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First Take: Dylan Mattingly on Stranger Love

The 2017 edition of The Industry and wild Up’s First Take is right around the corner. On February 24, the world’s most audacious opera company presents scenes from works-in-progress by six composers. Full details on that are up at Over here at New Classic LA, we’ll repeat our tradition of one composer interview per day in the week leading up to it. You can read all of the interviews – including the 2015 interviews – at

Today we’ve got Dylan Mattingly.

Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.

Stranger Love is an opera in three acts. At roughly five hours long, with 8 singers, 6 dancers, and an orchestra built on the engine of three microtonal pianos, the music of Stranger Love is like an elemental force, offering world-sized visions of the disparate ecstasies of a human life on earth, from the gentle falling of snow to a gospel revival, and the vertigo of looking into the stars.

Drawing inspiration from Plato’s Symposium, Stranger Love presents both a love story, and the story of love, in various dimensions. Act I is the tale of Tasha and André, lovers who—like Orpheus & Eurydice, Heloise & Abelard, Rick & Elsa—are brought together by chance, and whose brief, intense joy is soon threatened. Their story unfolds to the rhythm of the seasons: Spring is the encounter; Summer, the unfolding; Autumn, the threat from without; Winter, the threat from within. Act II re-frames the story: no longer individual, it is now, in the spirit of the comic poet Aristophanes, archetypical, and the action belongs to six dancers arranged in three pairs. The final act compresses seasonal time into a single instant: it is the vision of divine love—a love supreme—that Socrates attributes to the priestess Diotima.

Composer Dylan Mattingly

Composer Dylan Mattingly

Stranger Love is deliberately counter-cultural in scale. Given the persistent fragmentation of contemporary life into ever shorter temporal intervals, hectic distraction has become a default mode of our daily experience. Large-scale art forms provide a rare opportunity to encounter and dwell within a different temporality, a kind of “slow time” (Keats) in which attention is both dilated and focused. Through the collage and sequencing of music, lyric, dance, and scenography, Stranger Love endeavors to make this kind of uncommon experience possible.

The excerpt performed at First Take begins with a small introduction to the opening of the second act, and is followed by scenes 5 and 6 from the first act. These two scenes present vignettes from the end of Summer, as the light begins to wane. Scene 5 is set against the backdrop of a midsummer night’s stillness. Here, for the first time, André begins to recognize the transience of togetherness, the eventuality of loss. Tasha responds that “Delphinium, my darling, will bloom in late summer” — now is not yet the time for tears. As Scene 6 opens, the lovers share fragments of memory from the time before they knew one another. Through these recollected moments, they try to draw one another into the sacred narratives of their lives and to imagine a future together. Against a fading light, they celebrate together “the continuous life of you and me.”

Stranger Love is being written for the New York-based new music ensemble, Contemporaneous, which I co-founded in 2010 and of I am currently the executive and co-artistic director. Contemporaneous, called “ferocious and focused” by The New York Times, is an ensemble of 21 musicians who are dedicated to the commissioning and performance of the most exciting music of now.

What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?

So much of the music that I love is sung. I think that’s likely true for a lot of people, and I’m attracted to the visceral power of the human voice. Something about being sung to signals to us that there is a connection taking place, that something is being felt simultaneously in you and me across the impermeable negative space that will ever distinguish us from each other.

While we often imagine Greek tragedy in an almost sterile environment, intoned in lugubrious waves of ethos, truly the experience of Oedipus, of The Oresteia, was a fundamentally musical event, a tremendously immersive show of music, dance, and poetry. In 2013, both my musical work and academic life (I have a B.A. in Classics, specializing in Ancient Greek from Bard College) aligned around the intricate and ecstatic musical tradition of Greek tragedy in the 5th century B.C. And while we imagine 70 attendees in a black box theater, the performance of tragedy in Athens was more like the Superbowl. Both the strange and beautiful patterns of the rhythm in Euripides’s words and the inherent unknowability of its true sound I find to be endlessly fascinating, and offered to me a wonderful vantage point from which I might imagine the role of the human voice in drama. Using this study as a point of departure, I wrote a large-scale work entitled The Bakkhai, which sets the seven choruses of Euripides’ terrifying and beautiful play to create my own entirely new personal and imaginary folk music. Work on Stranger Love has felt in some ways to be an extension of this communal and effervescent vocal tradition, and is as well inspired by my study of the polyphonic vocal music traditions of the Bayaka tribes in Central Africa and the choir of Rapa Iti, a small island in the South Pacific.

Does your composition process change at all when writing in this medium?

I wouldn’t say my compositional process has changed in working on Stranger Love so much as my thrust as a composer and the process of writing has led me singularly on this path towards this piece. And indeed, I don’t think Stranger Love could exist otherwise. After all, few things could be further removed from the aesthetic expectations of the modern public sphere than a five hour long piece of music and theater that presupposes the power of abstraction, the value of perspective, and the importance of total joy. I’ve chosen to write this massive opera, more dream than waking life — and closer to the nightmusic of that non-linguistic visceral space wherein we fall in love than the house of language in which we move by day — not for any monetary gain (there is none) or compelled by any external factor, but because I know it to be the best thing that I can do. I want to write music not because it adheres to the world we accept, but because it offers an experience of the world as we might hope to live it. Once we’ve imagined something, it already exists.

What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?

As a composer, Stranger Love is an all-encompassing experience. For an opera that seeks to be totally immersive, about an almost violently undiscerning joy in the spectrum of being alive on this planet, it would feel like a divestment of responsibility were I to ever let this piece out of my mind.

While I am not working on any other compositional projects, I am working as the executive director and co-artistic director of Contemporaneous, the NY-based new-music ensemble of 21 musicians, which I co-founded in 2010. Contemporaneous has performed over 100 concerts and presented the world premiere of more than 75 new works since its start seven years ago, and we have a big show coming up in April in NY (April 11th at Roulette in Brooklyn and April 15th in Tivoli, NY) consisting of four world premieres and incredible new large-scale microtonal music for the ensemble. I couldn’t be more proud of what Contemporaneous is doing and can’t wait to be a part of bringing these wonderful and daring new works to life (by composers Katherine Balch, Kyle Gann, Shawn Jaeger, and Kristofer Svensson).

Check back tomorrow for our next interview, and get your First Take tickets at

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