“A Love Affair with Sound” (4/20): A Free Recital of New Compositions by Matthew W. Shepherd

Since my first première two years ago—a breakneck performance by Rob Frankenberry of my piano solo My Green Malady II—I’ve had over a dozen works (and over two hours of music) performed at Pitt. For my senior project in music, then, it seemed natural to organize a full-length concert of my own works, and with the help of Phil Thompson and Roger Zahab, this event—which I wouldn’t have considered possible three years ago—is actually happening. The concert, entitled “A Love Affair with Sound,” will take place on Sunday, April 20 at 2 p.m. in Bellefield Hall Auditorium, Oakland. It will be free and open to the public. Performers will include Sarah Albani, Callah Antonetti, Ben Harris, Emily Hawkins, Dave Hidek, Jess Hohman, Joe Liu, Kaitlin Mitchell, Roger Zahab, and myself. Three of the nine works will be premières, while another three are revised versions prepared for this event:
Flurries for string quartet • Bean Sprouts for marimba • New Harmony Sweet for piano • SummerSet* for ’cello • Epistemology Wars for violin and vibraphone
Same Seats (2nd semester) for marimba, four hands [co-written and choreographed with Dave Hidek] • Fushicho, Mvt. III† for string quartet • Chivalry Timbers* for flute • Colla Viola* for viola and piano

* première performancepremière of revised version


If finals have you all worked up, you can come and relax with my music at Bellefield Hall. (And if that doesn’t apply to you, you’re certainly welcome to attend as well.) My housemate and I will be baking homemade vegan cookies, too, so you can get music, a break from studying, and some snacking in on a Sunday afternoon.

For slightly abridged program notes—written in a fairly informal style, somewhat like my pieces—continue below.


Flurries was composed as a final project for Roger Zahab’s fall 2006 composition class. It was premièred in December 2006 by three of the four musicians performing it in this concert. It uses two chord cycles, both of which are performed twice in turn (A-B-A′-B′). Each cycle has a different playing technique associated with it: rapid bowing near the bridge, bouncing the bow hairs on the strings, plucking the strings in a random order, and soft bowing over the fingerboard. These sounds are played in an improvisatory manner; no two players are synchronized, except when each player in turn initiates a chord change with a melodic cue. The resulting texture is cloudy and chaotic, yet the piece’s shape is clear on a large scale. A clear melodic motif, stated in the opening section by the first violin, returns throughout the piece, and is the basis for the coda.

Bean Sprouts was a solo project for the same composition class, and was written for and premièred by my friend and fellow percussionist Emily Hawkins. The title comes from my three-time linguistics professor Chia-Hui Huang, who saw me sketching the piece and exclaimed: “Bean sprouts!” She explained that this was her childhood term for musical notation; my scrappy dots and lines weren’t too far off from the plant matter itself. I believe that most marimba music is either darkly serious or ridiculously whimsical. This piece falls in the latter category. Like Flurries, it uses a common series of chords as centers of interest throughout; the chords are presented, unadorned, near the piece’s conclusion. New Harmony Sweet: During the summer in 2004, I volunteered at an archaeological dig behind an old community house in New Harmony, Indiana. The town was originally founded as a utopian community in 1814 by the Harmonists, a religious sect broken off from the German Lutheran Church. After ten years on the Wabash River, they left and reestablished themselves as the town of Economy in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, only a few miles north of Pittsburgh, where this piece was written. In present-day New Harmony, a communal small-town atmosphere still pervades the quiet streets during the summer. This, combined with the salient history of the town, creates an eerie yet pleasant mood that I felt during several lunchtime walks around the town center that summer. I have been back to visit it since then for that reason—as well as for its gorgeous places. This piece was premièred in its original version in March 2007 by Matthew Gillespie. SummerSet was briskly written in September 2007 as Pittsburgh prepared for autumn. The title is an allusion to this period of the year, as well as to a relatively new community east of Squirrel Hill that was built on a slag heap left from the steel days and which features a view across the Monongahela River to Homestead. The piece uses melodic cells to build up to a passionate lamentoso before descending to the depths whence it came. The piece forgoes traditional rhythmic notation in favor of a five-tier system of relative note-length I came up with which gives the player much more expressive freedom with time, making the piece essentially a subdued cadenza. It was written specifically for Callah Antonetti, who was drafted to play ’cello for the composition-class quartets (including Flurries), and who joined the Fushicho team after schedule conflicts forced the reassignment of players. Her versatility and amiability have made potentially distressing musical situations much lighter, and for this I must remark about her: “Semper paratus!” (“Always ready!”) Epistemology Wars is dedicated to my teacher and former Honors College advisor Nate Hilberg, from whom I learned the term epistemology, “the theory of human knowledge.” This term is often used to illustrate how humans have differing (and sometimes clashing) knowledge-systems. The piece is a dramatic duo which includes quotations from the anonymous motet Fole acostumance/Dominus; the translated text from these quotations is as follows:
“Foolish custom makes me sing, for I can neither advance by accomplishment nor by song.”
“Everyone lives in fear, and this is not at all foolish.”
“It is a great sorrow and great misfortune that such guile endures so long, that Hypocrisy makes every living thing abandon companionship and great generosity.”
The introduction establishes a series of pitches (on bowed vibraphone) from which most of the material is derived. In fall 2007, Roger Zahab charged me with writing a substantial piece in one movement for the two of us to play. This piece was the result. Roger and I premièred the piece in November 2007. Same Seats (2nd semester) is the sequel to a collaborative percussion duo, written and performed by Dave Hidek and myself in our Music Theory IV class in 2006. Whereas the original was for pots, jars, bottles, and slats of marble and wood, this piece is for two players on one marimba. A three-note melodic theme is set against itself in differing meters, then modified by pitch until a new pattern results. One player takes over this pattern, and the other (Dave, in the recording used for this concert’s “mellow-dramatic” interpretation of the work) improvises a solo over it. Fushicho is my longest (and most long-term) composition to date, lasting nearly half an hour and taking a year and a half to write. It was premièred in February 2007 by three of the four musicians performing it today. The work is more or less a musical narrative which was a way for me to work out some emotional crises, as well as to gain experience in writing for strings. I have chosen to present only the third movement in this program. Throughout the work, codes are used to turn names and words into rhythms and melodies; in this movement (III. Lento, reminiscingly), both Morse code and a code of my own devising (where a number of half-steps above a certain pitch represents a letter) are used. Chivalry Timbers was written for and dedicated to my friend Jess Hohman, whose love of pirates and dashing heroic figures inspired yet another of my punning titles (and the styles in the piece itself). It was composed over the summer of 2007, and is the only piece I know of which I composed on a Greyhound bus and in a soundproof piano booth (in the basement of IUP’s Whitmyre Hall). Jess and I diverge quite a bit in our musical tastes—more conventional, lyrical styles and jazz flute on her end, as opposed to the “organized sound” and minimalist textures I have grown to enjoy. This piece, I hope, is a happy compromise between the two worlds. (The vocal effects in the opening section of Chivalry Timbers are of her own devising.) Colla Viola (Italian for “with the viola”) is the culmination of a longtime wish to work with violist Sarah Albani, who was my #1 draft pick for Fushicho. The piece is in two movements (slow–fast) and uses a set of harmonies of varying dissonance to create a sonic environment somewhere between tonality and atonality, hovering around B major. The first movement, “Portrait Inviolate,” employs a slow, constant pulse with shifting metrical patterns; the second, “Statisch Kling” (poor man’s German for “make sounds in a static way”), is a hectic ride through jagged metric accents, pausing to regain its composure at the viola’s cadenza. The running theme of Colla Viola is recontextualization. Two primary motifs which are reinterpreted are the opening chord of the first movement (later an alternating leading chord to G near the end of that movement, and reworked as the opening chord of movement II) and the three-note motif G#-A-B (recast as Ab-Bbb-Cb in Ab minor).

[Come hear these works on Sunday the 20th!]