An Interview with Matthew Evan Taylor
Miami-based composer and saxophonist Matthew Evan Taylor’s career has formed an impressive arc—from playing jazz and blues in Mississippi, to being signed with rock band Moses Mayfield to major label Epic Records, to receiving his doctorate in composition. These days he is engaged in composing and performing new music and opera, and is an active improviser. In a 2.5 hour Facetime session he spoke with us about beauty, the language of binary conflicts, and the importance of paying it forward.
VAN: In your bio, you mention your wish to “expose the beauty that is all around.” Can you speak about this word—beauty—and what it means for you?
Matthew Evan Taylor: I’m a child of divorce—my parents divorced early enough for me to not know them together. When I was living with my mom there was a lot of chaos on that side during that time, so I just remember the car rides—my father or my grandma would come down to pick me up from my mom’s and take me to Birmingham. At the time I was living in Tuskegee, Alabama, and if we were driving to Birmingham it was a two and a half hour drive, so for a little kid that’s exceedingly boring. But I always appreciated looking at the trees and being able to sit back and observe everything that was going on around me—to realize that I’m in this chaotic world, but around me is a lot of beauty and a lot of things to love and to observe. Grasslands, and then the Appalachian foothills. A lot of trees and nature.
But then as I’ve grown older, I’ve been in love and had my heart broken, and my definition of beauty has expanded. Now it doesn’t mean “good,” or “pretty.” Now I think of beauty as a process. We tend to call things we’re attracted to “beautiful.” Topically speaking, I’m attracted to some pretty dark things and some pretty light things, but they’re all beautiful to me. The time we’re living in now is really crazy and really confusing, but I think there’s a lot of beauty here, because we’re in a moment where we know the boundaries are being stretched and there’s going to be a new reality on the other side. Things have been said and rights have been given, so there’s no way we can go back to the status quo of the last four years.
Do you hope to anticipate what an audience’s feelings about beauty will be?
I’m thinking of the performers more, and trying to convey my enthusiasm to the performers. If the performers are enthusiastic and feel what I’m feeling in the piece, then I know that it’ll go out to the audience.
Enthusiasm, rather than beauty?
When you live in Miami, the thing that people say is, Oh, it’s so beautiful down here. But it’s very surface level beauty, and it’s infected the way the city looks at itself. It’s this clichéd beauty, whether it’s the lusty beauty, or the shiny red car beauty, or color-by-numbers beauty. It’s this saccharine thing, so when I’m talking about beauty and translating it to the performers I don’t want to say “beauty” because I feel like it’s an inadequate word… but it’s the one I’ve kind of fallen on.
Study after study of satisfaction and happiness show people feel much more satisfied with something they’ve received if they feel they’ve worked a comparable amount to the value of the object they’ve received—they’re more likely to take care of that object or be proud of it. The big whipping post now is the participation trophy—you get one, and you forget about it in a week. So, going back to writing for performers, the music I write is often difficult to put together. Sometimes it is technical things, sometimes it’s very intricate rhythmic things, like the musicians need to be aware that their line terminates at the point another’s starts—there’s this symbiotic thing going on. I’m not purposely making the music difficult, but I’m not shying away from writing the difficult things, because if the musicians struggle a little bit, they’ll appreciate the piece that I’ve written.
What was your early engagement with music like?
I started playing sax at age nine. My father used to be a DJ, so we had a great record collection—a lot of jazz, funk, and yacht rocky stuff—so I mimicked a lot of those. I learned from playing along with records, especially Ornette Coleman and Cannonball Adderley.
When I was a senior in high school I moved to Mississippi, and made a friend there who played tenor sax (and I played alto). He knew of a bar that had a blues night, the George Street Grocery, and he and I would crash it. After a while they always had a table waiting for us, the two sax guys. We ended up playing with these really grizzled guys on their way to Memphis from New Orleans. They’d cuss at you, they had missing teeth, and they didn’t sing in tune, just with passion. That was their pitch—their anger. It was eye opening for me because that was the first time I was involved in music that emotionally charged.
What are you most engaged with presently in your work?
I’m trying to be more aware of how the outside world is affecting my choices musically. I’ve operated my life just being blissfully ignorant of people’s intolerance of me. Like, I don’t ever label anybody a racist, I just label them an asshole and then move on. But that’s a pretty selfish stance to be in—like, it’s good for me, but we’re not going to progress to equality that way—so I’m now more interested in what my music is saying politically, even if I don’t set out with a political agenda with a particular piece. So in the summer of 2015 after the Freddie Gray incident, I wrote a duo for alto sax and clarinet called “Les Fauves,” which is French for “wild beasts.” It’s an acoustic piece, and I rely heavily on extended techniques to thicken the timbral palette. It is about conflict, and the idea of language decaying into binary relationships. When we’re in conflict, we always color the opposition side in broad strokes and turn them into a very simple category. This manifests in terrorists versus infidels, racists versus thugs, misandrists versus misogynists. Neither side will listen to the other, because you don’t need to reason with people who are clearly operating on a level below the level of your group. It was also a self-investigation because I do that all the time—with all this Donald Trump stuff, I’m constantly thinking those people...
I do worry about being too academic about music and being too in the ivory tower. I try to check myself. That goes back to being aware of politics and how they’re informing my compositional decisions. But that can be a problem. I see people making these pieces that are purportedly about some sort of issue about American life or in the world, but it always seems a little superficial to me.
How do you avoid that problem?
Well, I don’t know that I have. I try not to focus on the entire issue, but instead on one aspect of the issue. I think “Les Fauves” was successful on two levels. If you’re just aware of it as the term from art history, describing Matisse and his colleagues, it works, but if you read the program notes it works on another level. And it works because I’m trying to describe the language, so in a sense I’m an objective observer. I’m making the claim that it’s bad to make those binaries—the terrorist versus infidel—but at the same time I’m not trying to say that there’s not evil. So that’s how I avoid it… for me, what’s the part I can be objective about in my music that makes an important point about the issue? Because I feel like when music starts to advocate, it becomes propaganda, and it becomes a little too heavy in the politics. The best way I can describe it is if you ever watch a stand-up comedian who has a political ax to grind, especially the liberal ones—and I consider myself liberal—after a while it’s like, Can’t you talk about something else? Can’t you talk about your sex life or something?
You work a lot with improvisation. Can you speak about its role in your work?
An interesting thing about the American sense of improv informed by jazz is that in a way it is first of all very gendered, in that we think of all these genius male jazz improvisers. But also, we’re thinking of them as lone cowboys. They’re up there and they’re taking over the scene, but when you actually investigate these improvisers, you find out they’re much more giving and gender neutral, they’re trying to be an expansive presence; to be influential but also take in what’s going on around them. So when I got into free improv, I realized how liberating it was. You get into that strict misinterpretation of jazz improvisation, of like, I’m out ahead of the band. But in free improv, so much of the idea is I’m part of this collective, to make music with these other people. And that was a very liberating experience for me. I think I was 19 the first time I experienced that.
My entry into the classical music world was partly due to an observation I made listening to a lot of free improvisation and then listening to Stockhausen and Varèse. I realized that if you take jazz free improv, and Stockhausen’s “Kreuzspiel,” you won’t be able to tell the difference—the techniques and sounds unify at that point. So I operate from that assumption. A lot of my work sounds improvisatory because I start off looking for ideas in my improvisations.
Can you speak about how the improvisation groups you’ve facilitated in interdisciplinary arts spaces might differ from those in the more academic/festival/music-focused spaces you’ve attended?
The big thing I’ve noticed about working in spaces that are more visual arts-oriented is that people are much more excited to try improvisation. Musicians have a lot more fear of improv, ironically. In the musical situation everyone is looking to me to lead, and they’re more timid, and they’re afraid that what they have to say is going to be stupid. Whereas the visual artists know what they will say will be stupid (except nothing is stupid) but since they are artists they’re not as inhibited.
But then in the art spaces, what can happen is people go too far in their improvisation. You have to be prepared for what people are going to do, since they don’t have these precious notions. They’re willing to go anywhere with it. For example, during an improvisation session at the Poor Farm, at a certain point somebody found an eight-foot tall ladder, slammed it shut and threw it on the floor, which triggered some sort of PTSD moment for another participant. The sound was awful but he kept dropping it on the floor (which presented me with the question of whether I should intervene), but the person who was being affected by it went over to him and put her hands on him. She didn’t say anything, but put her hands on him, and he did stop.
You are also interested in interactivity as an element of composition and improvisation. How have you been exploring that?
At the Elsewhere Museum in North Carolina, I created what I’m calling the Living Score. I hung different scores around the facility and wrote music on it, performed it, then allowed the audience to go change, erase, or add whatever they want to the score. Then I went around and performed the scores again, to see how they’d changed. I’m pretty excited about that as an interactive piece for museums.
You organized an interdisciplinary collaboration recently as a Visiting Artist at ACRE—can you describe how that worked?
I put together an ensemble of artists regardless of media. I had two printmakers, a woodworker, a weaver, sound artists, and a photographer on stage who would take pictures of the participants and put them on the screen for the audience as quickly as she could. There was a poet reciting words and sounds. The conductor was a curator from Chicago. The goal was to not emphasize any one medium over another—an attempt to have everything on equal footing. I’ve tried it before with a painter doing live painting at a concert of mine, and that’s cool but it feels like it’s a gimmick happening around the music instead of being a part of the experience. At least that’s how I feel about it. This was the closest I’ve gotten to feeling these were organically connected events on stage.
What are your thoughts on the state of diversity in the classical music world?
We’re doing better about having black composers and women composers represented, but there still hasn’t been a black woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It’s always black men that get to break the barrier of race, and then white women get to break the barrier of gender—but black women get forgotten somehow. And I know there are brilliant black women composers around, I’ve met some of them. It’s not disheartening, but it’s a blind spot, I think.
Another thing about the Pulitzer is that when the Pulitzer for music gets awarded to a black artist, it is often a black artist like Henry Threadgill. People think of him as a jazz composer but he’s actually straddling four music worlds… and every time that happens, you hear people say, “Okay, can we have two Pulitzer Prizes, one for the real classical ones, and one for the jazz guys?” That is upsetting. I’d be surprised if Threadgill gets opportunities from it—George Walker didn’t. Maybe the Chicago Symphony will do something with him but I’d be surprised. But with him there is the added aspect that he’s got a jazz background so I think that has something to do with it.
It broke my heart when I read that Washington Post article about George Walker. I listened to “Lilacs,” and it’s a beautiful piece. He was writing in a style that orchestras should have wanted to have; a style that wouldn’t send people screaming for the doors; beautiful, well-crafted, everything.
What is your grand plan?
Change the world, baby! I don’t know. I want a life where I’m traveling frequently, premiering works, working with incredible musicians and artists of all stripes. I would hope I’d get recognition, but only because I’m a competitive person. But if I don’t, I’ll still be happy because I’ve found what I want to do. And teaching has got to be part of it! I feel like I’ve benefited so much from the advice of people who have done a lot more than I have, and their support has been so amazing for me. When I started studying music formally, I heard “Rite of Spring” and “Pierrot Lunaire” and they blew my mind. Probably I wouldn’t have thought of doing composition if I hadn’t listened to Stravinsky in my sophomore year—that was a teacher who (probably unknowingly) set me on a path. I have to pay that forward somehow. ¶