Visionary Magic on a Heroic Scale

Ebbets FieldThursday, May 19, 2016, marked the premiere of Dylan Mattingly’s monumental work for piano, Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field. Three years ago or thereabouts, the vital, fearless pianist Kathleen Supové invited Mattingly to compose a work for piano—anything he wanted, of any length. Could Supové, or even Mattingly himself, outsized dreamer though he is, have predicted just how big it would become?

I imagine Mattingly, seized of Supové’s open invitation, taping reams of butcher paper to his walls, with stacks of post-it notes, assorted pens, and copies of The Iliad (at least one in the rhythms of its original Greek) to hand. Adjectives, verbs, and nouns erupted in a volcano of imagination, each word giving voice to a chapter of The Iliad refracted through the prism of contemporary life. What were the words, and how many? Which words served his inspiration, and which were set aside?

We do have the final words he chose for each movement, passed on to Supové and to us as listeners, not as prescriptions, but as offerings: they include words and phrases such as Invocation (I), Catalogue of Heroes (II), Gods and Insects (V), Brutality (X), For Jackie Robinson (XI), Love, Death, Paleoclimates (XVI), Muddy River (Aristea . . . If I Had Wings) (XXI), Ebbets Field (XXIII). We can take them or let them be, as we require. They are signposts that guide us along the musical journey, even as Mattingly knows and desires that Supové as performer and we, as listeners, will enter into the journey and make it our own.

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In Mattingly’s hands, what started out as a volcano of word confetti became a 24 movement, two-hour, musical tour de force, shapely in every aspect, from grand design to small detail, from tranquil meditations to ecstatic visions worthy of Messiaen. Accompanied by Taylor Gonzalez’s understated, evocative projection mapping, Supové, in her riveting performance, inhabited not only each note, rhythm, and dynamic, but also reached deep inside the piece and limned, from quiet splendor to explosive force, the whole, gorgeous gamut of human spirit Achilles contains. Without Supové, it’s possible, even probable, that Achilles would not have come into being. It is likewise to her extraordinary pianism and commitment that we owe grateful thanks for bringing Mattingly’s triumphant feat of imagination to blazing, transcendent life.

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Listening List

Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field (Midi recording)

Part XI: For Jackie Robinson
Part XXII: Muddy River (Aristea…If I Had Wings)

11 thoughts on “Visionary Magic on a Heroic Scale

  1. David N

    Messiaenic vision (as in Catalogue des Oiseaux, Vingt Regards). As you know, I’m thrilled about the classical Greek links and can’t wait to hear it. When’s the four-hour opera due its premiere?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Messiaenic vision, indeed (and in fact I very nearly used that phrase here)! The opera-in-progress is, I’m advised upwards of five hours long; probably a couple of years off to complete, and then there is of course the question of funding a production. I hope on hope it happens. I want to be there when it does. I’ll keep you posted if/when a recording comes along on Achilles, for sure.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        David: Footnote: Also meant to say, vis-a-vis the classic Greek, in the post-concert Q&A, Dylan elaborated briefly on the rhythmic contours of the piece. Now, I may not get this exactly right, but as I recall, for example, in the Invocation, the rhythms were taken from the meter of the opening of The Iliad in ancient Greek. Dylan demonstrated, quoting phrases (from memory, natch) in both Greek and Latin, to show how different they were in meter, with the Latin more regularized and the Greek more idiosyncratic, offering more sense of syncopation. (Now, if any of the Mattinglys should come back to read this comment, I hope you will correct me wherever I may have gone wrong in describing this.) At the same time, there is nothing whatsoever about this piece that is dry intellectual exercise. Dylan’s ability to take such sophisticated raw materials and make out of them ecstatic and fulfilling music has a lot to do with what sets him apart.

        1. David N

          I listened to those movements, and they are indeed Messiaen with extra layers of American popular music, right? Terrific contrasts, as in Vingt regards…but DM is no mere imitator. I wonder if Steven Osborne would like to take up the work.

  2. shoreacres

    So many superlatives in a review! Everyone involved has to be not just happy, but deeply satisfied with the culmination of so much effort — including you.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Shoreacres: The lucky thing for me is I’m not a reviewer, or I would never be able to superlative away like that, even though, in terms of my response to this performance, what I’m saying here is exactly what I heard and felt. Yes, I think everyone involved is, and certainly has every right to be, over the moon about this.

  3. George Mattingly

    I’m always impressed at your ability to take it all in, remember the details on a fine granular level, and make interesting (and relevant) connections. This is just another fine example.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      George: Such kind words! I do always feel unequal to the task of even trying to convey a little something about the experience. (I don’t take notes–I’m not a reviewer, after all, and more to the point, I want to BE there listening, with undivided attention.) As Supové noted in her post-concert remarks, she is looking forward to exploring additional layers and connections in subsequent performances. As a listener, I am, too. A few things that struck me that I want to trace through in another (several) hearings are the recurring six ascending chord motif, where it comes in and how it is used. Also, I swear, I swear, at one point, there was a great big, complex chord that to me was the Dylan chord. I’m really curious to see if, on a rehearing, I’ll spot it. Also, and this relates to Supové’s extraordinary performance, too, as well as the excellent acoustic in the DiMenna hall, there is a point at which she is playing a single chord in each hand, then lifts her left hand off the keys, while keeping the right hand in place. Just stunning how one could hear the decay of the chord in the right hand, while that in the left hand stopped to silence. A small, subtle detail, but what an outsize impact! Also tremendous to be able to be there with both you and Lucy M. We met one another for the first time on the occasion of the premiere of Atlas–and now here we were for another set of huge milestones. I am grateful to have been able to be a part of this journey and look forward to what comes next.

  4. Lucy M.

    The Dylan chord! Ok, now I have to relisten to everything and spot it, too.
    David – So nice always to read your comments about Dylan’s music – I hope one day to be sitting next to both you AND Sue at a premiere – maybe across the pond…

    1. David N

      I hope so too – you do know I tried hard with the big orchestral Meisterwerk? Maybe we can get Steven Osborne interested in this? Back to the fray…

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