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Bringing new music to new ears

Brianna Matzke’s latest ‘Response Project’ resonates with Cincinnati history

By Leyla Shokoohe

Brianna Matzke wants you to say “yes” to a new experience. The multi-hyphenate pianist, an assistant professor of music at Wilmington College, also serves as the founder and artistic director of The Response Project, a commissioning initiative that brings new music to new ears.

“I like to think that hearing new music helps you discover a new part of yourself in a way,” she said. “I always feel a gratitude that the audience is willing to have a new experience there with me.”

The Response Project, which kicked off in 2015, will debut its fourth iteration this January: The Pauline Oliveros Response Project. The event is variation-on-a-theme brought to life: Matzke commissions composers to respond through a new composition to an existing piece of work. The new compositions, usually for solo piano, are then performed live for an audience and later recorded.

ianist Brianna Matzke, executive artistic director and founder of The Response Project series

ianist Brianna Matzke, executive artistic director and founder of The Response Project series

Photo by Ryan Back

Matzke was inspired to start The Response Project after her own new experience: attending MusicNOW in 2013, the contemporary music festival curated by The National’s Bryce Dessner.

“It was music-making on an intersectional level of creativity that I didn’t even realize was possible,” she said. “And everything that was happening was classical music adjacent, at least.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. An undergraduate of the University of Kansas, Matzke was completing her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music and contending with uncertainty about her career plans. Matzke also caught a premiere by musician Shiau-uen Din in 2013, based on commissions from composers reacting to a piece of music. After that, her path became clear.

“I’d always worked with composers at the schools I had attended, but it was just like a side thing,” she said. “I’d always felt a little bit frustrated and a little bit out of my element whenever I played the sort of standard body of work that pianists are expected to know. Everything just felt so alive at MusicNow. I just decided, ‘Well, okay, this is what I want my next project to be. I want to see what this is like for me.’ ”

Project grows in scope, attendance

The first Response Project saw five composers respond to “Mikrophonie 1,” a groundbreaking work utilizing the microphone as an instrument, debuted in 1964 by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Matzke set up an IndieGoGo campaign to pay the artists and secure a venue, landing at Hoffner Lodge in Northside. In a nod to MusicNOW, the evening opened with experimental music before the commissioned works, and featured a custom cocktail. Some 60 people turned out for the event, and in a lovely bit of serendipity, Matzke’s Response Project inspired in turn the series known as the Chase Public Response Project, which ran until 2018.

The following iterations of The Response Project grew larger in attendance, scope and funding. 2017’s “On Behalf” commissioned seven artists to respond to the phrase “on behalf,” inspired by a Stephen Colbert interview with musician Killer Mike. The following year, “Something Is Happening Here” brought together 13 composers, nine filmmakers and six multidisciplinary artists to respond to Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, “Highway 61 Revisited,” taking place over four nights at multiple venues.

“[This one is] the biggest yet in scope,” Matzke said.

The upcoming Response Project features artists responding to American composer Pauline Oliveros, a pioneer in electronic music who developed her own theories around music called “deep listening” and her collection of compositions, “Sonic Meditations.”

“The idea of deep listening is when you listen to music, you listen with your entire being, so not just your head and ears, but your body, your soul, and you sense your place in space and your place in time as you’re listening,” Matzke said.

“And alongside that, considering any sound to be musical. One thing I’ve heard in deep listening practice is to consider every sound that you hear to be a symphony that’s being composed in the moment, just for you. Which is a beautiful idea.”

Five composers were commissioned to write pieces for piano and percussion, and five local artists to respond in the visual medium. Matzke began working with The Hive, a mindfulness center in Northside, and its founder/director Troy Bronsink, to incorporate the holistic nature of deep listening into the experience through guided meditations, and in scouting locations in the area.

“We were going to present a series of concerts that were hybridized with mindfulness classes to listen, and we were going to do these in a series of under-appreciated, under-utilized spaces with relevance for Cincinnati history, all across the city,” Matzke said.

“Audiences could listen to the music, listen to the space and listen to themselves within all of that. Sounds can reverb from wall to wall, but they also can reverberate throughout history. That was the original idea. COVID changed all of that.”

Creating films in meaningful spaces

Matzke pivoted the project to a series of short films in locations around Cincinnati. She pulled together a small film crew, helmed by local director Biz Young, and including Jason Nix and Andy Gasper. The latter pair are also co-founders of Creative

Ladies of Cincinnati, an inclusive professional support group for women in the creative industry in Cincinnati.

“She’s such a visionary and she’s so thoughtful in the way that she curates not only the actual outcome of a project but every point in between,” Young said of Matzke. “I already knew that working with her would be a dream project in a way, because we work so well together and because she’s such a strong woman and a strong leader. I just love collaborating with her.”

Locations for the project are atypical, most long in disrepair, but the spaces are meaningful to the city’s history. The Emery Theater in Over-the-Rhine, for example, was built to be the home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which it was for three decades – notably with famed conductor Leopold Stokowski as its music director for three years.

Percussionist Chris Graham and pianist Brianna Matzke perform a new work for the Pauline Oliveros Response Project at the Emery Theater.

Percussionist Chris Graham and pianist Brianna Matzke perform a new work for the Pauline Oliveros Response Project at the Emery Theater.

Photo by Andy Gasper

“The Children’s Theatre has a bid for renovating it right now. I really hope they preserve the acoustical qualities, because, God, it’s gorgeous,” said Matzke. “It’s a huge theater, and you can stand on the stage and whisper and you can be heard perfectly in the back row of the balcony. It’s crazy.”

The Imperial Theatre on Mohawk Street in Over-the-Rhine, has sat similarly unused for decades. Here, in particular, Matzke wanted to call to mind – and confront – Cincinnati’s racial history.

“It started as a vaudeville theater that serviced the working-class community, and vaudeville is where blackface performance really took hold. So there’s this history of deep racism embedded in the walls of that theater,” she said. “I was very adamant that I wanted a Black woman to perform in that space. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra cellist Denielle Wilson played a movement from a Bach cello suite, so a German composer, because it was a German neighborhood originally, and a movement from a cello suite by an African-American composer. I just really wanted to make sure the music reverberated through history and showed the arc of justice moving forward.”

The tunnels underneath the Christian Moerlein malthouse tap room (the stuff of Cincinnati brewing legend), and a yet-to-be-determined location, round out the four venues. The films take place in and feature a short history of each building, footage of the space and neighborhood, feature a deep listening meditation led by Bronsink, and a performance by musicians from concert:nova.

An exhibition of commissioned visual art will be hosted by the Welcome Project in Camp Washington, and a potential 3-D scanned gallery is in the works. The four films will stream on the internet in January, one per week, and will be available for viewing later.

“Cincinnati’s one of the only places I could imagine the Response Project actually working,” Matzke said. “It’s amazing to be a creative person in this city. This is a city where people say ‘yes.’ That’s all it takes to make cool stuff happen.”

About the Response Project

The Pauline Oliveros Response Project will be a series of four films, livestreamed free once a week on concert:nova’s website and on The Response Project’s Facebook page, each Thursday in January at 7:30 p.m.

Each livestream will be followed by a discussion on Zoom (registration required) between audience members and the project creators, musicians, and artists.

The fourth film, shot in the Emery Theater in Over-the-Rhine, will be an hour-long concert featuring five newly composed works for piano and percussion, performed by pianist Brianna Matzke and percussionist Chris Graham.

The Response Project art show will be held at The Welcome Project, 2936 Colerain Ave., Jan. 9-Feb. 27, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and also available online.