A Conversation with Matthew Evan Taylor: "Life Returns" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
MATTHEW EVAN TAYLOR: It turned into this really just kind of magnificent sound that I think I've been hearing my whole life, but I never thought I could write it - and then I wrote it.
HELEN LYONS: That's Middlebury College professor and composer Matthew Evan Taylor. His piece, Life Returns will have its digital premiere on February 14, a performance that originally took place in March of 2022, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
TAYLOR: So the event Life Returns is an evening-length work that I wrote to commemorate the return of spring. The original premiere was supposed to be for March of 2020. Once it became clear that that wasn't going to happen, everything got pushed back and it became March of 2022. Which then added all this other kind of meaning behind the event, I'm pretty sure it was, if not the first one of the first live events held at the Met after the pandemic had closed everything down. It was a really auspicious event for me.
LYONS: Life Returns was commissioned by the Met Museum and represents a collaboration between Matthew Evan Taylor, The Metropolis Ensemble, and South Asian jazz band RAJAS. Tell us about the music itself and your process in writing it.
TAYLOR: So there's a little bit of something for everybody. I wanted to write a piece that was a meeting place for South Indian musicians, for jazz musicians, for classical musicians to all express at the same time. It's more or less a chamber orchestra with eight strings and single player on winds. But then with the addition of Rajna’s ensemble, we also had a Carnatic singer named Ganavya, and Rajna (Swaminathan) on the mridangam. And then the rest of that ensemble was more of a jazz band. I started thinking of connections between my own background in jazz and African-American music, and connections to droning and to groove and to all these things. And then once I thought of all that, I started writing the actual music kind of in the middle. So I started with the meat and then put the bread on after.
LYONS: After the cancellation of the premiere of Life Returns in 2020, Matthew Evan Taylor saw a silver lining opportunity and turned to small-scale compositions, developing a program of pieces throughout 2021, titled Postcards From the Met, in which he worked remotely with the same musicians scheduled to perform Life Returns.
TAYLOR: The Postcards was a new project that was tacked on during the pandemic, as we were trying to figure out how the Met and I, and the Metropolis Ensemble, could move forward with this project in this new reality that was COVID, where I was connecting each of the postcards to the seasons. And so each month, I would send a postcard to a musician from the combined ensemble. And then they would send a reply postcard and then the video editing team we had, put together the performances into what became the final product. It turned out to be a really satisfying project…I kind of thought of the Postcards project and Life Returns as two sides of a coin. The Postcards project was leading us into the winter, then Life Returns would be bringing us back into the spring. From a more chaotic beginning - maybe some colder sounds - into a more kind of organized and celebratory, warmer environment. At the end of the day, I think there's certainly something in how I think about large-scale pieces that lends itself to that kind of “out of the primordial ooze” comes this new existence or something, right? I like kind of having an entropic kind of beginning. Often endpoints are starting points for other people and having these things overlap, for me, there's always kind of a circular feeling to it.
LYONS: How did these two projects affect you as a composer?
TAYLOR: It's definitely felt like a mark of the end of an era of writing for me. Now it's kind of the beginning of a new phase of writing. A lot of different things that I value about music kind of just came together in that performance in that piece. Now that I've done it, it's kind of like, “Okay, what does music look like for me now,” which is hasn't happened to me before with other pieces. One of the things that I see myself working in now is kind of redefining what it means to be virtuosic. Writing music lately that connects musical time to the breath instead of to the metronome. Instead of the musicians playing my music, they're not counting beats, they're counting their breaths. What I like about it is, if I have a group of people doing that, perhaps it synchronizes for a little bit, but it very quickly moves into this cloud of music that is being counted in the same way, but is very individual.
LYONS: Do you have any final thoughts about the upcoming streaming performance and what you hope audiences will take away from life returns?
TAYLOR: Life Returns, was both a piece to celebrate some semblance of normalcy returning and the return of light. One concept that really kind of percolated to the top for me, during the making of this piece, and during the pandemic, was this idea of radical optimism, which I really have understood to be my actual outlook on life. I'm not blind to what is wrong with things, but there's something to being positive and being capable of looking beyond misery or isolation and seeing the other side. it's hope, it's whatever you want to call it, just really appreciating what each season means for life. You know, winter seems like kind of this dead, flat thing, but it's actually a very dynamic time. Just that the dynamism is kind of out of sight. It's under snow. It's underground. Whatever happens in the winter determines how well the plants return in the spring.
LYONS: My thanks to Matthew Evan Taylor for speaking to me about the upcoming discussion and digital premiere of Life returns, which airs Tuesday February 14 at 6pm. To register to view the discussion and performance head to metmuseum.org/events.