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An outsider finds a muse: Matthew Harris's new work explores women in love
by Franklin B. Tucker for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 30, 2006

When composer Matthew Harris accepted his most recent commission last year, he never anticipated it would lead to love at first sight. "I ... loved that you have a women's chorus conducted by a woman, singing texts by a woman and the music is by a guy!" said Harris, whose choral work, Women in Love, will be premiered by Amuse, the New York City-based women's vocal ensemble, on June 11th.

While he felt no qualms expressing poet Wendy Cope's ideas and emotions in his new song cycle, Harris acknowledged being a man added another layer of meaning to his new composition. "The title I chose, or borrowed, 'Women In Love,' suggests an outsider's perspective. A woman composer might have simply called the piece 'Life,'" said Harris. With "Women in Love," Harris -- who lives with his wife, Bonnie, and their children, Katie and Spencer, on Manhattan's Upper West Side -- continues to extend his artistic reach once again using the most primal and expressive musical vehicle, the human voice.

Harris' music encompasses a vibrant joyfulness -- at times bordering on humorous -- employing rich, broad harmonies and spirited melodic themes as if he was seeking to establish a new school of romantic composition. The author of numerous works for orchestra and instrumental ensemble, Harris's most prominent pieces are his vocal compositions. His best-known, and most recorded, work is Shakespeare Songs, five "books" of several songs written over a decade-and-a-half, intertwining the Bard's words with lyrical melodies and an array of styles.

Harris's cantata A Child's Christmas in Wales, based on Dylan Thomas's masterpiece, is performed throughout the holiday season in the U.S. and in the British Isles. His vocal competitions have garnered enough interest that the Los Angeles Chamber Singers is preparing to produce a CD dedicated to Harris's choral works.

Harris, who turns 50 this year, said one of his favorite critiques is New York Times' Anthony Tommasini proclamation last year that Harris creates "... smart and harmonically pungent music..." While "pungent" is one of those words most artists wish to keep a safe distance from, Harris celebrates it, noting the word definitions include penetrating, biting and sharp.

"As I try to avoid writing bland choral music, I find the appellation a particular badge of honor," he said. The commission for Women in Love had its genesis a year ago when Amuse, the 16- member ensemble in its third performance season, performed Harris's How Like a Winter Hath my Absence Been, a complex and dissonant work in which the vocal parts are independent of one another, requiring each singer to "hold their own."

"I was there and was blown away by how beautifully they did this difficult piece," said Harris. Amuse founder Lee Ryder broached the idea of a commission over lunch through the summer and an agreement was reached in September 2005. But finding the text for the project was proving a far more difficult task than Harris had initially anticipated.

It turned to a chance encounter in his kitchen one night where Harris finally came upon his Archimedian moment. On the radio, Harris was listening to National Public Radio's weekday broadcast of "The Writer's Almanac," which chronicles that day in writing history and where host Garrison Keillor reads a poem. On that particular night, Keillor recited a poem from Cope's collection, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. "Right there, I knew I found my poet," said Harris, who quickly purchased her books.

Harris's muse is the popular English poet -- she won a BBC radio poll to succeed Ted Hughes as Poet Laureate a decade ago -- hailed for her whimsical, perceptive light prose that possesses a keen eye for everyday life, especially on the intimacies between men and women. "Wendy Cope has a lot of poems about her travails as a single woman in London, so her books are a kind of 'Sex in the City' in verse," said Harris. He said Cope's use of fun and, at times, being downright silly, touched a personal chord in him. "I could see that we are common spirits," said Harris.

In creating the work, Harris nixed plans to compose six individual works that could stand on their own like his Shakespeare Songs. Instead, he created a song cycle with a unifying narrative from the poems he selected. As Harris envisions the story, a summer fling turns serious as a woman fall in love with a man who promptly leaves her at season's end. After a period of anger and despair, she reconciles herself to love's fleeting nature and looks forward to adventures next summer. "It follows the strict, old-fashioned villanelle structure, but the content is very up-to-date," said Harris.

To convey that modern sensibility onto the work's rustic structure, Harris reaches back to a musical setting from his own past: the girl groups of the 1960s; like the Shirelles, Vandellas and Supremes. Harris has used his pop and folk background in previous pieces, notably incorporating a sense of 50s do-wop in "Who is Sylvia" and bluesy jazz and country swing in "When daffodils begin to peer," both songs from his Shakespeare Songs. "This dichotomy between form and content was the first thing that grabbed me because it's what I often have in my music and it's in this piece as well," said Harris,

Other themes Harris alludes to in Women in Love are music of the 1920s, Latin dance, English madrigal and -- if you listen close enough -- a bit of pop music diva Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl," courtesy of his daughter's iPod. But those styles don't dominate the compositions in a craven attempt to commandeer the audience's attention. Rather, they coalesce in the work's underlying structure. "At least those were my starting points; I don't know if the audience will hear it that way," said Harris.

Yet he is unapologetic for integrating tunes and melodies he grew up with and still listens to today. Harris is baffled by some composers' willingness to forcibly exile experiences with "popular" music from their compositions. "I'm in no way seeking to manipulate the listener. But it is not aesthetic bankruptcy if you make [those styles] yours," he said.

Harris said even with Cope's poems selected and the story in place, dedicating himself to the work was hard. The first movement -- "Summer Villanelle" -- went through numerous failed drafts before it came into form, yet the middle selections were written rather quickly. The last movement, short as it is, took an extended time to complete. It was not that Harris ran into an artistic dry spell. On the contrary, the delay was due to his reluctance to finish the job. "I think it's because I subconsciously didn't want to be done. I was having too much fun," said Harris.

Amuse, Kristina Boerger, music director, presents "Women in Love," including works by Brahms, Barber, Boerger, Libby Larson and Tarik O'Regan and the premiere of Women in Love by Matthew Harris on Sunday, June 11 at 4 PM at the Church of St. Ignatius of Antioch, 87th and West End Avenue. Tickets are $12 purchased before the day of the concert from the Amuse web site at www.amusesingers.org/season.06.program.06.html.

Franklin Tucker is an editor of two newspapers in the Community Newspaper Company in Boston, MA.

Content Contact: Franklin B. Tucker.
Revision Date: May 30, 2006.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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