About this Piece
A 2000 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship recipient, James Matheson has had his music programmed by such organizations as the Chicago, Seattle, and Albany Symphony Orchestras, the American Composers Orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Orchestra 2001 (Philadelphia), LA's Monday Evening Concerts series, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and at music festivals including Aspen, Spoleto, Santa Fe, Eleazar de Carvalho, Token Creek, Norfolk, Bowling Green, and Hartwick.
In addition to the Guggenheim, Matheson has received fellowships from the Bogliasco and Sage Foundations, as well as awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, American Music Center, and ASCAP, and the Robbins Prize. He holds degrees from Cornell University (DMA 2001, MFA 1997) where he studied composition with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra, and Swarthmore College (BA 1992), where he majored in music and philosophy, studying composition with Gerald Levinson.
Matheson's Songs of Desire, Love, and Loss, which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and premiered in October 2004 as part of Dawn Upshaw's Perspectives series is a setting of seven poems by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Alan Dugan that highlight Dugan's paradoxical aims of emotional directness and complexity. The composer provided the following note:
I came to Alan Dugan's work through one of those sets of circumstances that in retrospect seems almost fateful. During a day spent browsing at a bookstore, two friends, one of whom had grown up with Dugan for a neighbor, bought me a copy of Poems Seven. As we sat and read them together I was pulled in by Dugan's combination of emotional directness (often rawness) and complexity, apparently contradictory impulses that impel my work as a composer as well. It occurred to me that I might set a few of these to music at some future point, not suspecting that the Carnegie Hall commission would come only a few months later.
Part of what appealed to, and resonated with, me about Dugan's work was the brute (and brutal) anger to which much of it gives voice, and which has drawn the most attention to him. In the end, though, I chose poems that show another side of his poetic persona. Although his trademark anger is often present, if only through an underlying tension and the suggestion of violence (e.g., "blowing/monarchs to pieces" in the third song), these poems have, for me, a haunted-ness and occasionally even bitter-sweetness that makes them, for me, more conducive to a moderate-scale vocal work.
Poems Seven is a complete anthology of Dugan's published work, which came out two years before his death in 2003. The poems I chose therefore span decades in their composition ("Argument to Love as a Person" stretches back to Poems Two, published in 1963), and were not originally intended to appear together. That said, they share similar themes (e.g., the mutation of the spiritual to the fleshly - "the dove itself come down/to be the pigeon" in the first song, the soul as guest-at-an-inn in the second, the souls' "fall to flesh" in the fourth), and images (eg. flowers, whether roses or rhododendrons) that made them fit together for me. In fact, it was ultimately possible - as well as being musically and dramatically advantageous - to arrange them into a quasi-narrative. It is a non-specific, generalized sort of narrative - outlining a development from desire, to love, to loss - and one with contradictory (or at least paradoxical) and "off-topic" branches and implications. Nevertheless, it gives structure and definition to the ordering of the songs, and is something I bore very much in mind while composing them.
- James Matheson