If there is a defining characteristic of 21st century classical composition, it’s a blurring of categories. Matthew Evan Taylor is case in point. Self-described as “a musician who composes; a composer who performs; a performer who improvises,” Taylor wrestled with the societal boundaries of Black artistry only to blast them apart in his personal practice. From his education in classical and jazz repertoires to his album Say Their Names to his newest project, The Unheard Mixtapes, Taylor has reconciled his artistic identity as a classical composer focused on social justice, Black expressive culture, and experimentalism.
The Unheard Mixtapes is a six-part series that explores the creative possibilities of the mixtape as a musical genre in the vein of the string quartet or song cycle. The first in this series is The Unheard Mixtape 1: Follow to the End, written and performed by Taylor and released on September 29, 2020 by New Amsterdam Records. Artists at the Juniper Creative Arts, LLC were commissioned for Follow to the End’s cover and the covers of the successive mixtapes.
The Unheard Mixtapes emerged from Taylor’s pandemic improv sessions, as he began to notice his “…daily improvisations started to take on a ritualistic air.” He says, “I felt connected to much older traditions and wisdoms about sound, and the relationship that the act of making music has to connecting with the past. I could feel myself becoming more centered while becoming more experimental…I found a greater capacity to react in real time to this COVID-19 reality.”
Follow to the End reflects Taylor’s awareness of the closeness of the past to his present. His use of looping technology, unfiltered acoustics of his apartment, classical and jazz tonalities, and multiple woodwind instruments evoke the different ways the passage of time is experienced and understood: the linear; the circular; the folding; and the extending out.
The opening track, “First Sunrise,” lays the structural foundation for the mixtape: looping of short motives on saxophone to create a polyphonic background for solo clarinet passages. The soloist evokes rays of sunlight through sustained interjections, responding to the background’s accompanying repetitions before fading out.
“The Anguish of Knowing” is built upon a vamp on hulusi, highlighting bent tones and reedy timbre. Raspy, fluttery interjections from flute and voice appear with solo saxophone, which weaves in and out of the hulusi’s unchanging line. Here, Taylor is less concerned with ensemble blending than magnifying the distinctiveness of the instruments involved, embracing their discordant quality and reflecting the title’s suggestion of emotional turmoil. “Work Song and Rebellion” opens with saxophone and harsh blurts from woodwinds mixed and looped to support the soloist. The “Rebellion” section is signaled by increased activity and prominence of the background texture; one particular section sounds like an electronic alarm that cannot be shut off.
“No Compass” begins with static, until the saxophone enters with a pulsed note, the basis for an echo effect. As more parts are layered, the initial motive becomes almost imperceptible, more a memory than a felt presence. The loops intersect and create a new melodic vamp; the solo saxophone becomes more agitated, the timbre harsher, and then the track abruptly ends.
“Follow to the End” highlights the saxophone’s lyricism on top of a consonant, polyphonic texture with brief moments of tensions. Like the previous track, the initial motives are almost totally obscured by the new, but never completely gone, featuring themes similar to “First Sunrise.” Unlike the previous track, the music seems to reach a point of arrival, reflected in the unification of the supportive texture with solo saxophone before fading out. “Sunset” emerges via layered parts with material related to “First Sunrise,” growing in volume and jostling for primacy. In this track, the solo parts combine and disperse, no longer separate from the group, but a part of it.
Through motivic repetition, interactive solos, multiple woodwind instruments, and descriptive titles, Mixtape 1: Follow to the End plays with listeners’ expectations of growth, stasis, and unity in a musical work. Follow to the End signals the start of a major phase in Taylor’s artistic and political vision, sustained by his skills in improvisation, experimentation, and Black creative forms. His meditative and rigorous manifesto is reflexive of Black music cultures’ heterogeneous traditions, where to borrow, adopt, and incorporate features across styles is standard practice. Taylor’s keen reading and use of the mixtape–a medium that blurs the lines between performer, improviser, and composer–is a refreshing and exciting artistic choice.
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