New Voice: Matthew Ricketts

Matthew Ricketts
Matthew Ricketts

Matthew Ricketts describes a recent work ~

A recent work is Women Well Met (2013) for vocal sextet, premiered last November by the uncannily gifted Ekmeles Ensemble. The text (by Lauren J. Rogener) concerns different portraits and sculptures of women at the Metropolitan Museum, incidentally one of my favorite places here in New York City.



Matthew Ricketts (b. 1986) is a Canadian composer originally from Victoria, British Columbia. Matthew studied theory and composition at McGill University with Brian Cherney, Chris Paul Harman and John Rea, and is currently pursuing a DMA at Columbia University with George Lewis and Fred Lerdahl. His music has been featured on festivals and concerts in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Nebraska, New York, Austin, Paris and Boston, where his  Double Concerto  shared for first prize at the ALEA III International Composition Competition in 2007. Matthew has won three SOCAN awards since 2010, including two first prizes for In What Language​? and Graffiti Songs. In 2012 Matthew was invited to return to the Domaine Forget New Music Session (Quebec, Canada) to premiere a new work written for the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne,  Burrowed Time, recently awarded an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award (2013).

In addition to composing, Matthew maintains an avid interest in poetry and prose and has contributed original text for multiple librettos, spoken word works, choral music and song cycles, including the opera Less Truth More Telling with music by Thierry Tidrow (Den Haag and Amsterdam, 2013) produced through the Dutch National Opera and the Royal Conservatory. Earlier in 2012 Matthew’s own opera, No Masque for Good Measure (with a libretto by Lauren J. Rogener) was produced through Winnipeg’s Cluster New Music Festival to great acclaim. Upcoming musical engagements include premieres with Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble in New York City, Argento Ensemble in California and participating in the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne’s 2014 FORUM in Montreal.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

As most childhoods are imbued, even super-saturated with music, I’m not sure if any of my early memories or experiences are so extraordinary or formative. I do recall obsessing over the orchestrational sparkle and wizardry of certain instrumental interludes in The Sound of Music: the high woodwind birds and horn calls in the prelude (in the sequence leading up to the helicopter swooping down on Julie Andrews, which I remember reading about almost knocked her over), and the way the gradual onset of rain was captured in high glockenspiel notes which slowly grew into a flurry of harp runs and string trills during Sixteen Going On Seventeen, when Liesl and Rolf get caught in a storm. I have rather clear sonic images of these moments stamped in my head and must’ve been around 6 or 7 when I first began to notice them. I’m now rather suspicious of overly-fancy orchestrational magic, maybe the same way an adult finds actual magic tricks less convincing with age, but at the time I was spellbound. 

Speaking of aging, I also have fond memories of cassette tapes with Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto that a family friend had given me when I was probably 7 or 8, and also an even older cassette of the Pastoral Symphony which had a section of damaged tape in the 5th movement producing a creaking sound like someone opening a squeaky door inside the recording studio. To this day I still half-expect to hear this sound when I listen to the symphony, which remains one of my favourite Beethoven works. These two early Beethoven exposures, rather by chance, I would say were pivotal. I remember the cover of the tape had one of the younger, strapping portraits of Beethoven, who I had assumed was not the composer but rather the titular Emperor.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

Since Beethoven I’ve been rather permanently stuck in an Austro/Germanic Romantic idiom which I never grew out of (if indeed that’s what one is supposed to do when one progresses to more modern fare), so I would count Beethoven and, above all, Mahler (later, Strauss and Wagner) as ever-influential, though I couldn’t precisely articulate what about my music shows these influences — I certainly don’t identify as a “neo-Romantic” composer although I’m sure some of my colleagues mistake my penchant for diatonicism as a Romantic trait (I’d say it’s more Stravinskyian, who was the furthest thing from a Romantic there surely ever was). Beyond the Germans, Stravinsky looms monumentally over me (over whom doesn’t he??). I’m not sure how I was initially drawn to the music of Elliott Carter but since the final year of high school I’ve been absolutely obsessed with his music. I also owe to Carter my love of American poetry as I came to Ashbery, Bishop and Stevens all through his settings. Ashbery in particular I would count among my ‘musical’ influences — the wandering structure of his poems and the constant slippages in tone, all somehow unified by his extraordinary personality, would be the kind of music I would aspire to write. I think this would aptly describe what Michael Finnissy has been achieving with extraordinary productiveness and a red-hot, fiery passion for some 40 years now (at least!) — I know Michael, rather from a distance but have met him several times and would consider him, like Stravinsky, to be that kind of looming presence which I feel I am constantly disappointing by not writing better music (but I mean this not as a negative hindrance but rather a drive to push myself further!).

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

My process usually involves quite a lot of time away from either piano, paper or computer, turning the music I’ve yet to commit to over and over in my head, trying to see it from different angles, trying to understand what are its own inherent tendencies and whether I should let the music go where it wants or impose something upon it. There is no inherent value in either of these two options: following the ‘tendency of the material’ (Adorno, or perhaps even Schenker) or imposing your own compositional restraints on it — but the way these decisions are made or not made radically alter the direction and overall shape of the piece, so there is an acute sensitivity required (maybe this is just what we call having good ears, inner and outer). Every single decision you make can completely alter the piece, no matter how apparently trivial or influenced by outside factors (I often wonder how the music can hinge on something like how much coffee I’ve had to drink that morning). I try not to get too caught up in the often arbitrary nature of creation — but also to not combat that with thousands of anal restrictions to guide your chaotic freedom into a clear direction and form. Going dialectically between these conceptions of material and shaping I find rather exhilarating as I never quite understand how I got from one point to another. Beyond all of these “thought compositions” (or what some composers would likely consider ‘pre-composition’), I work a lot at a keyboard to find my harmonies, use some software to often get a sense of the rhythmic interplay between lines and ultimately do computer engraving for the final score. 

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