Dylan Mattingly co-artistically directs and plays cello in the New York-based ensemble Contemporaneous, and he has played a considerable number of instruments in countless other groups specializing in everything from folk to funk. Last year I attended the premiere of his “Seasickness and Being (in love)” at the LA Philharmonic, a work that poignantly captures the victories and defeats that occur in life within the course of an hour, then a day, ad infinitum. He utilizes original Ancient Greek meter and tuning systems in his musical interpretation of Euripides’ Bakkhai, which poses the compelling question of how much one can and should give oneself to the creative spirit.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Dylan over video chat. We discussed his influences, people doing impossible things, and the major operatic project he’s working on with his Bard College Classics professor Thomas Bartscherer, “Stranger Love.” Dylan is currently preparing for a preview of “Stranger Love” in Los Angeles on February 24, 2017, to be performed by the contemporary ensemble wild Up and produced by experimental opera company The Industry, while the full opera is set to come out in the summer of 2018.

VAN: Could you talk a bit about your primary musical influences? The LA Philharmonic lists them as Thomas Adès, John Adams, Olivier Messiaen, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan. What do you admire most about these musicians and composers, individually or collectively?

Dylan Mattingly: All of that is music into which you step and you have no control over where it takes you. I would say it’s all deeply ecstatic music in that it pushes us outside of the general perspective from which we typically view life. And it does it in a way that we can’t imagine before it happens, so this is music that opens up your imagination, to be something that it wasn’t before.

I want to give people the experience of seeing the world from a new vantage point. I think that, as people, that’s one of the best things that can happen to us: to be given the opportunity to assess our own lives from a new place.

Dylan Mattingly, “Bakkhai – 3rd Chorus”; Contemporaneous

Have influences progressed in phases for you when you started in music up until now, and are there any that are consistently at the top of the list?

The answer is essentially both. Certainly, I think part of the job of the composer is to create some sort of cohesive vision of yourself over long periods of time—which is a funny thing, it’s already elusive because we’re different moment to moment—but I think because of that, it’s easy to identify past periods of my life where I’ll particularly gravitate towards this music or that music.

There are things like Bob Dylan, which have been a pretty steady musical influence in my life since 5th grade. I think part of the reason is that there are so many Bob Dylan songs; he’s been making music for over 50 years. I have 1,192 Bob Dylan songs, 3.9 days of music by Bob Dylan on my computer. More than just that, his music has radically changed time and time again, so there are a lot of different things to eventually hold on to and places that Bob Dylan has been musically that will eventually align with who I am at some point. I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s been such a steady source of inspiration.

JMW Turner, “Rain Steam, and Speed” Image · Public Domain
JMW Turner, “Rain Steam, and Speed” Image · Public Domain

In your compositions, you often focus on the idea of consciousness, of total present awareness and breaking barriers, achievements great and small, such as Amelia Earhart’s flight across the Atlantic, “Rain, Steam, and Speed” [based on the JMW Turner painting], with your piece “Seasickness or Being (in love)” and now with your opera, “Stranger Love.” Also, in many of these pieces you start with a tight focus and then broaden your scope into more abstract and metaphorical terms. Could you tell me about that?

I think there’s a kind of inherent danger in music. It’s so easy to compare it to language and a lot of the terms we have to think about music are language-related. When people analyze music, there are things like “sentence structure” and other things that are generally syntactical or grammatical.

Music is a way of communication. But music—and you could argue this for language, too—will never represent anything specific as well as that thing. Music that attempts to use sound effects—I guess this is a matter of opinion, I’m sure some people like this shit—if you have music that’s about war and you have a cello pizzicato, and that’s supposed to sound like a gunshot, it’s insultingly ineffective. Nothing that you do on cello with that sort of analogous, onomatopoetic sound is going to create anything like the experience of hearing a gunshot. And it’s not really what music is good at.

So finding the things that music is good at is important. What I’ve found is that music can be a way of finding a common place with other people that could be complex emotionally. Specifically, it can offer something that comes in that space of experience before language. And that’s rare in the world, because the world is essentially built on language.

That’s why I gravitate towards writing music about the moments you discussed, like Amelia Earhart’s presence in our social consciousness. What does Amelia Earhart—her disappearance, and striving for whatever she was striving for—mean to all of us? To me, that’s something that’s hard to talk about, but is something that I think we both feel, and I think we can find that through music.

I have a piece about George Mallory, who was a British mountain climber in the first half of the 20th century, who died at the top of Everest. There’s something about that human need for exploration that I’m fascinated by consistently. Why would anybody want to climb Mt. Everest? I don’t know. I can’t come up with any sort of logical explanation for that. George Mallory’s response was, “Because it’s there,” which is also a non-explanation. There isn’t an explanation for that feeling. But there is a feeling for that feeling, and that’s something that can exist in music.

What is it about the extremes of emotion and irreconcilable contradictions and absurdities of the human condition that intrigue you?

That’s an interesting question. I think that part of it is that we spend most of our time living in the kind of symbolic structures we’ve set up to exist for our future. So most of the things that we do during the day are going to fall into this little matrix of predictions that we’ve created that govern our future actions, because it helps protect us. If everything that happened to us was surprising and we were living directly in the moment every second, such that we were never predicting our future, life would be impossible. Very exhausting. And we would probably be afraid all the time. In a sense, civilization is something that protects us from our fear of the dark.

Having that there to restrain us when we’re worried, to swaddle us at all times, is helpful. But at the same time, the moments when people are able to change the way that they see themselves, the way that they see their own lives, are of great interest to me.

I think that’s where art always lies, in moments that break the equilibrium. The moments when you can experience the world not as a result of your own projection, but as something that is truly happening to you. Those are the moments when I feel the most connection with other people.

Our lives are lived by this probability of the possible, and yet things that are unexpected happen all the time. People doing the impossible are always fascinating.

Could you point to some specific examples of how you’ve chosen to express these extremes, contradictions, and people achieving the impossible in your music?

That’s so much harder than talking about it. How does music work? I’m not sure I know exactly…

How about with one specific example, maybe “Rain, Steam, and Speed.” When you think about that piece, is there a time when you were writing it or in performance where something just really worked?

Sure, there’s a good example in that piece. I wouldn’t say the way this always works is through performance, but in that piece the brass players are repeating the same note for the last two-and-a-half minutes, which is very difficult. It’s the sort of thing where you look at the page and say, “I can’t physically do that.” And yet, if you’re playing a concert, you can. It exists in a recording somewhere. There is a real sense of that when performing music, especially for other people, and the adrenaline kicks in. As humans we always surprise ourselves with what we can actually do.

That creates a sort of paradox though, with the way that you set it up for them to have that experience and then knock it down. I think that’s pretty funny.

Yeah, I agree. When you get to a certain point, it is all artificial. No matter how authentic the experience that anybody is having from it, art is inherently something that is created.

I’m having a thought herewith the brass playing that one note for two-and-a-half minutes, that wouldn’t have even happened if your written challenge hadn’t been there. So when someone says, “You can’t fly across the Atlantic,” then there’s the barrier, and you gotta break that.

Exactly.

Are you interested in resolving or otherwise explaining these paradoxes of the human condition, or does posing them to audiences and heightening awareness essentially achieve its own end?

That relates to something I was saying earlier. It’s the moments that can break you out of your conception of yourself, but allow you to change who you are if you want to. That’s what good music does.

I always think of it like the Overview Effect that astronauts talk about when they’re coming back from space: if you’ve seen the Earth from space, are you really gonna feel like the petty differences between humans are worth fighting over when you get back? The answer to that is generally no. It’s that vista that allows you to reassess who you were in relation to other people.

Apart from heightened awareness, realizations from vistas, and paradox, are there any other themes or structures that you feel are inherent to your compositions?

I would say joy. I feel a fairly strong urge at all times to encourage other people to enjoy the things they like. There are lots of things in everybody’s life that are really wonderful—I think that celebrating whatever it is that makes you happy is a really helpful thing for being alive.

A lot of my music deals with figuring out the things that people like the most and giving it to them for an unbelievable amount of time in its absolute essence. So in the opera, there’s this one section in the second act that essentially goes back and forth between a one and a four chord, which as I’m sure you know is just about the nicest sonic experience that there can be, and it gets gradually louder.

It’s easy to think about that and go, “Well, that sounds kinda stupid and obvious.” And a lot of the time, my process involves accepting that the most obvious things that we like are often thrown out as too obvious. So to be able to pose something very un-ironically as something truly meaningful that is so simple is important to my music, and to how I feel about being alive.

Photo · Alex Fager
Photo · Alex Fager

Tell me about your opera, “Stranger Love.”

I’ll give you the mini-synopsis. “Stranger Love” is an opera in three acts. The first act is kind of like an opera, in that there are people on stage who sing and act. It’s a love story between two people, but it’s really about the seasons. Spring, they meet. Summer is the unfolding of their love. Fall is the threat from without. Winter is the threat from within. That’s the first act.

The second act, there are no more singers onstage—there are singers in the ensemble. The action in the second act takes place with six dancers in three pairs. They start across the space from each other, and the lighting and music go through another cycle of seasons, from spring to second spring. As that’s happening, the dancers move inexorably slowly towards each other over the course of the second act. Finally, they reach each other in three outcomes: One meets in a kiss, one collides, and the third misses.

The third act is totally pitch-black. There are no more singers. There are little lights scattered around the space like stars, and they move slowly away from the center, but at slightly different speeds, so it creates depth, it’s like you’re going into it. The music is the velocity, 25 minutes of pure joy, and it ends with pitch black and ecstasy.

The architecture of the opera is essentially Plato’s Symposium. The first act represents love on a human scale, like in Alcibiades’ speech. The second act is love on an archetypal scale, like in Aristophanes’ speech. The third act is divine love, like Diotima’s speech.

One of the crucial things to say about it is that it’s extremely long. It’s importantly long, not that it’s simple like, “Oops, it’s six hours long.” Part of the point of the opera is to create something that removes us in a real way from everyday life. Concerts often do that, but nothing can take you prisoner in a positive way better than something that’s six hours long. And you’re a willing participant. You say, “Alright, on Sunday, from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., I’m gonna go to this one event.” That’s something that’s going to take a serious hold on your life. That sets you up to be in a really good place to experience art.

The other thing about the length is that it goes from existing on a plane that is somewhat similar to the way we experience time. Dramatic actions happen in the first act. In the second act we witness an entire life, and it’s about half as long as the first act. The third act is only 25 minutes long. Nothing and everything happens in the third act: it’s essentially timeless. It pulls you out of the time frame in which we experience human life and into something more geologic.

In terms of actually writing it, well I’m working with a librettist named Thomas Bartscherer, who was a professor of mine at Bard College, and who is an unbelievable person and writer and professor. He teaches in the Classics, Philosophy, English, and Theater departments at Bard. He’s extremely charismatic and visionary, so he’s the perfect person to imagine this with me.

We’ve spent about two years now imagining back and forth the way that this should work. It’s this sort of thing where if you think about something long enough and repeat it enough, you eventually figure out what you like and don’t like. It’s taken a lot of thought, but we’ve molded it through this Platonic dialogue that approaches something that neither of us could have come up with on our own.

What’s the instrumentation?

The opera is written for Contemporaneous, so the instrumentation is a bigger version of Contemporaneous, which has 21 people—essentially a chamber orchestra with double strings. The opera is a chamber orchestra with triple strings and an electric bass, and three pianos with one of them in equal temperament, one of them tuned down a quarter-tone and one of them down 31 cents, which is the seventh harmonic, and three percussionists. Plus the singers.

The description of final act was really interesting to me. Usually the emotions accompanied by the idea of expansion and disintegration of the universe are fear and nihilism, but you’re very adamant that this is a joyful, vital moment for the opera. What caused you to think of universal expansion in joyful terms so that it builds to pitch black, rather than decaying into nothing?

I like that question because I often find the vision of ourselves as a small part of the universe a very happy experience. I’m pleased with that. I think there’s something really nice about knowing that everything that we’re concerned about is a really tiny speck in the history of the universe. Not to sound too much like a hippie.

I have noticed that some other people don’t always feel that way, they’ll look up in the sky and say, “Holy shit, I’m really fucking small.” I think that the ecstasy of looking into the sky is a crucial part of this opera.

There’s a great quote by Henry Beston, who was a naturalist living on Cape Cod: “For a moment of night, we glimpse ourselves in our world, islanded in a stream of stars. Pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time.” Seeing ourselves as we truly are—a crazy, incredible, lucky moment of consciousness hurdling through space—what could be more amazing? That’s my vision for the third act.

Mattingly, “Atlas of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island” II. Islanded in a Stream of Stars; Contemporaneous

When you get to a point where it’s pitch black, that creates a sense of unity? I guess because the stage is black as well as the audience, so everyone’s in that bubble together. Nothing about that puts you on edge?

Yeah, not really. I think it’s a nice thing to be able to be happy about, its vastness.

Speaking more generally about contemporary music, how do you feel about its current visibility and accessibility? In an ideal world, would those things change?

I think it’s generally pretty impressive how much people do care about music. New music has rarely had a better go of it than it’s having right now. The fact that Contemporaneous can pretty consistently have somewhere between 200 and 300 people at all of our concerts is a testament to the fact that people are interested in hearing the music that’s being written right now.

And there’s so much that it’s absolutely incredible. It’s easier than it ever has been to A, listen to music, B, create music on your own, and C, connect with other people who want to create music. In a democratic sense, that allows music to be more a part of our lives than it ever has been before.

The only danger I foresee is that the easier it is to create music, the harder it might be to need to create great music, because there’s something about facility that allows things to stop improving. Not that nothing should be easy—I think accessibility is a fantastic thing—but it’s important for people to always keep in mind this sense of responsibility that I was talking about earlier.

Music is so powerful and so important to the person that’s listening that it should always be the result of someone believing that they have something they want to share with someone else.

You wouldn’t want contemporary classical music to be too governed by the market. You definitely don’t want nobody coming to concerts, but it’s probably better that you don’t have the audiences that Taylor Swift has, because it would end up being difficult for people to have creative control.

Are there more people who would be interested who aren’t finding out about it? Absolutely. So I think it’s important to keep doing concerts in new places and keep telling people about new music. I’m optimistic that people will like it when they hear it. You just have to give them a chance.

Are there any contemporary composers right now that you feel are very adept at walking that line, of being able to write what they want to write and have people flock to it?

I think that the example of someone who has the perfect amount of fame is Joanna Newsom. She sells out every concert she plays because she’s amazing and she has an extremely devoted fan base who analyze every word she writes over and over again. Her sense of responsibility is clearly met with a similar feeling of responsibility in the audience. But she’s not famous enough that she has to worry about outside influences on her music.

It’s a really good level of being known—enough fans to sell out any concert that you play and they care deeply about everything you do, but you don’t have enough radio appeal that someone’s gonna start suggesting that you do anything differently with your music.

It seems pretty close to cult appeal.

Yeah! Cult appeal’s great—anything where people really care is great. ¶