Baseball as a Metaphor for Life: Sasha Matson’s New Opera Cooperstown
BY CARLA MARIA VERDINO-SÜLLWOLD
‘Baseball more than any other major league sport is deeply woven into the fabric of American culture. It is a metaphor for life,’ says composer Sasha Matson, talking of his latest recording of his ‘jazz opera in nine innings,’ Cooperstown, just released on the Albany label. Matson, who is actually a resident of the upstate New York community which is home to baseball’s Hall of Fame, has enjoyed a long, productive career as a composer of songs, chamber music, symphonic works, and film scores. He took time to speak to Fanfare about this latest project and his diverse musical interests.
CMV-S: What inspired you to undertake writing and recording Cooperstown, which you have said is ‘one of a kind’ work for you?
SM: Cooperstown is obviously not something I am going to repeat. It has a very specialized subject, but living in Cooperstown as I do, it is very hard to ignore the presence of the Hall of Fame. The back door of our home is literally across the lawn from the museum, and since I came here in 2000 to teach at SUNY, this Othello-like story intrigued me. Then there was the singular sound of the stadium organ that is still out there. It’s a culture that’s vanishing but you can still hear it in baseball stadiums. The sound led me to the idea of a jazz quintet.
CMV-S: You called the work ‘a jazz opera in nine innings.’ How does Cooperstown’s structure compare musically and dramatically to traditional operas?
SM: I took the idea for structure from baseball itself. The average game runs about the length of a Wagner opera [chuckle], and it has its form in nine innings with a seventh inning stretch. When we did the workshop production at the Hall of Fame, we broke the piece into two acts to reflect that “stretch,” but for the recording we kept the through-flow.
CMV-S: You collaborated with Mark Miller on the libretto. How did that collaboration come about and what were the influences on the story and text?
SM: Mark Miller is a friend whom I have known for a long time. He knows about baseball technically, and he brought that kind of texture and background to our work. Then there was the beautiful essay by A. Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind, which is about as eloquent a piece of writing about baseball as you will ever find. We got permission to quote from that and used his poetic words in the last aria, “It breaks your heart.” We worked backwards from that.
CMV-S: And musically, what were your inspirations?
SM: For anyone who tries to write any theatre music, Puccini looms large. Act I of La Bohème is one of those musical lessons that inspires me. Then, too, I am a kind of guerilla guy, so the jazz setting appealed to me.
CMV-S: How did the workshop production at the Hall of Fame and subsequent recording come about?
SM: The workshop was only a single performance, but then we decided to try to produce a recording. I am an audiophile from a tradition with roots in the late 80s. I am a fan of high-end audio, and it is important to me when I make a recording that it meets those standards. For a jazz recording, the standards are those Blue Note and Riverside LPs from the 1950s and 60s, so I wanted to make a quality recording along those lines. I was spending some time in Los Angeles where I was put in touch with Stephanie Vlahos, who assembled the cast of singers for the recording. Interestingly enough, Rod Gilfry [who plays Dutch] had been in Cooperstown the previous summer in Annie Get Your Gun, but we didn’t meet at that time. My producer was John Atkinson, who is Editor of Stereophile Magazine, so I knew the work would be in good hands.
CMV-S: What was the recording process like?
SM: We were tracking, so the band got recorded first in Brooklyn. They were so good that we didn’t have one complaint from the singers when we asked them to match their vocal performances to the instrumental ones already set down. The vocal sessions all took place in Los Angeles, and the singers had great intonation and were able to match the recorded tracks in real time.
CMV-S: What do you see as the symbolic layers of opera Cooperstown?
SM: Baseball is a metaphor for life. Turn on the television or listen to a Hollywood movie, and you will hear baseball metaphors. It is part of the fabric of our media culture. Whether or not you like sports, the images surround us. Americans like to be winners; we play the game to win. My opera is set within an imaginary major league team where there is an internal clash with pitchers who come from other countries. All of this is reality, which I have not made up.
CMV-S: Take us back a little to your earlier career. What drew you to music and art history when you were a student?
SM: I grew up in Berkeley in the 60s. My dad was a professor of philosophy at University of California, Berkeley. I experienced everything you could possibly experience in music during those years, and in a way I came at some kinds of music from the wrong end of the telescope, as it were. For example, I first heard traditional folk music from the Grateful Dead and jazz from the psychedelic bands of the time. I had to work backwards to the sources. Blues was also a big part of my musical life, almost as much as classical music was. Coincidentally, Phil Lesh, the bassist for the Grateful Dead and I had the same music teacher in school. When I went on to University of California Santa Cruz, I had an art history professor who was from Cambridge, and he turned me on to visual art, so I majored in both music and history of art. After that I went to the San Francisco Conservatory, where I studied composition with John Adams and Elinor Armer. Elly was one of the few female composers on the West Coast in those days, and she is still teaching at the Conservatory. I recently wrote a piece for her seventy-fifth birthday. I also undertook some private study with Andrew Imbrie.
CMV-S: After your formal study, you moved to Los Angeles, where you worked in the film industry and wrote scores for a variety of performing organizations. How do you view those compositions within the entire body of your work?
SM: I am, by nature an eclectic artist, and I also am a programmatic kind of musician; I am not ashamed to say that. I need an image to inspire me. So, I undertook quite a variety of commissions. I wrote a symphonic piece called Spell for Kent Nagano, who had just founded the Berkeley Symphony at the time. I also wrote music for some dance companies, and I began doing some media scoring in the Bay area. I fell in love with some really great film scores like Vertigo and Chinatown, and I thought that I would like to do something like that. I spent ten years in the vineyards of Hollywood. The experience taught me to write quickly, to learn to throw things out, and to be flexible. I formed my own production company, because composers are usually on their own and have to pull things together themselves.
CMV-S: Before Cooperstown, you had written for the voice in your very beautiful song cycle for mezzo-soprano, Range of Light, which is inspired by the Sierra Nevadas. What drew you to that theme and how has nature been important to your compositions?
SM: That piece was something I put a great deal into. Growing up, I had backpacked in the Sierra Nevadas and Yosemite. I was inspired by the journals of John Muir, the great conservationist. I found his writing very musical and poetic in the Transcendental vein, and I read that as he wrote, Muir would conduct with the other hand. I started with the image of the granite and tried to mimic that musically with strong open chords and fifths and extended triadic harmonies, which I love. I was also fortunate to be able to have the cycle recorded by the Canadian mezzo Catherine Robbin. Her diction and intonation are incredible!
CMV-S: Guitar has also been another favorite instrument in your work. . .
SM: Yes, the steel pedal guitar in particular, which I used in Steel Chords. It is a totally American instrument played with volume pedals to blend the attack of the note. The sound can be very lovely or spooky even, but its glissando from one chord to another makes its unique. I first was attracted to the instrument because I had a friend who played it in Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen band.
CMV-S: Since getting your doctorate, you have also taught in Georgia and in Oneonta, New York. How has teaching enhanced your own work?
SM: I have taught all kinds of music courses, including one about the music business at Oneonta because of my film business experience. Of course, you are always energized by your students. When I teach music theory I work to correct some students’ notions that music theory is the music police. I try to get them to see that theory is a path into the music itself.
CMV-S: What other compositional or recording projects do you have brewing?
SM: I am working on a piece for keyboards and strings called Tight Lines, which is about fly-fishing. The phrase comes from George H. W. Bush and suggests good fishing luck. I am going to use fishing reels in the piece as well. They make a clicking noise when you reel them in, so at some point the conductor will “play” the fishing reel. I plan to record Tight Lines with a few other shorter pieces on a small, limited run high quality vinyl LP. I think there is a future for vinyl. The demand is growing every year, and while it may never be huge, the people who buy these recordings are motivated listeners and consumers.
CMV-S: As a contemporary musician, how difficult has it been to make a living in music?
SM: I have lived a life with music at its center. It is not an easy one. I am married, and we have two grown sons. We moved around a great deal, and I have paid my dues. Even academia is not a safe haven, because it is now so competitive in terms of jobs. And Hollywood and Broadway have always been very competitive. We live in a schizophrenic culture in the United States because we have educational programs which encourage young people to follow creative paths, but we have a culture that is begrudging about funding those pursuits. Leonard Cohen wrote a wonderful line that sums it up: “I came so far for beauty.” A creative life demands a great deal, not only from yourself, but from the people around you. My hat is off to anyone who does carve out a life in music, especially in this country!
Sasha Matson has, indeed successfully built a life nourished by music. His varied voices and imaginative experimentation, as well as his essential gifts for melody and harmony, both classical and jazz have contributed to a rich and varied output.
Sasha Matson was born in Seattle, and grew up in Berkeley,California. He later attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, pursuing studies in art history and music, and graduating with College and Major Honors. Sasha Matson was born in Seattle, and grew up in Berkeley, California. He later attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where his primary teachers were composers John Adams and Elinor Armer. After a period of additional private study with Andrew Imbrie, and professional composing for multi-media in the San Francisco area, Sasha moved with his wife Elizabeth to Los Angeles. Founding a music production company, Sasha composed and produced the music scores for a dozen dramatic feature films, in addition to concert works and a variety of multi-media. Sasha’s graduate studies were at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Music. Dr. Matson has taught at the State University of New York, College at Oneonta, as a member of the music faculty in the Music Industry program, since 2001. He previously taught at Southampton College, New York, and at LaGrange College, Georgia.
Sasha’s compositions have been performed, recorded, and broadcast on a wide basis. In 2007 his opera Cooperstown premiered at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Two recording collaborations with audiophile producer Joe Harley, i-5 and Range of Light, have been released worldwide by Audioquest Music and New Albion Records. A recipient of various awards, Sasha Matson has performed music commissions for such leading conductors as Kent Nagano and John Adams. In addition, he currently writes extensively on music and the audio arts, and is an Associate Editor for the journal Positive Feedback Online.
For all booking or other contact inquires please email Dr. Matson at the follow address firstname.lastname@example.org