Paula Matthusen: Attention to Light

The work of composer Paula Matthusen draws attention to the way sound and space interact with one another. Her use of light within performance settings plays an important role in focusing the audience’s listening experience, and in creating a sense of space. Whether a composition is realized as an electronic installation or written out in a score for performance by other musicians, the physicality of whatever sounds may be involved—and specifically how they behave within a given context—are always important considerations.

Matthusen’s installation works often involve hand-built electronics in addition to extensive computer programming; she says that she enjoys the sort of “inefficiency” and “Pandora’s box” nature of the results. She likens soldering to knitting, explaining, “I like the repetition of it. I like the heat. I like the smell. It’s fun to see something physical come to life like that.” Her instrumental works, which are specially tailored to the personalities and abilities of the performers for whom they are written, also have a handmade aspect to them.

For portable, eight performers walk around a darkened space wielding flashlights as well as vintage suitcases fitted with radio receivers and transmitters that produce sound based on the location of the performers relative to one another. In nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht, three performers crank away at music boxes while four others strike matches, offering glimpses of the unfurling paper rolls and providing counterpoint to the fragile music box tones.

Given Matthusen’s aesthetic inclinations, she’s the ideal person to teach composition through an experiential approach involving listening, creation, and performance. The Experimental Music class at Wesleyan University (where she is an assistant professor of music) is the very same course that Alvin Lucier taught for over 40 years. (No pressure!) Matthusen actually considers Lucier to be one of her musical heroes. Her 2012 composition for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the ontology of an echo, features field recordings from inside the Old Croton Aqueduct that were created by re-capturing recordings of the performers in a manner consistent with Lucier’s I am sitting in a room.

Flying in the face of what she calls the “cultural fantasy” of synchronization, the sense of pulse in Matthusen’s music is often irregular and broken. Events line up (or don’t) based on organic structures that are set rolling and allowed to run their course. By stepping aside and allowing the music to unfold naturally, she finds satisfaction in the resulting creative discoveries. “It’s a matter of being open to something that is completely surprising,” she explains, “but then also being aware enough to be able to appreciate when it actually happens.” By reveling in the small details and rough edges of her musical landscapes, she creates musical environments that heighten perceptions of the ephemeral nature of sound, and ensures that surprises can be found at practically every turn.

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