He was working, as usual, when the phone rang. So he ignored Caller Blocked from Chicago. The piano score for his new opera had to be finished.
In fact, Caller Blocked got ignored a couple of times. But finally, Matt Aucoin took the call that every musician, scientist, writer, activist and social worker dreams of getting.
Caller Blocked was the MacArthur Foundation, and Aucoin was a recipient of the most prestigious award in our culture, the "genius grant."
“I wondered if it was a hoax at first,” he said. “They read me a short description of my work, a paragraph or so. They were saying things about how I was trying to expand the expressive potential of music, and other stuff. Then they asked, ‘Does that sound about right?’ I said it sounded like what I’m trying to do, but I don’t believe I’ve done it yet.”
Aucoin’s perspective — coupled of course with a list of compositions, performances and initiatives that would highlight any successful career, let alone the early work of a 28-year-old — are exactly why artists like him should be receiving the transformative funding.
“What I want to do is going to take me beyond the rest of my life,” Aucoin told me. That might sound like excessive modesty — or hubris — but it succinctly describes Aucoin’s ambitions.
The Medfield-raised composer/conductor/pianist, who now splits his time between New York City and a retreat in Vermont, mixing in a residency with the Los Angeles Opera as well, adds the MacArthur to an impressive list of accomplishments in his relatively short career.
It’s hard to believe he only graduated Harvard in 2012. Since then, he’s attended Juilliard; he's been an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and a conducting apprentice under Riccardo Muti with the Chicago Symphony. He was the Los Angeles Opera's first artist-in-residence starting in 2016 and he curates the San Diego Symphony’s Hearing the Future festival.
The American Repertory Theater commissioned an opera, "Crossing" (a loving portrait of Walt Whitman's Civil War years), in 2015.
He'll be back in Cambridge this month for the second residency of his own adventurous American Modern Opera Company (AMOC). The opera he was working on when the phone rang — "Eurydice," a retelling from her perspective of the Orpheus myth — will debut in Los Angeles next season, and then move to the Met. Piano works and song cycles fill in the cracks of his schedule.
“I have this double life, as a composer and performer,” he said. “Now I think I can focus more on just composing."
If that double live weren’t enough, Aucoin has also spent a tremendous amount of time diving into other repertory. He conducted Verdi’s "Rigoletto" in Los Angeles this spring, and Philip Glass’ "Akhnaten" in 2016. This past summer he worked with Peter Sellars and composer John Adams on an updated "Doctor Atomic" at the Santa Fe Opera. These projects also makes demands: "If you want to get deep into someone else’s works, you need to devote time," he said, "hundreds of hours."
The MacArthur Award — $625,000, spread out over five years, without stipulations — will help Aucoin find a new balance. His ideas about what that balance will be might surprise some. Typically, an award like this will allow a composer to realize some grand project — an oratorio, or another opera, or a symphony. Aucoin certainly will do those things — he has already, after all — but his scope might be different at first.
“At the moment I feel more drawn to chamber pieces,” he said. “Solo piano — that’s my instrument, and I really want to write a lot of works for piano in my life. Percussion ensemble — percussionists are up for anything. And things for all my partners in AMOC.”
AMOC — which Aucoin created with choreographer Zack Winokur in 2016 — will probably benefit most from Aucoin’s new perspective. A sweepingly diverse collection of vocalists, choreographers, instrumentalists and multi-talents (like Aucoin), AMOC includes artists like baritone Davóne Tines, soprano Julia Bullock, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, choreographers Bobbi Jene Smith and Julia Eichten, violinists Miranda Cuckson and Keir GoGwilt. AMOC’s mission speaks directly to Aucoin’s own goals — to foster long-lasting relationships with other artists, and to explore discipline-colliding music-theater works, realizing them with adequate rehearsal.
Aucoin, like many others in the music world, has long complained about abbreviated preparation time, and shifting personnel, resulting in haphazard performances. Especially on the grand stages — with symphony orchestras, or opera troupes — these are chronic problems. In its two seasons, AMOC has focused on member collaborations: for example, "With Care," created by Smith and GoGwilt; and Tines’s song cycle "Were You There," which premiered at the A.R.T. last December. These collaborations — smaller works, carefully prepared — will eventually grow into larger scale projects.
AMOC is also exploring pieces by other composers: an arranged version of John Adams’ "El Niño" will take place at New York’s Cloisters this month, and next season AMOC will tackle Hans Werner Henze’s chamber opera "El Cimarrón." As Aucoin’s own career takes its revised trajectory, it seems likely that he can steer AMOC toward its stated goal of more rewarding, artistically committed performances.
Freedom from deadlines, and from working within personnel requirements, also stands out. “I work better when there are no deadlines — I can work slower, and deeper,” he said. “I feel like reversing the process of commissioning music, writing pieces that I want to write, and finding the players afterward. I need time and space to explore my own thoughts. My partner and I bought a farmhouse in Vermont, and I might just disappear for two years into the woods.”
Aucoin plans to support certain causes with his award as well — he’s in discussions with GiveWell about how to do that effectively — but that isn’t something new to his lifestyle.
“I have always believed that those of us who are doing OK should be contributing to those who aren’t,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s something I’ve always done, and I’ll keep doing it in the same proportions.”
Aucoin’s youth and accomplishments have generated enough hyperbole — “the next Bernstein,” he’s been called; “as talented as Mozart”; “the future of classical music.” But comments like this create a haze around the real work, and actually diminish his achievements with frivolous comparisons. Aucoin has written brilliantly successful music, he’s conducted standard works with insight, and he’s surrounded himself with equally determined and talented artists. This, along with articulating his ideas about addressing performance shortcomings, should make for an interesting future. The MacArthur grant makes this more achievable, but Aucoin’s path was already in view.
“This doesn’t instantly change my life,” he said. “I do have to orchestrate 'Eurydice,' for one thing. But it does inform projects in the future. I want to minimize the conducting, and limit the time spent on music that’s not my own. If I’m going to devote my life force, it’s more important to create things that haven’t been done before.”
Matt Aucoin makes several Boston-area appearances in December. The American Modern Opera Company holds its second residency at the American Repertory Theater from Friday, Dec. 14 to Sunday, Dec. 16. That residency has its unofficial kick-off at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem on Thursday, Dec. 13.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified which show Davóne Tines developed with AMOC. The story has been corrected.
This article was originally published on December 13, 2018.