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MATA Interview

Posted on 15 February 2007. © Copyright 2004-2021 Composition:Today

C:T talks to James Matheson, Executive Director of New York's MATA festival

MATA festival
Tell us the idea behind MATA. What makes it special as a festival?

MATA produces the only major American music festival dedicated to supporting a broad, international cross-section of young composers through offering them what is often their first major exposure in New York. We are about building community among young composers, and as part of that mission we strive to transcend ideological boundaries, bringing together music and composers that one might not find in such close juxtaposition anywhere else. It’s very important to us to be open-minded in our artistic and organizational thinking, and to be cognizant of the fact that the next bold, fresh movement could come from anywhere. We pride ourselves on the fact that through our rigorous paneling process every single applicant gets fair, close consideration for a commission and for inclusion on the festival.

It was founded by amongst others the composer Philip Glass. How is Glass's influence felt on the festival?

At a recent Board meeting, Philip mentioned that at his first concert there were only seven people in the audience – “and one of them was my mother.” It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Philip Glass wasn’t “Philip Glass,” the world-famous composer. He remembers those early years well, and sees clearly the importance of providing a supportive, artistically open environment in which anything can happen, in which we’ll program a piece by a radical young vocal improviser alongside a virtuoso string piece by a recent Rome Prize winner, alongside a brilliant young talent who is struggling and has never had a performance in New York. It’s that sort of broad, visionary, forward thinking – high artistic standards combined with a mission of helping young composers – that Philip, Eleonor Sandresky and Lisa Bielawa brought to MATA at its founding and that infuses it still.

How has the festival changed over the 9 years it's been operating?

MATA started as the brainchild of Eleonor, Lisa and Philip and in its first year put together a concert series on a shoestring budget. Eleonor and Lisa programmed the works of friends and acquaintances and others “on the scene” who, like them, were generally young, struggling composers trying to find their way in the world. The MATA Festival, a week-long string of concerts, lectures, panels, readings and other events, developed a few years later. We have also evolved into a much larger organization, with an annual open Call for Scores that regularly draws around 200 applicants.

How can composers go about being considered for inclusion future MATA festivals?

Through our annual Call for Scores – we try to get the word out through the usual organizations – American Music Center, the American Composers Forum and others, but we post this information on our website as well. Our next Call will go out toward the end of the year, probably around early October. Anyone who would like to apply can simply check back then for our current submission guidelines and deadline.

What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?

Write, write, write, write, write. Or improvise, or sing, or play, or spend time at your computer workstation – whatever suits your method and art. Work on it every day you can – that’s the most important thing. Seek out and befriend performers who think like you (an easier task if you’re a composer/performer working on something for yourself) and can inspire your writing, who will live with and love your music, who will play it the way you want it to be played. It’s also important to be patient and accept that things take time for everyone – this isn’t a profession in which overnight success is a realistic expectation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, strive to find something important to say, and work at developing your own way of saying it.

Is it a good time to be a festival director in the US?

The best. The challenges have always been there: it’s always been hard to raise money, it’s always been hard to generate interest in living, breathing composers – these are difficulties that cross time. But never in the history of music has there been such an abundance of voices, styles and techniques to draw on for programming – never have there been so many composers struggling to give voice to their talent, looking for new ways of communicating – never has there been such an abundance of music available. These factors make programming a bit more challenging just because there is so much to keep up with. But that’s also the fun of it, what keeps the MATA staff open and alive and questioning.

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Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2021

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