5 Questions to Matt Marks (composer-performer)

Matt Marks is a versatile composer, vocalist, and instrumentalist. He is a founding member of Alarm Will Sound and regularly performs with acclaimed new music ensembles such as the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Signal, and ACME. His compositions include inventive approaches to opera and musical theater as well as instrumental and electronic works. On May 8, 2016, Hotel Elefant will present works for voice and ensemble from Marks’ upcoming sophomore album Songs of Love and Violence at Roulette. We asked him five questions about the performance and the album.

How does the interaction of composer and performer inform your compositional process? Does this interaction change if you are performing your own works such as your upcoming show with Hotel Elefant?

I tend to think of performers of my music as actors. Even the instrumentalists have to actively engage with their motivation, and the motivation of those around them, towards supporting the overall musical narrative of the piece, which can often seem counter to the textual narrative. My music also tends to contain numerous heightened forays into various styles and genres, so the performers really have to swing wildly into these styles and play them up, almost to a level of campiness, which I see as a type of acting. I like when I get to perform with the ensemble, as I’ll be doing on May 8th with Hotel Elefant, because the performers see just how ridiculous I get when I perform, and they realize it’s ok for them to act similarly ridiculous (which the HE players are really good at!).

Your upcoming album Songs of Love and Violence explores psychologically bizarre social issues. Can you tell us a bit about each story and explain why these seemingly incomprehensible events from the past are relevant today?

We recorded (and are performing on this show) three pieces: The Adventures of Albert Fish, This Will Hurt Someone, and Sex Objects, three narrative mini-operas that explore some seriously heavy shit but in a weird–and, dare I say, fun–way. Albert Fish (sung by Jeffrey Gavett) features settings of the writings of the notorious serial killer from the early 20th century, including a horrific letter sent to the mother of one of his young victims. It’s probably my most hard-to-sit-through piece, and comes from a period in which I was listening to a ton of Brahms chamber music and Meat Loaf (and it totally shows).

This Will Hurt Someone (sung by me) was originally a song for auto-tuned voice and ukulele, and I arranged it for Hotel Elefant about a year ago. The text is taken from a press conference given by a disgraced politician named Budd Dwyer, in which he pulled out a gun and shot himself in the mouth on live TV. As with Albert Fish, my morbid curiosity had me reading and rereading the text late at night, and I suddenly found myself setting it to music.

Sex Objects is a collaboration with Royce Vavrek, who wrote the libretto and lyrics for the three narratives that explore various sexual relationships with inanimate objects: I Don’t Respond (sung by Mellissa Hughes) is a story from the perspective of a Real Doll about her owner; Elena (sung by Joshua Jeremiah) is a true story of an Austrian doctor who began a relationship with his patient years after she had died; and lastly Red Thread Smirk (sung by myself) is about a ship of sailors and their dame de voyage, who has disrupted the sex lives of the crew.

None of these are moral tales, but neither were they written for shock value (not that there’s anything wrong with that though!). They’re all, at their core, unflinching first person portraits of people with psyches are are difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend. The music is all written from my imagined version of their perspective, which is a difficult and, in my view, productive emotional exercise for the artists and the audience.

Why is the medium of solo voice and accompanying ensemble—as opposed to more theatrical genres like opera or musical theater—the best vehicle for telling these stories?

Well these pieces aren’t necessarily not opera or musical theater, but they all take the unique form of first person stories told by one character. They’re very direct and provocative, and meant to hit the audience hard. In this respect they sort of resemble a ghost story told around a campfire, or a murder ballad, or a confessional. The fact that they’re mostly actual words spoken by the people involved makes them extra spooky as well.

Matt Marks with Hotel Elefant

Matt Marks with Hotel Elefant

Do you think that these intense narratives challenge audience reception, and what are your hopes for the listener experience of these works?

Yeah, and I think a lot about how an audience responds to a piece of mine. These pieces, particularly Albert Fish, have elements of humor, which leads the audience to initially believe they’re in a relatively-safe emotional territory, but that soon changes and shit gets real dark, real quick. Live recordings of that piece are interesting because you always hear laughter at the beginning and dead fucking silence at the end. I’ve had man audience members walk out during performances; it goes to a place that people simply are not used to experiencing in classical music setting. Sure, music like Wozzeck, Der Erlkönig, and Sweeney Todd explore similarly dark material, but this music does it in a intensely intimate manner based on words that were written by the person who did these things. Also the music supports the characters’ points-of-view, which I believe helps to elicit empathy, even though it might be unwelcome.

In addition to your performance with Hotel Elefant, do you have any other performances or projects coming up that we should know about?

I’m currently finishing up a three week run of my musical Mother Courage and Her Sisters at the University of Rochester, which has been crazy fun. After the Hotel Elefant show on May 8 at Roulette, I’ve got a new piece that’s being premiered on May 15 by Tenth Intervention on a really cool concert featuring Maxwell-Davies’ 8 Songs for a Mad King. My piece is called Velocirapture and it’s a surreal spoken/sung narrative I perform about a world in which dinosaurs and humans live together. Also, Alarm Will Sound has a new album coming out April 29, which features my arrangement of The Beatles’ Revolution 9.