Inspired by the worlds of nature and literature, Michael Matthews creates music that compels the listener to step beyond the every day to dwell for a while in images of paradox, to consider the ever-changing tapestry of life. Matthews has a deep love for the contemporary symphonic tradition and has established himself as a master of large-scale musical structures, motivic relationships, and organic wholeness, all of which lie at the core of symphonic thought. The symphony is, for Matthews, both a vital form and a special challenge that allows for musical ideas to be carried between movements. Compositional influences include Beethoven, Mahler, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Schnittke and, more recently, Scandinavian composers Pettersson and Aho.
Versatile in form and style, Matthews’ compositions include: Prelude to Macbeth — a work that captures the sense of strangeness, emotional intensity, and violence that pervade the famous Shakespeare play; The Language of Water — a commission for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra that treats each musician as a solo performer resulting in imaginative diversity of contrapuntal and textural possibilities for players and listeners alike; Particles of One — Concerto for Violin and Chamber Orchestra — a two-movement piece that opens lyrically and moves into quick, sometimes motoric rhythm; and Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, consisting of five movements, the second and fourth of which are cadenzas (the first for orchestra, the second for the soloist) — this dual-cadenza structure makes a statement about the equality of the partnership between the orchestra and the piano, while providing a sense of balance around the central slow movement.
Michael Matthews was born in Gander, Newfoundland in 1950. At that time his father John Matthews was working for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines as a ground operations manager. Matthews was still an infant when his family moved to Miami, Florida and his father took a job with Pan American Airways. Growing up, Matthews lived in Miami, Kingston, Jamaica, Managua Nicaragua, Port of Spain and Piarco, Trinidad, and Karachi, Pakistan, where he attended and graduated from the Karachi American School (KAS).
University Study and Teaching
A year at Purdue University studying aeronautical engineering followed, and then a move to Los Angeles, where he changed his focus to music. Matthews studied composition with Aurelio de la Vega at California State University Northridge, Ben Glovinsky at California State University Sacramento, and at the North Texas College of Music (formerly North Texas State University), where he earned a Ph.D. degree studying under acclaimed composer Larry Austin. A nine-month teaching appointment in Winnipeg at the University of Manitoba was followed by two years of teaching at Mokwon University in Taejon, Korea, and then a return to Canada to take up a tenure-track faculty position as head of the Composition Department at the University of Manitoba School of Music (currently the Desautels Faculty of Music).
During his time in Winnipeg, Matthews was active as a composer, professor, conductor, and concert presenter. He co-founded the contemporary music ensemble Thira, as well as the new music series GroundSwell. He was active as an assessor for the Canada Council for the Arts, the Manitoba Arts Council, and the Winnipeg Art Council. He was also a member of the Winnipeg Arts Advisory Board. During this time Matthews became a member of the Manitoba Composers’ Association, the Canadian Music Centre, the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, the Canadian League of Composers, the Winnipeg Musicians’ Association, the International Computer Music Association, the Electronic Music Foundation, and the Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Canada.
Matthews was awarded a Major Arts Grant in Music from the Manitoba Arts Council, a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study and Conference Center, a Klinker Foundation Grant to participate in the Visiones Sonoras Festival in Morelia, Mexico, and several residencies at the Centro Mexicano para la Música y las Artes Sonoras in Mexico. He was the first Canadian to receive the prestigious International Computer Music Award from the International Computer Music Association.
Matthews has a distinguished history of performances. In November 2021 his new work it is raining gently with light was premiered in Winnipeg on the GroundSwell series. In October 2018, A Star of Solitude, settings of poetry by Charles Simic, was performed. Sarah Jo Kirsch, Aiyun Huang, Daniel Scholz, and Micah Heilbrunn performed with the composer conducting. In February 2017 Matthews’ work Septet was premiered in Calgary and Winnipeg by ensemble mosaik. Other recent premieres include Sólo queda el desierto (Montreal Chamber Orchestra) and String Quartet No. 4 (Penderecki Quartet). The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra premiered the newly commissioned work The Language of Water in September 2006. In July his work The Skin of Night premiered at the World Saxophone Congress in Ljubljana, Slovenia. October 2005 saw the performance of Away, Tear Away at the prestigious Cervantino Festival in Mexico. In May of 2005 he oversaw the world premiere of his chamber opera Prince Kaspar, and in addition conducted the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra in the premiere of his Cello Concerto. In 2002 the world premiere recording of his Symphony No. 1 was released on TNC Records; Virko Baley conducted the Kiev Camerata Orchestra. In 2012 Matthews retired from full-time teaching at the Marcel A. Desautels Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba and is now Professor Emeritus there. He recently finished writing a large song cycle for Laura Loewen and Dawn Bruch, based on texts by Canadian poet Dennis Cooley´s book Bloody Jack. Currently, Matthews is working on a fifth string quartet and a fourth symphony.
Commissions and Awards
Matthews has been the recipient of numerous commissions and awards; in 2016 he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada. He held a Rockefeller Foundation residency at the Bellagio Center in Italy and has been a participant in the Composition and Computer Music Seminar of the Bartók Festival in Szombathely, Hungary. His orchestral work Two Interludes was awarded a prize in the du Maurier Arts Ltd. New Music Festival Canadian Composers Competition. Matthews was the first Canadian to receive a prestigious commission from the International Computer Music Association. He has also received Canada Council and Manitoba Arts Council grants, the Winnipeg Rh Institute award for interdisciplinary research, a residency at the EMS computer music studios in Stockholm, Sweden, and a prize in the Premio Musicale Cittá di Trieste, Italy for his orchestral piece The Wind Was There. He has worked at the Banff Centre, at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University and, more recently, at the Centro Mexicano para la Música y las Artes Sonoras, in Morelia, Mexico, where he composed a piece for piano and tape commissioned for pianist Duane Cochran.