Conversation with Matthew Levy

We are pleased to welcome Matthew Levy, saxophone, as guest artist for the Dolce Suono Ensemble Presents 2012-2013 season opening concert “Debussy and Jazz” on Sunday, October 21 [click here for tickets]. He enjoys a distinguished career as performer, founding member of the Prism Saxophone Quartet, and composer. Matt has been my great friend and colleague for several years, but this is our first time playing chamber music together. I know that our concertgoers will be dazzled by his brilliant artistry, both as performer and composer of the works which we will premiere.

I interviewed Matt so that our audiences could get to know him before the concert. I am always impressed by Matt’s thoughtfulness about music and the music field, gained from his vast and varied experience. You will have a chance to talk with him and the rest of the ensemble members at the Post-Concert Conversation and reception.

Mimi Stillman (MS): You started Prism while still an undergraduate, and built it into one of the most respected new music organizations. What were you thinking at the beginning, and how did Prism get to where it is?

Matthew Levy (ML): In Prism’s early days, we were mostly about finding opportunities to play, with the goal of developing a touring presence.  We quickly worked through the standard sax quartet rep, mostly mid-20th century French conservatory music by composers like Pierre Max Dubois and Alfred Desenclos. We reached what felt like an impasse, but with the encouragement of mentors, including our saxophone professor Donald Sinta, decided to focus on commissioning new work. Almost 30 years later, we’ve commissioned and premiered well over 150 works. Because many iconic composers lived and died since the instrument’s invention in the early 1840s without having composed saxophone music, we focused on commissioning master composers who had never contributed to the medium, including Bill Bolcom, Steve Mackey, Bernard Rands, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, and many others. Since its beginning, the group has also provided a vehicle for my own compositions, as well as for collaborations with artists and ensembles from a wide range of folk, classical, and jazz traditions. These include a recent project with the ensemble Music from China, and an upcoming recording of my music with some of New York’s top jazz artists.

In order to further the ensemble, each member had to learn a range of non-performance skills. For me it was grant writing, audio engineering, and concert production. For another it was web and graphic design, and so on. Among the four of us, we were able to produce concerts and recordings and create our own residency programs. Now we have a nonprofit organization with a staff, a board of directors, and administrative infrastructure. We continue to operate within a partnership that works because of a strong bond of friendship and respect among the members.

MS: Of the many pieces you have commissioned and premiered, what makes your favorites stand out? Please give some examples.

ML: The best pieces are transcendental, they resonate emotionally and intellectually. They have a strong sense of invention and are often perplexing: you can’t figure them out right away. Some of my favorite PRISM commissions have become standard repertoire at training institutions around the country, including Bill Albright’s Fantasy Etudes, which, as he used to say, “turned the saxophone on its side” by exploring topics not normally associated with the instrument. In one etude, Albright brilliantly channels highland bagpipes which spring to life, then gradually deflate after springing a leak. Like all great saxophone composers, Albright had a deep understanding of the full range of the instrument’s sound world. A more recent work which has stayed with us is Martin Bresnick’s Every Thing Must Go. One the movements uses detuned cascading arpeggios derived from the overtone series to create what sounds to me like an otherworldly medieval casino.

MS: You compose in jazz and classical styles – how did you learn both?

ML: I’ve always been enamored of both jazz and classical music. In high school I played in Central High’s jazz band and was in an R & B band that played in some seriously raunchy clubs in Philly. Meanwhile, I had a music theory/composition teacher named Italo Taranta whose passion for classical music was infectious. Every Friday he’d play recordings, and I got hooked on Beethoven after hearing the opening movement of the Eroica Symphony; I was blown away by its beauty, power, and genius. I decided to explore classical music, and my chosen instrument led me to the University of Michigan, where I studied with the saxophone virtuoso Donald Sinta. All the while, my love for jazz remained, and is often reflected in my compositions and collaborations.

At Michigan, I studied composition with Bill Albright, Bill Bolcom, Fred Lerdahl, and Frank Ticheli. My roommate (and one of my dearest friends to this day) was PRISM’s former soprano player Tim Ries, a wonderful composer and stunning saxophonist who has played with everyone from Al Foster, John Patitucci, Danilo Perez, and Maria Schnieder to the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder. I learned a lot about jazz voicing and harmony from Tim, and from many other artists, as well as from recordings.

MS: You will be performing Debussy’s Rhapsodie for saxophone and piano. This piece is a little off the beaten path even for Debussy aficionados. Can you tell us about it?

ML: The work has a fascinating history. It was commissioned by a wealthy Boston socialite named Elise Hall who was encouraged by a doctor to learn a wind instrument to help alleviate breathing problems. The work was orchestrated after the composer’s death by Roger Ducasse in 1919, and premiered that same year. Throughout the years, a number of major saxophonists have created new editions/orchestrations of the work, giving the saxophone more prominence by reassigning parts to it from the orchestra. I’ll be performing an edition by the French saxophonist Vincent David.

MS: What do you do in your free time?

ML: I’d love to say sky-diving, judo, and origami, but the truth is more mundane: bike riding, movies, traveling, Asian food, basketball, stuff like that. I’m a tech geek, and must admit that I own a Playstation 3 and have laid waste to entire galaxies.

MS: What music do you listen to for fun?

ML: I’m all over the map. I tend to listen to lots of modern jazz and new classical music, but also enjoy some classic rock, hip hop, and pop music. Lately, I’ve been listening to music by saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Leham and Miguel Zenón, all of whom explore jazz’s intersection with a range of classical and folkloric music. No matter what the genre, I tend to gravitate to artists who defy convention.