performer on a variety of instruments, including cello, guitar, and percussion. Also, in addition to studying music and composition at Bard, you’re studying Ancient Greek and Latin. I’m not sure exactly when you might have any free time, given all that, but when you do, how do you like to spend it?

I’ve become very immersed in the world of TV, which I find can not only be an incredible art form, but also a very efficient way to relax within a busy schedule. If you can have an extremely long story (sometimes hundreds of hours long over the course of several seasons!) that is split up into small less-than-an-hour segments, it can be so enjoyable to stay involved in a story and be able to control when you get to find out what happens next. At the same time, I think that American TV is coming into its own as a significant and important art form, something akin to the novel. As opposed to movies, where you’ve only got a couple hours to tell a story, TV can present a story with enough time so as to be able to show incredible intricacies and complexities within (or without!) the narrative.

The best shows are becoming the great modern American masterpieces, and not in unfamiliar genres. Battlestar Galactica is in my mind the American Epic. Essentially The Aeneid in space, it is at once the apotheosis of political allegory and the most interesting and humanist science fiction from the past 50 years. Breaking Bad is the great Western of the present moment, the rugged themes superimposed onto a much more ambiguous world, where we the audience trace Walter White’s transition into outlaw and monster without being able to fully disagree with any of his decisions. Mad Men is a thrilling work of historical fiction, in which the plot is driven less by the actions of the characters than the audience’s knowledge of history, like a Greek tragedy, moving toward inevitable happenings, taut with the tension of historical slowness. Outside of TV, I like to go exploring as much as I can. Bard College is in the middle of the woods and provides me with lots of opportunities on that level, though the cold East Coast winter is a serious deterring factor. And I never stop listening to music, not even when I sleep. (Current soundtrack to writing responses for the interview: Ali Akbar Khan.)


What’s New for Dylan Mattingly

Contemporaneous released an album of Mattingly’s music this past April on Innova Recordings entitled Stream of Stars, Music of Dylan Mattingly, which can be found here.  Recent and upcoming premieres include commissioned works written for ALEA III, the Del Sol Quartet, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra (commissioned by composer John Coolidge Adams and Deborah O’Grady), and Berkeley Symphony. Mattingly’s newest project is writing music for the choruses of a large production of The Bakkhai at Bard in the Spring, in which, as he describes it, “I’ll be recreating the exquisitely fluid and syncopated original Ancient Greek meter as well as the tuning system, and using that as a jumping-off point.”

About Dylan Mattingly

Mattingly currently studies composition at the Bard College Conservatory of Music with George Tsontakis, Joan Tower, and Kyle Gann. Mattingly is the co-artistic director and co-founder of Contemporaneous, in which he performs frequently as a cellist, bassist, pianist, guitarist, and percussionist. Mattingly is also a classics major at Bard College studying Ancient Greek and Latin, as well as a painter, poet, playwright, and a pitcher for Bard College’s first-ever baseball team. For more news, reviews, audio, and information about Dylan Mattingly, click here.

Articles about Mattingly and his music that have appeared on Prufrock’s Dilemma can be found here and here. Mattingly also wrote a comment about Terry Riley’s In C so lively and informative that it became a guest post, which can be found here.


Listening List

With grateful thanks to Dylan Mattingly, here is a sampling of his compositions:

Atlas of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island I. Radial Liftoff Music for Amelia Earhart

(To hear part 2, Atlas of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island II. Islanded in a Stream of Stars, click here.)

© Dylan Mattingly. Reproduced by kind permission.

Six Night Sunrise (Music of Barges and Metallic Stars)

© Dylan Mattingly. Reproduced by kind permission.

A Way A Lone A Last A Loved A Long the Riverrun

© Dylan Mattingly. Reproduced by kind permission.

Members of Contemporaneous (Dávid Adam Nagy, bassoon; Dylan Mattingly, cello; Finnegan Shanahan, violin; Amy Garapic, percussion; and Zachary Israel, contrabass; David Bloom conducting) perform A Way A Lone A Last A Loved A Long the Riverrun.


Credits: The photograph at the head of the post is by Dávid Adam Nagy, who is also the fine bassoonist in A Way A Lone A Last A Loved A Long the Riverrun. The quotation from John Adams can be found here. The video clips are from the CTVSantaCruz video of the Cabrillo 2012 Meet the Composers forum, the whole of which can be found here. With grateful thanks to CTVSantaCruz for making the forum available to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution license (reuse allowed).

25 thoughts on “This Composing Life: Composer Dylan Mattingly

  1. Scott

    Just watched and listened to the youtube of A Way A Lone A Last A Loved A Long the Riverrun. Nice to see the composer on cello. Must be kind of a cool feeling. Authentic too, I think. Good combination of instruments, I thought. They seemed different. Particularly liked the percussion. The black and white and setting of the video was effective too. A contrast of sorts, The black and white photo was nice as well.
    Don’t even no where to start with the interview. Unpredictably unpredictable. In a good way. Seems like real free thinking. I like it. The thoughts on glossy music,improvisation and TV were pretty interesting.
    I was most impressed by the description of Hana. Certain landscapes have sent shakes through me too. To be able to preserve the feeling through music must be pretty amazing.
    If he can throw a baseball remotely like he thinks or makes music,he could be Bard’s first Cy Young winner.

    1. Susan Scheid

      Scott: “Unpredictably unpredictable”–love that, not to mention, “If he can throw a baseball remotely like he thinks or makes music,he could be Bard’s first Cy Young winner.” (Not that I know who Cy Young is, but I certainly get the gist!)

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    I can’t even imagine how encouraging it must be to have John Adams give that kind of praise. Let me say here how much I enjoy the ‘Stream of Stars’ album – and Susan, great interview. Fascinating description of the Lomax recordings, and equally fascinating to hear about Dylan Mattingly’s early musical loves. Bob Dylan and Shostakovich in middle school, huh? At that time my musical attention was divided between American Top 40, the hymns we sang in church, the country music my mother favored and the Broadway tunes my father loved. I wonder if I would have known what to do with Shostakovich.

    1. Susan Scheid

      I, too, was fascinated by the early music interests. I certainly would never have predicted that one of the first CDs Mattingly listened to was of English string music. (Very lovely, by the way–it’s up on Spotify as English string music.) Nor would I have known to do with Shostakovich at that age, or even know who he was!

  3. David

    The main man at last! His listening (and reading) trajectory is just what one might expect from his often extraordinary music. And all the stuff about connecting is very sound, too. Do I recognise the sculpture on the Bard lawns in the photo?

  4. Britta

    I’m glad I can share the love of English string music. I look outside into the dawny sky and first thing that comes to my mind hearing into ‘A way A Lone A Last’ are Shogun/Samurais – don’t ask me why.
    Thank you for your profound interview, Sue!

  5. friko

    I should have trusted your judgement.
    When you first introduced me to D.M. I thought “another young man full of himself and ready to overthrow the canon. Let’s see if he lasts for more than five minutes.”

    Without wanting to repeat anything he says in the interview in particular, I admit to being mightily impressed with his character, confidence, abilities and knowledge. His music isn’t bad either.

    He’ll last.

  6. Hilary

    Hi Susan .. I love that you educate me so much along the way – for now I take little in .. but I’m sure over time aspects will stick. Soon I hope I’ll be able to spend more time listening and hearing these clips.

    What I find fascinating are the cross-disciplines … music and maths, music and the classics, music, poetry and art … such talent – and with the ability to put his ideas across in a way that we can all understand (within my limits) …

    Cheers – it’s great being able to read your posts …. Hilary

  7. Steve Schwartzman

    For ages there’s been a schism in the world of art and literature between those who believe that a work should stand completely on its own and those who think there’s an advantage in learning about the background of the artist and anything related to the creation of a specific piece. By temperament I find myself leaning into the second camp, so thanks for all the supporting information about Dylan Mattingly.

  8. shoreacres

    I enjoyed Dylan’s comments about the Lomax field recordings. One of the first LPs I purchased was a Library of Congress release of Ledbelly – perhaps in 1962. It makes me happy to know young musicians still are paying attention.

    I was caught as well by his reference to the relationship between the signified and signifier – I wasn’t expecting semiotics to pop up, but there it is. After a few reads of the paragraph, it still seems mechanistic to me, but Saussure’s theory of “sign” always has. The difference between sign and symbol seems as real and obvious to me as the kitty begging for attention here at my knee. More to ponder!

    I do feel like the landscape’s plastered with “Mind the (generation) Gap” signs these days. Sentences like this leave me slack-jawed: ” I think that American TV is coming into its own as a significant and important art form, something akin to the novel.” It’s amazing to hear that, when so many of my friends and I have tossed out our tvs like so many potato peelings. ;)

    1. shoreacres

      A quick add – I came back to this, which was nagging at me: ” music has [the] ability to be something beyond our understanding, something more than language… music seems more connected to emotional experience,…” I don’t think that’s necessarily so, but I’ve tucked the issue into my “things to ponder” folder.

    2. Susan Scheid

      I was fascinated by the comments on TV, too, as one who stopped watching some months ago. Mattingly has an extraordinary range of interests, doesn’t he?

      As for your “things to ponder” folder, oh, yes, know that one. Mine is so full I have to ponder where to begin to ponder. It is fascinating to ponder how music and language reach us, and if you then throw visual art into the mix, well, the “ponder” folder gets ever thicker.

  9. angela

    …so brilliant, so young. I’m listening to “A Way A Lone A Last A Loved A Long the Riverrun” as I write, sensing the flavoring of Adams, it feels very pastoral. (what do I know, though, music is a passion as receiver not producer!)

    What did resonate in this fine interview was the concept of “linguistic coffee house”. Many moons ago, I wrote a post regarding how ‘strong’ music could influence the direction of my writing. I theorized that the ‘true’ emotions that went into the artist’s composition are able to transfer at an unconscious level. If the receiver is tapping into the unconscious (i.e whilst writing or painting) the originating emotion in the music can actually reproduce in a second medium. (if that makes any sense what so ever).

    It seems I have a bit of musical exploring in my near future– thank you, Susan!

    1. Susan Scheid

      Angela: I, too, am neither a composer nor musician, but a listener. We’re all part of a grand continuum, aren’t we? I thought your insights and responses here terrific and am really pleased you stopped by.

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