by Tim Hansen


2012 JFund recipient Heath Mathews draws from a broad palette in the creation of his work. Throughout his youth he played guitar in rock and jazz groups, and upon moving into the more cerebral world of academic composition, had no qualms about drawing from his pop culture background. “The experiences I had playing jazz and rock were important experiences and particularly freeing,” he recalls. “I was able to be creative with my friends in a loosely structured environment. This allowed room for experimentation and failure (an important part of the creative process). This also connected to the notion of music as a social experience. To this day, I tend to treat compositions as collaborative efforts with performers.”


As a result, Mathews is something of a musical explorer. For each new work, the Minnesotan composer creates unique scales, which he then fleshes out into strikingly unusual harmonies. “I enjoy tinkering with notes,” he says. His process is not that dissimilar to the serialists, in that Mathews will combine different notes into various tone rows or motivic fragments until he has developed a series of scales specific to the piece. Mathews then mines his scales for even more unusual harmonic combinations. Throw in his love of exploring the farthest timbral reaches of his performers’ instruments, and the result is a grippingly unpredictable harmonic and timbral explosion.


In order to balance out the more unpredictable elements of his work, Mathews utilizes structure to guide his audience through his work. “Because the harmonic language I use is often unfamiliar,” he explains, “I find it helpful to work with clear structural points. While a performer or listener might not be able to follow the harmonies on a first listen, the structure helps serve as a series of guideposts to follow the compositional thought. This does not mean that a structure must be rigidly followed. On the contrary, I enjoy moving the guideposts around and playing with structure.  Nevertheless, I am always keeping the large structure of the piece in mind.”


In 2014, Mathews will premiere his as-yet-unnamed new work for Duo Zeno, consisting of saxophonist Preston Duncan and percussionist Scotty Horey. “Preston Duncan has been a friend for years,” says Mathews. “I have written several pieces for him in the past, and he has been a champion of my works and new music in general. Scotty Horey has been equality excited to play my pieces. Getting a chance to work with a pair willing to take chances and experiment, with things like interactive video components in the upcoming Jerome project, is a rare opportunity.”


It’s no surprise that a composer who can cheerfully draw from such a broad palette of sounds and genres is planning to premiere a piece that combines live music, electronics, and video. Mathews is working with photographer and video artist Joshua Mathews to explore the complex relationship between humans and their environment. Covering both the nurturing and destructive aspects of this relationship, Mathews intends to compose a score that will reflect the character of the images portrayed. Coming from an accomplished artist who can “embrace both Claude Debussy and Jimi Hendrix”, the end result is sure to be compelling and unique.