Fellows Friday: Q&A with Saxophonist and Composer Matthew Levy

Our “Fellows Friday” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.

This week, we speak to Matthew Levy (2016) whose performance practice and compositions combine modern classical music with the rhythmic and improvisatory aspects of jazz, guided by his dedication to exploring the saxophone’s genre-defying capabilities. As a founder and co-artistic director of the PRISM Quartet, Levy has commissioned and premiered works by preeminent composers such as Julia Wolfe, Jennifer Higdon, William Albright, Steven Mackey, and Greg Osby. Levy has received composition fellowships from the Independence Foundation and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and American Composers Forum. Next month, Levy will perform with PRISM at The National Opera Center in New York City (April 1) and at Settlement Music School in Philadelphia (April 2) in honor of the release of Lee Hyla’s Paradigm Lost on PRISM’s new label, XAS Records.

Matt Levy FF Q&A: Content Block 1

How did you become an artist? Are there particular experiences that drove you to this choice?

I grew up in a culturally nurturing environment in Philadelphia, and was deeply influenced by several music teachers from early on. My parents, Julian and Mae, were artists/art teachers who first met as students at Tyler School of Art, next door to where I now teach at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance. Their own practices spanned oil painting, printmaking, pottery, stained glass, and photography. Seeing them create work was an everyday part of my childhood. They used to have other artists over and paint nude models while recordings of Mozart played in the background. Meanwhile, my oldest sister, Becky, eventually married drummer Jimmy Jones of the legendary Philly R&B band Breakwater. I was very much drawn to their music, and formed my own band with neighborhood kids the moment I picked up a saxophone at age 10. It was 1973. We called ourselves Atomic Power and played original funk for local gatherings. The bass player was eight years old and tended to fall asleep after dinner, putting a serious damper on rehearsals. We were especially proud of a song we co-wrote called “The Hustle and The Bustle.” Atomic Power was atrociously bad. An article in the Germantown Courier covering one of our nursing home appearances quoted one attendee as saying that “people who had not moved in years sat upright in bed.” Even so, it was exhilarating to create music, and to have a sense of its intrinsic power as an outlet for our most human experiences.

A few years later at Central High, I studied piano, theory, and composition with Italo Taranta, a devoted teacher who inspired me with his passion for classical music. One day in class, he played the opening movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony. I couldn’t believe my ears. The music unfolded with ingenuity and drama over an extended arc, culminating in an exhilarating dissonance.

I landed at the University of Michigan, where I spent much of the 1980s studying with America’s preeminent classical saxophonist, Donald Sinta, now retired. With the power of his example, Mr. Sinta demonstrated the meaning of commitment. His playing is breathtaking, combining a pure shimmering sound, brilliant technique, and consummate artistry. My days at Michigan also included private studies with members of an all-star composition faculty, including William Albright, William Bolcom, Fred Lerdahl, and Frank Ticheli. My desire to pursue music professionally was the culmination of all of these experiences.

What is your daily art-making routine?

That’s a big question. I bounce back and forth between practicing, composing, and producing and engineering recordings. As a saxophone player, of course I’m always learning new music, but I continue to focus on the fundamentals: scales and exercises in intonation, vibrato, articulation, overtones/altissimo, and extended techniques. It’s musical hygiene, a foundation that prepares one to navigate increasingly challenging repertoire. Like a basketball player practicing jump shots every day. Playing new classical music also requires a vast knowledge of non-classical music, since today’s concert composers are increasingly drawing on jazz, popular music, and a plethora of non-Western classical and folkloric music. This is especially true for the saxophone, since the culture of the instrument is so deeply rooted in jazz.

In my work as a composer, I approach each new piece a little differently. I’m currently writing for my group, the PRISM Quartet, who will be joined by jazz great Joe Lovano for concerts on June 3 and 4 at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia and (le) poisson rouge in New York City. We’ll record the piece for an album called Heritage/Evolution, Volume 2, also featuring Chris Potter and Ravi Coltrane. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been sitting at the piano and improvisatorially working through a series of harmonic progressions and melodic ideas. I’ll begin notating the music when I complete the structure and have most of the basics worked out. The process of notating the music always leads me in new directions, as I recognize what works and what doesn’t while sculpting the details.

I’m also in the midst of producing several recordings for PRISM and our newly launched label, XAS Records. At any given time, we have half a dozen recordings in the pipeline. So I’m editing and mixing audio, often in partnership with composers, players, and other engineers. I look at my work in post-production as an extension of my playing: interpreting music to create an ideal representation of a composer’s vision.

As the executive and co-artistic director of PRISM, I spend a big chunk of each day administering our non-profit: producing concerts, developing grant applications, planning educational and outreach programs, etc. My favorite part of this work is developing curatorial concepts that form a foundation for new commissions and collaborations. Curatorial work, as much as PRISM’s performance practice, is core to our identity. We’re always exploring new frontiers, and are increasingly working across musical, disciplinary, and technological boundaries to redefine the possibilities of our medium.

Matt Levy FF Q&A: Content Block 2

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