Composer, conductor, poet and musician Matthew Aucoin, 25, was raised in Medfield and lives in New York. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 2012 and received a graduate diploma from Juilliard. His work has been performed by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he currently serves as Solti Conducting Apprentice; he is also composer-in-residence at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. His writing has appeared in The Boston Globe (where his father, Don, is a noted theater critic), The Yale Review, The Harvard Advocate, The Colorado Review and Plain China. His third opera, Crossing—based on Walt Whitman’s experiences as a nurse during the Civil War—premieres at the Citi Shubert Theatre May 29-June 6 in a production staged by the American Repertory Theater.
Matthew Aucoin: I can’t do math. Also, if I’m left alone in a room, it will become a colossal mess, even if there’s nothing in it. I just wreak havoc.
The Wall Street Journal Y’know, he died a few months after I was born, so the odds of reincarnation are pretty slim.
Finishing things. Tying a bow around it. I never have a problem wrestling with a blank page, but when it comes to saying, “Yes, this is done. Take it, world!” that’s not as easy for me.
Do you prefer the process or the final product? I live for the process. The performers who have to perform my music probably suffer a great deal, because technically, it’s a pain in the ass to sing and play, but I have a lot of fun making it.
Biggest diva you’ve ever worked with? A soprano I worked with in Italy. First, she complained that the mansion she was being put up in wasn’t grand enough for her and demanded a bigger one. Then she developed an intense sore throat and said that the only doctor she trusted was in Bratislava, so she forced the company to pay for three flights a week between Italy and Slovakia in order to treat her nonexistent sore throat. I hope I never get that bad.
I want to work with Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. I consider this interview to be my public pronouncement of “Jonny Greenwood, will you go out with me?” I’d love to make music with him.
Dream commission or appointment? The dream for me would be to work with an orchestra or opera house that has new work at the heart of its mission. It’s rare and almost unprecedented in the past few decades for the music director to also be writing music regularly for those musicians specifically, but that seems like the most natural thing in the world to me. If you’re working with these people every day, you know what they can do well. You know their strengths and weaknesses and their personalities. Why not write music for them? That’s how rock ’n’ roll bands operate. You both create and perform music, and I don’t see why things have to be entirely different in the classical world.
It means keeping up with the pace at which music unfolds in real time. Instead of adhering to a plan and doing lots of pre-composition, I try to live in the moment and react to my own musical material the way that a jazz musician does. It also means dressing up in cool suits.
Where do you think creativity comes from? Somewhere next to the pelvis? I have no idea.
Composer you’d most welcome comparisons to? I’ll tell you: not Leonard Bernstein and not Mozart. I’d be totally honored if someone thought my music sounded like Stravinsky or Berg.
It’s more like I’m cursed, or blessed, with some kind of musical/poetic synesthesia. In other words, music and poetry don’t feel like separate things to me. I understand that people might perceive them as very different, but for me, it all feels like one activity. To circle back to that question “Why opera?” that’s kind of the answer. In opera, all these things are one thing.
I’m probably a little too old to be a prodigy. I’m a 25-year-old adult. It’s weird. Maybe compared to other composers I seem young, but I’ve always mistrusted the word prodigy. The point isn’t to be dazzlingly good at something. The point is to make good music. If you’re a little kid who can play the piano really fast, that’s not the same as writing good music. So that word tends to annoy me.
James Merrill, because he was addicted to puns and so am I.
Which is easier for you, music or words? That’s a really good question. Music comes most naturally to me, but the technical demands of bringing it into the world are more complicated. Language is easier to work with as a substance, but it requires more time existing in the world to understand exactly what our words mean. There’s probably never been a prodigy poet. No one writes a good poem when they’re 9 years old, because when you’re a kid, you’re still learning the surface meanings of words, and it takes many years to understand the overtones and undertones and depths that language has.
Bonnaroo. I took a very grungy, sweaty road trip there with a bunch of friends in high school. I can’t believe our parents let us do it. Driving to Tennessee and staying in fleabag motels. I remember this one guy we ran into who was on so many drugs that walking forward was just the most thrilling thing in the world, and he was going “Whee!” That sums up Bonnaroo.
Diane has laser vision. It’s like being with this cool New Age Zen master who sees to the heart of everything. It’s almost annoying how clear-sighted she is. I can wrestle with a problem in the opera for a month and then bring it to her, and she’s like, “Cut those 20 bars,” and boom! The scene falls into place. It’s magical.
Yeah. It has the disadvantage of being surrounded by witches. Witches tend to steal attention. I don’t know how any art institution could compete with hangings and burnings and murders. In Salem, it’s Halloween all year round. But it’s definitely worth making the trek. Because it’s not in the heart of Boston, they have so much space and so many resources that a smaller town can afford. It’s nuts the quality of what that museum has, both in terms of the art and the programming.
Your thoughts on Boston as a music city? It’s a beautiful mass of contradictions. I think there’s some kind of weird recessive gene, maybe the Puritan gene, that hasn’t fully embraced opera. Maybe Massholes are too rational and busy to indulge in the kind of five-hour spectacle that opera can demand. Boston’s not exactly the south of Italy in terms of lifestyle. But the instrumental music scene has gotta be the best per capita in the world. If you look at the population compared to the number of orchestras, ensembles, et cetera, it’s like one musician per square foot.
Does music actually soothe the savage breast? Yes, but it can also incite the savage breast to more savagery. It’s like language. It can calm you down, or you can hear voices telling you to kill people. Music can soothe, but I really can’t stand this idea of music as some kind of panacea. Y’know—play Mozart for your baby, and he will be a peaceful little Einstein genius.
Is music the food of love? Totally.
Most overrated musician? There are so many, but I’ll go with Shostakovich. He was not a good composer, and I don’t know how people were tricked into thinking he was.
What’s the most unorthodox use you’ve ever made of a conductor’s baton? Probably killing a bug.
My personal Billboard chart right now is the first movement of Thomas Adès’ violin concerto, The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky and Les Troyens by Berlioz. So my top three hit singles would probably take about 15 hours to listen to.