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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

'Unhinged Rhythms And Unbridled Expression': Composer Matthew Evan Taylor

A man in a pink shirt stands by a pond.
Elodie Reed
Matthew Evan Taylor is a composer and Middlebury College professor.

For as long as he can remember, Matthew Evan Taylor has been intrigued by sound.

Check out our other Young At Art stories, about Vermont artists under 40, here.

The sound of human voices for instance, which he often tried to mimic as a child. Or the sounds animals make. Or the sounds that came from his father’s record collection.

As a composer, Taylor is transforming those soundscapes into a new kind of classical music. And the Middlebury College professor says his compositions have begun to reflect on the turbulence of American politics.

A book titled "Essential Dictionary of Orchestration" sits on a desk.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Matthew Evan Taylor is interested in composing music as a bridge between groups that struggle to hold dialogue in America's current political atmosphere.

Case in point is a piece called "Les Fauves," which Taylor wrote in 2015 in response to the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department.

"All the language that was being used [in the aftermath of Gray's death] was meant to dehumanize the other side of the argument, and so I started thinking of beasts," Taylor said.

"Les Fauves" features one saxophone and one oboe. And Taylor's score uses multi-phonics — a type of fingering technique that allows performers to produce multiple notes simultaneously — to elicit almost feral sounds from the instruments.

The idea, Taylor said, was to turn the oboe and saxophone into the two sides of that argument, to turn their wild and angry notes into a sonic representation of the ugly national dialogue that followed Gray's death.

A man sits at a desk in a cramped office space.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Matthew Evan Taylor composes a film score in his office at Middlebury College.

"The idea being that, the words are being used to dehumanize, but they're also kind of bestial things themselves," Taylor said. "I was just really struck by how people were, especially in this moment, were talking past each other."

Taylor says he believes that today's culture demands a more "kinetic" kind of music — music with "unhinged rhythms and unbridled expression." And he's part of a reformist movement in a classical music genre that's still dominated by white male composers from the 18th and 19th centuries.

"There is space for us to kind of make our voices known, sometimes in subversive ways and sometimes in obvious ways, through the arts that will rally people," Taylor said.

A music sheet with penciled marks.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
A film score in progress in Matthew Evan Taylor's office at Middlebury College. Taylor is working with Vermont Symphony Orchestra on the project.

Taylor grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and moved to Vermont in 2016 for a two-year residency at Middlebury College. He's since become a full-time professor at the liberal arts college, teaching music theory, improvisation and composition.

Taylor is also composing music, often by commission. And he said that music is sometimes intended to spark open-ended conversations about American politics. Like a piece he wrote for the bass-baritone vocalist, Carl Dupont, called, "The Reaction."

Taylor began writing the song in the fall of 2016.

"And then, the election happened, and I didn't take it very well," he said, referring to Donald Trump.

Taylor ripped up the score he'd been working on and produced a new one in just two writing sessions. It features Dupont posing a series of questions with an operatic howl that travels between anger, sadness, curiosity and confusion. Questions such as:

"Who is to blame?"

"Who are they?"

"Who benefits?"

"Who do I blame for my despair and suffering and confusion?"

As an African American man, Taylor said, Trump's election was a jarring back step from the symbolic triumph that Barack Obama had represented.

Blue posters on a wall.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Matthew Evan Taylor has started a series at Middlebury College to showcase artists who are women and people of color, two underrepresented groups in the classical music world.

"For us, it really was like, 'Oh, okay, we see,'" Taylor said. "This is an attempt to stop that progress, and it's really hard to not see it that way."

Taylor, however, said his music isn't just for people who share his politics. That sense of despair he felt when Trump was elected, he said, was probably very similar to what his conservative friends in Birmingham were feeling when Obama won the White House in 2008. They were different groups of people, experiencing the same human emotions, for different reasons.

Taylor said he hopes all of those different groups can relate to the feelings his music tries to express and, in discovering in that commonality, maybe they can find a new way to communicate.

"I think it's clear, just the deterioration of dialogue and desire for understanding between groups of people is pretty bad, and that's what I'm interested in climbing out [of]," he said.

He’s also interested in giving new platforms to other artists, so they can be heard as well. Taylor started a series at Middlebury College, called, "New Century, New Voices." The performances showcase the work of primarily living composers who are either women or people of color, two groups that have been drastically under-represented in mainstream classical offerings.

A stack of red and orange library books titled "Perspectives of New Music."
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Matthew Evan Taylor points out that classical music is a living tradition.

"People don't realize that this is a living tradition," Taylor said. "It's not dead. People are still writing in some of the same ways that Beethoven or Mozart or any of these other guys wrote. It's just, for whatever reason, we as a society have decided to just turn our ear away from it. It's untested, we don't want to deal with it."

Taylor said the series has been incredibly well-received. And he plans to curate more opportunities for lesser-known composers to be heard in Vermont.

This story is part of our series, Young At Art. Every Monday this summer we'll hear from artists under 40 about what inspires their work and how they view the future for artists in the state. Support for Young At Art comes fromQuantum Leap Capital.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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