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Culture Report: A Conductor’s Revolutionary Playlist for the Future

Matthew Aucoin / Photo by Steven Laxton

“It would have probably been for someone I had a crush on when I was 14 or 15,” composer-conductor Matthew Aucoin said of the first-ever playlist he made. “I think the nice thing about mixtapes – and mix CDs – is it’s very personalized. It’s a home-cooked meal, just for you,” he said.

Last fall, the San Diego Symphony lured Aucoin, a new Macarthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient, to guest-curate this month’s Hearing the Future festival [1]. It’s a collaborative monthlong project that began in early January and culminates with this weekend’s performances, including two installments of “Matt’s Playlist: Echoes of the Future [2],” Friday and Sunday evenings. The compilation – including Mozart, Thomas Adès, Kaija Saariaho, Stravinsky, selections from his opera “Crossings,” and much more – displays a wildly diverse sampling of orchestral pieces, eras and styles.

It’s wide-ranging, like Aucoin’s own personal taste.

“I love Radiohead every bit as much as I love Mozart. And I love gnarly, challenging noise-music as much as I love folk songs,” Aucoin said on a break between tech rehearsals for other Hearing the Future performances.

The San Diego Symphony’s Matthew Aucoin / Photo by Steven Laxton

Aucoin also evoked genre-transcendence when describing his own compositions, including his recent opera “Crossing [3],” based on Walt Whitman’s life during the Civil War.

“I draw on the richness of harmony that is, for me, the real glory of classical music: the density and the satisfying richness of the harmonic language of 20th century classical music,” he mused. “But my sense of rhythm owes a lot to jazz and to rock music. I think a lot of American musicians – including me – have a deep relationship with groove, with music that has a pulse.”

And, he wants to see rock music influencing classical music in broader ways, too.

“I think that the classical concert format that has held sway for the past century or so is really in need of a reboot,” Aucoin said. He noted the lack of flow and the formulaic and often awkward structure. “The whole thing feels like a ritual for a religion that no one belongs to anymore,” he said, laughing.

“You compare that to any rock concert, where a band has thought about the order of things, and is very fluid art the transitions between songs, for me there’s no comparison.”

A playlist or mixtape can be an act of expression, or an act of a message or relationship. “Usually when you’re making a mix CD for someone, it’s all about the listener,” Aucoin said, but he organized these playlist selections primarily around the theme of the future.

“Most of the pieces on the program were either revolutionary for their time or they dealt with brand new ideas, whether in music or in society,” he said. And he feels San Diego, in particular, is a city musically on the verge. “Everyone I’ve talked to in the city talks about this feeling of things waking up.”

Aucoin’s playlist [4] opens with a 1965 piece by Steve Reich, an experimental and minimalist composition using magnetic loop recordings of a street preacher. A Haydn piece, from “The Creation” suite, applies a “shocking” style of music to the concept of the pre-creation void. Jean Sibelius’ “Fourth Symphony” is strikingly bleak, and female Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s “Spins and Spells,” is a radical explosion of texture. On the modern end of the spectrum, Californian Andrew Norman’s piece, “Play” is an almost-meta look at performance and instrumentation, among many more. It’s a broad collection of diverse classical and symphonic pieces, but each piece authentically feeds into the next: Aucoin’s vision of a thoughtful compilation and performance.

Aucoin’s hope for his transformation of classical music lies not so much in pioneering composers, but in kids. He wants youth to have a better time at classical performances by revolutionizing the structure of a show, mimicking his beloved rock concerts or careful playlists. But to get young people in the theater in the first place starts with early childhood music education.

“I want more young people – and I mean, kids: kids in kindergarten and first grade – to have the chance to explore making music,” Aucoin said. “Because I do think it opens up pathways in the brain. And the heart. I think that your life is richer if you’ve had the chance to actually make music yourself.”

The San Diego Symphony / Photo by David Hartig

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