Meet the Young Composer Taking Classical Music by Storm

Studio 360

At 24, Matthew Aucoinhas conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, the Rome Opera Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He's received opera commissions from the American Repertory Theater and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He composed his first piece of music before he was in grade school and played The Marriage of Figaro from memory at 11. With all of these accomplishments, maybe it's inevitable that Aucoin would draw comparisons with prodigies like Mozart and Leonard Bernstein. But he's not all that flattered. "I don't want to be the next anybody," Aucoin tells Kurt Andersen. "I want to be me."

Aucoin's latest project is a song cycle based on the poetry of James Merrill, for the tenor Paul Appleby. It's not the first time Aucoin has worked with Merrill's poetry --- while an undergraduate at Harvard, he wrote an opera based on Merrill's "The Changing Light at Sandover." He's drawn to Merrill because of the way "the sweetest parts are also the parts that hurt the most."

One of the poems he's setting music is Merrill's "A Downward Look":

Seen from above, the sky
Is deep. Clouds float down there,

Foam on a long luxurious bath.
Their shadows over limbs submerged in "air",

Over protuberances, faults,
A delta thicket, glide. On high, the love

That drew the bath and scattered it with salts

Still radiates new projects old as day,
And hardly registers the tug

When, far beneath, a wrinkled, baby hand
Happens upon the plug.

As Aucoin reads it, the poem makes Merrill "a prophet of global warming," he tells Kurt. The final image represents "the power of humanity happening upon the plug of the bathtub that is the ocean."

Aucoin explains his process for developing a song out of a poem as being "like solving a puzzle." "The meat of the song is what develops last, for me. You find the world that the song lives in and you find the maximum pressure point. And then you figure out how you get there."

Figuring that out isn't always easy, even for a prodigy. "I wrestle with a particular piece for 5 weeks, and then I finish it and then the next day a piece drops as if from a helicopter into my head fully-formed," he says. "And that's never the piece I expected to write."

Bonus Track: "Sprich auch Du" live in Studio 360
based on a poem of the same name by Paul Celan