Making Peace With the Music Left by an Omnivorous Young Composer | Modern Society of USA

Making Peace With the Music Left by an Omnivorous Young Composer

Making Peace With the Music Left by an Omnivorous Young Composer

In May, the musician Matt Marks died suddenly, of heart failure, after a performance with the ensemble Alarm Will Sound.

It was a blow to the tight-knit world of contemporary music, in which the 38-year-old Mr. Marks was a prominent presence as a composer, vocalist and French horn player. Along with his prolific compositional output, he helped found Alarm Will Sound, as well as the New Music Gathering conference, and was a provocatively humorous mainstay on social media.

[Read the New York Times obituary for Mr. Marks.]

This community rallied to memorialize him. Alarm Will Sound started the Matt Marks Impact Fund to develop new works. Several of his close friends completed his score for a theatrical piece, “Words on the Street,” which had its debut in October. And on Tuesday at Roulette in Brooklyn, the Prototype: Opera/Theater/Now festival — which presented Mr. Marks’s opera “Mata Hari” in 2017 and runs from Jan. 5 through 13 this year — will revive his breakthrough 2010 work “The Little Death: Vol. 1.”

But his death has also brought into stark relief the intense intimacy that is the basis of several of his works, which were conceived during — and are partly about — personal relationships, and which now have a new emotional rawness. This is particularly apparent in the upcoming production of “The Little Death,” which Mr. Marks originally created in close collaboration with the soprano Mellissa Hughes while they were dating, and which has not been performed since they broke up in 2012.

“I viscerally got sick,” Ms. Hughes recalled in an interview about being asked to revive the work at Prototype. “I couldn’t think about doing it, and it just felt wrong.”

In 2006, as young New York-based classical music freelance artists, Mr. Marks and Ms. Hughes met on a bizarre gig: a PBS crossover special being filmed in Miami, in which their live performance was replaced by canned audio. They reconnected on Myspace, where Mr. Marks had posted some simple songs he had written.

A series of grandiosely cheeky performances in various spaces in New York, and a recording released on New Amsterdam Records in 2010, were heralded for embodying an emergent genre-crossing scene widely known as “indie classical” or “alt-classical.”

Mr. Marks and Ms. Hughes worked on Vol. 2, but the project ended with their relationship. “I haven’t even sung through any of it or even really hummed through it since 2012,” Ms. Hughes said. “When you create something like that with somebody, it becomes a part of you, and so when you’re no longer with that person, it’s hard to revisit.”

Electronic samples on the album, and passages in Mr. Marks’s libretto, memorialize inside jokes and moments in their real-life romance. “When I hear these things, it’s hard to remember,” Ms. Hughes said. “It’s like an audio graveyard.”

“But it’s also beautiful,” she added. “It was a time in both of our lives that we were so creative, and we were young and poor and nobody knew us, and so we didn’t care. We wrote what we wrote.”

That sincerity was a through line in Mr. Marks’s music, and motivated his exhaustive engagement with musical genres that might be looked down on by other composers. “One of the things that I respect about Christian music and Christian pop music is that they’re willing to get sentimental,” he told The Brooklyn Rail in 2010. “I think you can actually mess with people’s heads way more by going the sentimental route, playing with their heartstrings.” Since his death, moments on the “Little Death” album that might have once sounded arch — hokey chord progressions, campy melodic hooks — can unexpectedly arouse tears.

“So many of the pieces that he wrote for himself to sing, it would not work without him,” said the composer Ted Hearne. Mr. Hearne sang in a “praise choir” assembled to accompany an early run of “The Little Death,” and will take on Mr. Marks’s part for the Prototype revival. Since the piece lacks a fully notated score, Mr. Hearne is learning the music primarily by listening closely to the album.

“I have to be able to perform it with as much confidence and moxie and guts as he would,” he said. He helped persuade Ms. Hughes to sing, telling her, she recalled, “If you don’t do it, the piece dies with Matt.”

“The Little Death” was Ms. Kouyoumdjian’s first introduction to Mr. Marks’s music. She was so captivated by a 2010 performance that, as she was leaving the concert, she walked into a glass door and broke her nose. She and Mr. Marks met a couple years later to discuss a potential collaboration with her ensemble, Hotel Elefant, and began dating. (That project was recorded before Mr. Marks’s death, and will be part of a future release of his music on New Amsterdam.)

Mr. Marks was a longtime resident of Brooklyn, and he and Ms. Kouyoumdjian would often visit unfamiliar parts of the borough. One such excursion involved a bus trip — during which they shared a pair of headphones to listen to Mariah Carey — to the serene Salt Marsh Nature Center in Marine Park. Not long afterward, Mr. Marks began a new project, the pop monodrama “Headphone Splitter,” which takes a lightly fictionalized account of their date as its point of departure: The characters Matt and Baby cozily split headphones on the B41 to go bird-watching on a lazy Saturday, and witness a brutal ax murder.

“Having this sixth sense of twisting everything sweet into something really dark, he thought, ‘Oh, this would be the perfect beginning for this murder mystery,’” Ms. Kouyoumdjian said. With the director Nick Leavens, “Headphone Splitter” was to be developed into a series of music videos driven by Mr. Marks’s singing, although he only recorded the first three episodes.

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