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I [XX]

So I’m having excerpts of a new song cycle performed on Friday, 3/25/11 at Music at First and Thursday, 4/7/11 on 21c Liederabend at The Kitchen. It’s a collaboration with lyricist Royce Vavrek entitled I [XX] and I thought I’d post some of the lyrics because they’re awesome.

In short, I [XX] is a series of snapshots into a woman’s sexual life. All of the songs are based on the simple grammatical formula I [verb p.t.]. It was written for, and is being performed by, Mellissa Hughes and the Brooklyn Brass Quintet.

I [XX]
I. I Didn’t
II. I Tasted
III. I Pretended

I. I Didn’t

I didn’t. You thought I did.  But I didn’t.  You don’t know what you’re doing, you spend so much time down there completely missing the boat that I feel obliged to perform.  Howling, sighing, grabbing at the sheets.  You think you’ve conquered my genitals, I’m that good.

You finished. You did, but I didn’t. That’s why I sleep with the 18 year-old boy who delivers my Moo Shu Chicken. Five minutes and I don’t need to fake anything.  And he considers it his tip.

II. I Tasted

I tasted another woman in your mouth.  I don’t mind that you have other lovers, all I ask is that you brush your teeth between engagements. 


III. I Pretended

I pretended you were handsome.  I knew you’d be awkward as hell, but I pretended. I knew that you’d kiss me so softly I could barely feel it, that I’d find your moans annoying, that your hands would clumsily fondle my breasts, that you weren’t packing much heat. I knew that you imagining some girl from high school who never gave you the time of day. I waited for the accidental cry of her name.I knew the cab ride home would be longer than the time spent in your bed. I knew I’d bathe and wash you away extra hard, a whole bar of soap vanishing. I knew all this, but I pretended you thought I was sexy.

Here’s a little sample of that last one, I Pretended, from a recent rehearsal:

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End-of-the-Year Accolades for The Little Death: Vol. 1

My post-Christian nihilist pop-opera, The Little Death: Vol. 1, received some end-of-the-year love over the last few days. Here are some of publications/sites that mentioned it on their “Best of” lists:

The Huffington Post included my song I Don’t Have Any Fun in their “Top 10 Alternative Art Songs of 2001-2010”.

Daniel J. Kushner writes:

A post-Christian nihilist pop opera sounds like a strange, nearly impossible amalgam to synthesize. But for Brooklyn-based composer Matt Marks and his chief co-conspirator, vocalist Mellissa Hughes (both raised in the Southern Baptist tradition), The Little Death: Vol. 1–which Marks began writing in the summer of 2007–is the result of relentless “tinkering” and indiscriminately drawing from a reservoir of dizzying musical touchstones and the moods and emotions they engender.

And when the influences include the classic hymn “Morning Has Broken,” gospel mainstays “He Touched Me” and “When God Dips His Love in My Heart,” Japanese pop (or J-pop), Christian counterculture musicals of the late 1960s and early 1970s, techno, the Moral Majority-tinged contemporary Christian vocal stylings of Sandi Patty and 1990s Point of Grace, and hip-hop–all filtered through Marks’s preoccupations with the horror genre, the sexualization of Christian iconography, and what he refers to as fundamentalist, roots-based religion and music culture taken to this twisted pop culture extreme–well, that’s a recipe for cataclysmic drama.

Time Out New York included TDLV1 as one of the top ten best classical albums of 2010:

Steve Smith writes:

Teen spirit—in both the spiritual and earthy sense—animated this flamboyant electropop opera, exuberantly voiced by Marks and soprano Mellissa Hughes.

Seth Colter Walls, writer for Newsweek and The Awl, included TLDV1 as one of his top albums of 2010

Magiska writer TishTash featured TLDV1 as the #1 album of the year. featured TLDV1 as one of the top albums of the year

Endless Possibilities called TLDV1 the “biggest surprise of 2010” and said “I wasn’t expecting to listen to an album that mentioned Jesus about 10,000 times on repeat, at all.”

Warm fuzzies. And as always, you can check out the dedicated website for the album/show here: The Little Death: Vol. 1

And you can purchase it here:

TLDV1 on Amazon

TLDV1 on iTunes

TLDV1 on emusic

Happy New Year everybody! Here’s to some new dreams and realities! :)

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Review – Gravity Radio by Mikel Rouse at BAM

I went into last night’s New York premier of Gravity Radio, a new multi-media song cycle by Mikel Rouse, with a pretty open mind. I had heard a lot about Mikel Rouse’s music, but I hadn’t actually listened to much, aside from a few clips he has on his website and on YouTube. Here’s what seemed clear to me going in: Rouse is a highly imaginative artist who is very interested in creating innovative music theater and his pieces tend to be large-scale, ambitious, and quite conceptual. I was both right and wrong. His music is very ambitious, maybe to a fault, but there is a core artistic honesty that is very attractive. It just seemed like he may not have enough faith in it.

Gravity Radio is a set of songs featuring Rouse himself on guitar and lead vocals, a string quartet, and two female/one male backing vocals. It’s a great ensemble and they sounded fantastic. Much of this is due to the utterly spectacular sound at the BAM Harvey Theater. Seriously, it was like a sixty-minute eargasm it was mixed so damn well. I was disappointed that the person running sound wasn’t listed in the program. I assume that means it was someone on staff at BAM, rather than someone with Rouse’s crew, but it’s still unfortunate because the sound was pure artistry. I suggest that anyone with an interest in live concert mixing attend the concert on that merit alone.

The music is decidedly different than what I was expecting: it’s largely influenced by folk and Austin City Limits-style country music (the kind that people who don’t live in the South tend to listen to). It’s a bit more complex than your standard folk fare, but not self-consciously so. Rouse’s guitar-picking was the foundation for every song, the rest of the ensemble forming around the relaxed grooves and building beautiful lush textures. The songs were pretty similar and somewhat formulaic, but oddly I found myself more tired of the formula by the third song in the set than I did by the seventh. I believe this has to do with the part of the piece I haven’t written of yet: the Concept.

Rouse’s description of Gravity Radio is thus:

Inspired by the work of physicist Raymond Chiao—known for his experiments with superconductors and gravity waves that exist only in conjecture, eluding detection—composer Mikel Rouse (The End Of Cinematics, 2006 Next Wave) unleashes the rollicking song cycleGravity Radio.

Acclaimed for his distinctly downtown operas, Rouse is hyper-alert to the bits and bytes that make us tick. Gravity Radio tunes in to the zeitgeist, mixing kaleidoscopic multichannel video with sounds from the AP News Wire, a string quartet, shortwave radio frequencies, and songs by Rouse’s band to create an otherworldly environment. Describing the culture we live in, Rouse communicates its complexity and, like the force of gravity that keeps us grounded, evokes its intangible mystery.

In addition to the ensemble I described there was an actress who played the part of an anonymous news anchor, reading contemporary news reports about Obama, Wikileaks, etc. interspersed with cryptic messages and poetry over a bed of glitchy radio static. These ‘reports’ were read at the beginning and ending of the piece, over ambient aleatoric string harmonies, and between every two songs or so. I have no idea, other than what I read, how this at all related to the Rouse’s songs and I’m pretty sure most of the audience didn’t either. They served as perplexing breaks between songs, in lieu of applause, and often provided moments of light, sardonic humor.

I spent the first three or four songs attempting to make sense of Rouse’s lofty themes, based on what I had read, and trying to understand the lyrics of the songs in relation to these news reports. I failed. Perhaps this is due to the limits of my own intellect, but it seems unlikely that the greater message was understood by the audience in general. What the addition of the reports and the video served to do was distract me from the modest beauty of Rouse’s songs and arrangements. Once I decided to let go and simply listen to the tunes I really enjoyed the performance. It wasn’t ground-breaking music, it was good music, and I love good music. The concept, themes, inspirations and everything else only distracted from what is a truly lovely collection of songs, many of which were love songs. Disallowing breaks for the audience to applaud also cut greatly the energy in the house, so that at the end of the piece the ensemble received a warm hearty applause, yet almost no vocal appreciation.

I can’t help but think that if Rouse would have eschewed the extramusical elements and simply presented a collection of good tunes, using breaks to talk to his audience, that it would have been an altogether more coherent and affecting concert work. Something tells me, though, that pitching a ‘multi-media song-cycle’ based on “experiments with superconductors and gravity waves that exist only in conjecture, eluding detection” is a lot more likely to get you a choice run at BAM than merely “a collection of good tunes”. This was a highly conceptual work ‘on paper’ but came off as a set of lovely, well-written folk songs to the audience. Despite this musical honesty, the conceptual baggage left the work seeming quite self-conscious. Why is it not enough to just write some good tunes?

You can listen to some of Gravity Radio via an ASCAP feature here.

UPDATE 12.10.10:

Christina Jensen helpfully chimed in that the miracle sound guy was in fact Christopher Ericson. They actually did list him in the program, but I wrongly assumed his sound design was more along the lines of just dealing with the static and sound fx in the show. I’ve seen the term “sound designer” refer to everything from running the board to sound fx to a DJ. That’s why I like the German term “tönmeister”. And it’s hot. Thanks Christina!

Here’s a really kickass article on the sound Ericson did for the show, full of awesome audio engineering geekery.


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A New Music Vocabulary, or Mandatory Originality

So, I came across another article about ‘Shaking Up the World of Classical Music’. Actually, that’s the title of the article. It’s a well-meaning piece from a life-coach about preparing young composers for life out there in the big bad world. The author, Astrid Baumgardner makes a list of what’s necessary in order to “Shake up the World of Classical Music”.

Item Six is:

  • Composers who are committed to creating a new music vocabulary.

Le sigh… In my opinion, one of the main reasons the classical music world – or more specifically the contemporary music world – is insufficiently ‘shaken up’ is that “creating a new music vocabulary” has become mandatory for composers. Why on earth should every composer be required to invent a new musical language? What does this serve to do, aside from alienate audiences and make composers overly self-conscious?

I’ve been to a lot of new music concerts and I’ve participated in more student composer readings than I can remember. I can safely say there is no deficit of composers who are striving (or struggling) to write music in an unique voice. Composers who can effectively communicate their expression to an audience are a distinct rarity though.

This Promethean ideal as a default is a quaint relic of the 20th century and we should leave it the hell there. To cite an overused but-still-apt comparison, composers prior to the 20th century didn’t feel required to create radically new music vocabularies and many of them made very original music. I’m anything but a traditionalist but frankly I’m sick of hearing radically original music that isn’t very good. I’d rather hear composers work within a preexisting style, creating music that ends up being a more thorough – and unique in the long run – artistic expression.

Ok, if you’re a composer and your main interest lies in originality then go for it. But the burden of communicating that new language rests with you. Not all composers are radical sonic innovators though, and not all composers should be expected to be. They should be expected to create unique expressions, whether it’s in an existing vocabulary or a new one.

I don’t exactly know how this ‘mandatory originality’ idea is being perpetuated, whether it’s from composition teachers, grant panels, articles like this… I dunno, but it needs to die. Write the kind of music you want to hear. If it ends up sounding too unoriginal for your comfort, then work on making it a bit more you. If your starting point is an attempt to make a wholly-original piece that’s going to shake the foundations of the classical music world, chances are it’s going to fall short.

A composer’s goal should be creating a captivating experience for the listener, no more no less.


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Red-Thread Smirk

I just uploaded my little flipcam video of Red-Thread Smirk, live at Galapagos Arts Space, to YouTube. Red-Thread Smirk is the third in a series of songs written by myself and librettist/lyricist Royce Vavrek called Sex Objects, featuring unique characters and their intimate relationships with inanimate objects.

Here’s the video and I’ll include some more info on the song/project below.

Red-Thread Smirk

Music by Matt Marks
Lyrics by Royce Vavrek


Ted Hearne – Voice
Mellissa Hughes – Conductor
Cornelius Dufallo – Violin
Nadia Sirota – Viola
Clarice Jensen – Cello
Taylor Levine – Guitar
Matt Quayle – Piano
Chris Thompson – Drum Set

From “Sex Objects”:

In “Red-Thread Smirk” a young sailor chastises a dame de voyage (a cloth doll used for sex aboard a ship) for becoming the sexual object of desire, a post he held before she arrived. He makes sure she understands that her lack of a mouth with deprive the men of a great pleasure that he can provide.


Fuckin’ Mona Lisa lyin’ there.  You don’t deserve a mouth. Not that red-thread smirk he gave ya. Smith was the one who done it.  Smith, never liked ‘im. Smith, I wanna… It’s Smith we go to when our buttons fall off. I wanna kill ‘im.  Someday I will kill ‘im. Push ‘im overboard. Then the boat’ll be full’a guys with shirts gapin’ open.  And that’s fine by me.  Fine by me.

You were one of ‘is projects.  Smith was doin’ an awful lot of sewin’.  Boys called ‘im Pussy, but he just smirked.  I knew he was up to no good. Sneaking into my bed less’n less.  Then one day you showed up.  All stuffed and ready. No eyes no mouth no hair no nuthin’ but a ripped seam ready…  But you needed a mouth.

Fuckin’ Mona Lisa lyin’ there.  You don’t deserve a mouth. Not that red-thread smirk he gave ya.

When the boys get fall-down drunk, they let me do what your red-thread smirk can’t.  When my mouth curls up and down I gets ‘em grinnin’ like god damn Cheshire cats.  All of ‘em. Grinnin’ like fucking cats.  And I’ll take a grin over a smirk any day…


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Revolution 9 Live

Here is a live video from Alarm Will Sound‘s 1969 show at the Carlisle Theater in Carlisle, PA, performing my arrangement of Revolution 9 by The Beatles. This was a great show, everything went pretty smoothly and the sound balance worked out very well.

Unsurprisingly, I was a huge Beatles geek growing up, so it means a lot to have so many of my friends performing in my interpretation of perhaps the weirdest pop song ever. FYI, that’s our own Gavin Chuck doing the main speaking part (“number nine…”) and Courtney Orlando doing Yoko’s part at the end. I’m the guy doing all the screaming and baby noises. :)

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September 5, 2007

What happens when bread meets crust,

orange meets peel, blood meets skin?

What contains the constant meat roar beneath the surface?

Sometimes your pulse will wake you,

punching your skin visible to the eye.

Do you consider it yourself

or the phantom-works of your rebel insides?

An Experiment:

Take a finger and thread a single strand of hair around it.

With the power of your arm, yank it out of your head.

Eventually it will loosen from around your finger and fall to the floor

– how long do you think it will be until you forget about this lost piece of hair?

Who owns your heart?

I do.

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Listening for Non-Listeners

I recently became really burnt out on listening to music. My process in making music involves repeated listenings of my tracks/pieces so my time away from work began to involve more reading and watching TV and films. Thus I, a rabid music hound/record collector/mp3 pirate, found myself exchanging my headphones for a book on subway rides and deleting albums on my laptop to make space for my own projects.

Well, I’d like to turn that around.

I have, on occasion, been listening to music, but it tends to be unlike most of the music my peers are listening to, so I’ve been a little shy with it. So in the interest of full disclosure: here are some of my recent selections:

The Zombies – The Look of Love:

The Crystals – He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)

Mozart – Piano Concerto #24

Meatloaf – It’s All Coming Back to Me

Earl – Earl Sweatshirt [pretty damn NSFW]

Schumman – Fantasiestücke Op. 12 [Maria Yudina]

Any suggestions for tunes similar to any of these?


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Happy New Years!

As my partner-in-crime, Melly Hughes, sings Rosh Hashanna services all this week I reflect on the recent arrival of September, which to folks such as myself – whose lives still oddly rotate around those calendars Academic and Concert – is a New Year of a different sort. It has been a fun, crazy, and not-very-relaxing summer here in New York (not to mention unbearably hot!), and the slow arrival of Autumn is achingly welcome. In the meantime, I close myself in my living room here in Park Slope (our recent annual lease-signing an additional New Year) and blast the A/C, pretending our electricity bills don’t exist. It feels like a personal New Year because I have literally one zillion new things to work on, almost all of them fun, exciting, and fulfilling in a way that frightens me. I miss my blog very much, so perhaps this can be a new beginning for it as well – despite my shameful history of repeated false starts. I’d like to get back into writing; Twitter seems to have stolen much of the steam that used to power many a late-night rant or three. Also, I miss the utter self-indulgence of writing a blog. I love being pretentious and I love living in a city that rewards pretentiousness. I want to write about my gigs with a false sense of modesty, dance the backspace bolero with my right ring finger, and rewrite it with an equal and opposite false sense of bravado. That kind of pretentiousness. Not in the situation I described but in how I wrote it. And that too.

In all seriousness, I have some cool stuff coming up that I would very much like to write about, pretentiously or not. I have a bad habit of letting very cool things go by without highlighting them on my website, blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc. I think it would be nice to give people who care to read about what goes on in my life the option of reading more than just a snappy Tweet. I’m entering a year with many changes in my life and much uncertainty. Maybe it will be more fun and comfortable if I just lay it all out on the table.

Oh yeah, I’ll be damned if all of my posts are going to be Matt/gig/music-related, so stay tuned for other totally random stuff.

In related news, I saw this on the street today in Downtown Brooklyn:




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The Little Death: Vol. 1 out now on New Amsterdam Records!

After working on it for over three years (!), my post-Christian nihilist pop-opera, The Little Death: Vol. 1 is out now on New Amsterdam Records! It features myself and Mellissa Hughes on vocals, and James Moore and Mike Gurfield on Guitar and Trumpet!

Here is New Amsterdam’s description:

The Little Death: Vol. 1 is an ambitious new work that fuses bombastic electro-pop hooks, frenetically chopped break beats, hypnotic lyrics, and apocalyptic Christian imagery. Holding these disparate elements together is an unconventional narrative that follows two characters, Boy (Matt Marks) and Girl (Mellissa Hughes), on a journey through the world of Fundamentalist Evangelism, as they cope with repressed sexuality in a modern world. The sample-heavy work draws on musical references that echo the character’s sexual-religious confusion, including pop songs and gospel standards with evocative titles (“He Touched Me” and “When God Dips His Love In My Heart”). Marks took most of the sampled material from his own collection of 1970s gospel albums and classic hip-hop and soul recordings. Using a DIY approach, he produced the album using only a couple of microphones and a laptop running Ableton Live.

You can listen to the entire album streaming on the New Amsterdam site. And you can buy it here on Amazon or iTunes!

Here are a couple excerpts from some early reviews:

The Big City:

The Little Death is music theater, pop/rock opera really, and tremendously accomplished. Marks made the whole thing himself and plays all the instruments, except for guitar and trumpet, and sings the part of Boy with the excellent and versatile Mellissa Hughes as Girl. The music captures pop styles in the way a musical does, by hitting certain numbers, but there’s nothing wrong with that approach (Urinetown is a great example of how well the standard style can work) and in any case the music is just so good that I found myself strolling through Brooklyn this morning humming ‘OMG I’m Shot’ to myself, certainly the best sock-hop-dance-pop-driving-rock song about being shot ever written. The Little Death also offers bits of staggered punk and erotic rock ballad, but in a nutshell Marks works very much like Mikel Rouse, but more explosively intense and exuberant, with touches of Carl Stone. Making music in this theatrical style means connecting with, but not pandering to, the audience, there’s some obligation to give the listener enough of what they may expect or be familiar with as a bit of legerdemain before hitting them with the goods.

The Indie Handbook:

No, I don’t know what a “post-Christian nihilist pop opera” is exactly, but that’s what they tell me Matt Marks‘ new piece/album The Little Death: Vol 1 (New Amsterdam) is and music like this doesn’t come along every day—or ever—so I am more than willing to accept the moniker they’ve chosen. In my mind, it’s what Eric Whitacre’s Paradise Lost could have been were it more concise and beat-centric. Because there are some killer beats on this album, beginning with the “Penetration Overture”, into the climax of “OMG I’m Shot” (one of the many incarnations of the petit mortmotif), and pretty much everywhere else.

Through extensive sampling, dubstep, breakbeats, and evocation of 1970s gospel, The Little Death tells the story of Boy (sung by Marks) and Girl (Mellissa Hughes), two teenagers exploring their relationship in the context of American Evangelicalism. As such, it is an album that connects on multiple levels. At turns dramatic, ridiculous, beautiful, and just plain fun, there is plenty to please the casual listener (I have been singing “OMG I’m Shot” to myself all day)

The Little Death: Vol. 1 will be having a two-week run this July at The Ontological Theater in NYC. The specific dates are July 8-11 and 14-17. This will be the most extensive version of the live opera yet. It will be directed once again by the fantastic Rafael Gallegos.

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