Composer Spotlight: Paula Matthusen & Her Collaboration with Poet Danielle Vogel

Paula Matthusen is a composer who writes both electroacoustic and acoustic music and realizes sound installations. In addition to composing for a variety of ensembles, she collaborates with choreographers and theater companies. She has written for diverse instrumentations, such as “run-on sentence of the pavement” for piano, ping-pong balls, and electronics, which Alex Ross of The New Yorker noted as being “entrancing”. Matthusen’s work often considers discrepancies in musical space—real, imagined, and remembered. Recent areas of creative inquiry include extensive field recording, which has led to compositions and sound projects in aqueducts, caves, and sites of historic infrastructure.

Her newly ACO-commissioned work, Prophecy in Reverse, began with the prompt to consider notions of sanctuary. She turned to colleague and poet Danielle Vogel for inspiration and partnership.

Danielle Vogel is a poet, lyric essayist, and interdisciplinary artist working at the intersections of queer ecology, somatics, and ceremony. She is the author of The Way a Line Hallucinates Its Own LinearityEdges & Fray, and Between Grammars. Vogel is a professor at Wesleyan University and makes her home in Connecticut on the ancestral lands of the Hammonassets and Wappinger peoples, with her partner, the writer and artist, Renee Gladman.

Prophecy in Reverse, with music by Paula and poetry by Danielle, premieres on March 25, 2022 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. We recently spoke with them about their collaboration.

Lyndsay Werking (LW): How do you know each other?

Paula Matthusen (PM): I read Danielle’s book, Edges & Fray, and I loved it. We both teach at the same school, Wesleyan University. There’s a lot of sound and space to her poetry. It left something open for me to interpret as a score.

Book cover image of Danielle Vogel’s Edges & Fray

LW: Tell me more about your choice to collaborate.

PM: When the opportunity came up to write for ACO, I looked at the other composers on the program; they are amazing. I talked about the idea of “sanctuary” with Artistic Director Derek Bermel and he was discussing Lisa Bielawa’s stunning work which will be on the program. With that in mind, I started thinking about the idea of sanctuary as participatory, as an idea we engage in.

Humorously, I was also reminded of The Simpsons. There’s a scene in one episode where Homer has done something horrible. He runs into a church and cries for “sanctuary.” The priest responds, “I regret ever teaching you that word.”

There is power in that word, sanctuary. It’s a concept that we may invoke. And, it may literally be also a space into which we run. If we have a need for sanctuary, the response can be to close up. Yet, we often need the opposite. If we need help, we need to open up and ask for help.

I didn’t want to tackle this alone. I love working in sound, and I also love poetry and collaboration.. So, I invited Danielle to work together.

Video of Antenna Studies by Paula Matthusen, with poetry by Tung Hui Hu

LW: Danielle, have you worked in music before? Is the idea of sanctuary something you’ve explored in other works?

Danielle Vogel (DV): Some years ago, I was at a poetry salon in Reykjavík where I read from my forthcoming manuscript A Library of Light. I met an artist there, Samantha Shay, who asked if she could have the poem I read. She hoped to make a theater piece inspired by it. The result was a gorgeous experimental opera titled, of Light that premiered in 2016. Our collaboration took place mainly through the medium the poem with occasional conversations. It was incredible to see my writing glowing in the visual and sonic compositions of the opera. Two songs from that original score were released by Mute Records by composer KÁRYYN, with “Moving Masses” named Best New Track on Pitchfork. We continue to collaborate on the future of the opera today.

Promotional poster and production still from Samantha Shay’s Of Light.

When Paula invited me to collaborate on this project, I asked if she could tell me some of the words, ideas, or energies that were at the core of the symphony. What was she holding as she composed? What was she hoping to invite the eventual listeners into? My first step was to sit with what she said through Deep Listening and to feel into the histories stored inside of Paula’s intentions.

While I’ve never worked directly with the notion of sanctuary, the idea of having a sacred and safe place to go is, in a way, central to my practice as a poet. I think of the book-space as a kind of sheltering space. A place for the reader and writer to dwell.

LW: Tell me more about the words that Paula wrote.

DV: At the core was the word sanctuary and the energies of ecological wonder and entanglement.

A part of my practice as a poet is to work within other fields and mediums alongside writing. For example, I often work with clay, flowers, and bodies of water as I write. I don’t usually collaborate so closely with humans. So, getting to sit with Paula’s intentions as a kind of organic material was a natural first step for me.

Listening deeply to the resonances within what Paula intended, I wrote the first draft of a long poem. Once I heard the symphony, I was transported to someplace unexpected—the basin of the Long Island Sound—and that first poem became a kind of threshold text for the actual poem that was written to be woven into the symphony.

LW: Paula, can you tell me more about your music and how it responds to Danielle’s poetry?

PM: There was a dialogue that was opened up. I think of it as a type of orchestration. The poetry resonates on a structural level. I can feel the page, the space between letters, words, and punctuation.

As readers or listeners, we’re performing pieces even if it is only in our own heads. Using Danielle’s poetry, I’m not setting text. I wanted a continuous thought but not necessarily linear. The poetry is its own presence with the piece and will be projected and durational as part of the music.

Selection from Edges & Fray by Danielle Vogel

LW: You’ve mentioned Deep Listening. Have you worked with Pauline Oliveros?

DV: Pauline is very important to my practice as a poet and teacher. I think of deep listening as a method of attunement. I came to know her work through her book, Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. I also often listen to her music when I’m writing. Most recently, I’ve been writing alongside her song “Suiren.”

PM: I worked with Pauline Oliveros close to 20 years. I’m one of hundreds, probably thousands, of people who have a relationship with Pauline and her music. I’m blown away that someone could live the way she did as an artist and the way she engaged in her art. There is lots of openness and kindness while also being insistent about listening and hearing. When I was a junior in college, she was doing a residency at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She invited me and some of my collaborators to be part of her work at Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. She opened possibilities for people.

LW: Do you have any rituals you follow?

DV: I have so many rituals. My artistic practice and way of being in the world is one of ceremony. I think of myself a poet-ceremonialist. My public rituals revolve around how I hold space in the classroom, the interdisciplinary installations I sometime create, and how I shape my books. I think of each course I design and book I write as an extended ceremonial field, serving as a site of transformation. Day to day, my private rituals often revolve around project-based altar spaces and plants. I’m also an herbalist and have enduring relationships with the medicinal plants of my bioregion. One of my future projects is writing a book with plants shaped by the rituals we create together.

PM: I’m so interested in the rituals related to performance. For me, slowing things down and taking time is important to me. Before teaching and performance, I need time to be in the room. I love cooking and coffee. Monday nights are my “stew night.”

From Edges & Fray by Danielle Vogel

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