Interview with Matt Aucoin '12

Think art ends with graduation? Not for Signet members! Below, catch our first in a series of short interviews with our awesome Signet alumni working in the arts.
A few weeks ago, recently elected Signet officer Faye Zhang '17 had the chance to chat (via email) with Matt Aucoin '12, composer, conductor, poet, and consummate gentleman.
Matt is the current Artist-in-Residence at Los Angeles Opera and has conducted premiers of two of his original operas: one at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge and one at Lyric Opera of Chicago. For more information about Matt, head over to
Faye: Why are you compelled by opera, and why are you compelled to create new opera?

Matt: I think opera continues to fascinate me because I don’t know what it is – or rather, its definition is endlessly flexible. Opera can be many things along the spectrum between spoken drama and instrumental music. It could be, say, a play which is spoken, but with notated rhythms; or it might be a piece for solo oboe and mime. The essence of opera is the intersection of music and language in a dramatic form – and that intersection can take innumerable shapes. I think of Beckett’s plays as operas, for instance, especially the later ones; the silences are the loudest things in them. His rhythms are as subtle – and as hard to get right – as György Kurtag’s or Morton Feldman’s are.

I also have a utopian side, and that part of me is drawn to opera as a kind of 3-D hologram of life itself – an art form which pays equal attention to all the senses, to sight (the sets, the lighting), sound (both music and poetry), touch (the sensual aspect of sound, and also the sensuality of movement onstage, the dance of it)…Uh, taste and smell are trickier. Though I did just conduct a production in New York where we served dinner to the audience mid-performance.

Faye: How do you see the future of opera? How do you see it changing in content or form, or becoming more accessible? How does opera fit in relation to other types of music and/or musical theater?

 Matt: Look, classical music is a subculture. And that’s OK. We should embrace this reality, rather than whining about how we don’t sell as many tickets as Justin Bieber. Why would we want to? Who in their right mind would do what it takes to be “mainstream” in 21st-century America? Can you imagine being under the kind of commercial pressure pop artists are under?

The only kind of “accessibility” I care about it is physical accessibility – intimacy in a performance space. I think it’s a lack of intimacy in the concert hall, rather than anything in the music itself, that keeps some potential listeners away from classical music. If you sit in a cheap seat far away from an unamplified orchestra – well, it can be an underwhelming experience for someone who’s used to listening to music through headphones.

Often, small venues provide the most thrilling experiences. In the end, it’s intimacy, rather than grandeur, that classical music and opera do best. Grand opera is much less grandiose than arena rock, but the thrill of hearing a human voice up close, with no amplification – or of being so close to a great string player that you hear all the work being done between the finger and the string, and you can hear the way their breath relates to the music they’re making – that’s what we classical musicians are good at.

Faye: What have been some of your favorite conducting experiences?

Matt: A few of them were at Harvard, though I had almost no conducting technique when I was there, so conducting was as terrifying as it was exhilarating! The Dunster House Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro was a magical experience, as was a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto I did with Keir GoGwilt at ArtsFirst. Conducting my own music was more agonizing than enjoyable when I was an undergrad, as I was so preoccupied with how bad I felt the music was that I couldn’t really enjoy the experience yet.
A concert I conducted with the LA Philharmonic last fall stands out, too. It was in a middle school in the Inglewood neighborhood of LA, and the audience was almost entirely middle-and-high-school students, many of whom are aspiring musicians from schools that don’t have big arts programs. You could feel their attention and fascination and enthusiasm in the air, and I think that affected the orchestra and me very positively.


Faye: What introduced you to poetry at Harvard? Do you feel that your poetry and composing come from similar sources? Do you still write poetry, and if so, what sort of things are you working on now?

Matt: I actually chose Harvard (rather than a conservatory) in order to study poetry. I’d discovered poetry – I mean really discovered it, in a religious-conversion sense – late in high school, and I knew I didn’t want to go somewhere where people communicated only through musical notes.
I’m blessed or cursed with a kind of musico-poetic synesthesia: I read poetry through a musical lens and I read music through a poetic lens. These two art forms exist on a spectrum, the spectrum between pure language (a system of assigned meanings) and pure sound. Language, approached poetically, is anything but pure: it’s raw, sensual, musical. Music, on the other hand, is not raw sound: it’s the sculpture of sound into a grammar, into something that resembles language – but it differs from language, crucially, in its lack of denotative meanings.
So the art forms that we call “poetry” and “music” are points on this spectrum, whose two extremes would be, for example, some horrific unmusical technocratic jargon on one end (“leverage the transferability of best practices”) and, I dunno, a baby burbling to itself in its sleep on the other.
Do I still write poems? No, not at the moment. It’s not something I want to dabble in. Someday I’ll return to it with a fury, the way I wrote when I was an undergrad, but for now it’s taking all my energy to be a composer.