By Maria Rocha-Buschel
When Third Street Music School Settlement composition teacher Matthew Barnson got a response to his application to be a Guggenheim fellow, he wasn’t sure at first if he should be thrilled or crushed.
“They send you a very cryptic letter saying you haven’t won anything,” he said. “But then it asks, if you did win, what would your budget be?”
The 35-year-old musician said he asked for insight from a faculty member at Stony Brook University, where he also teaches, because she had received the fellowship a few years ago. She told him that it meant he had won.
Barnson is the first currently serving faculty member of the community music school to become a Guggenheim fellow, although he noted that there have been former faculty members from Third Street who later became fellows after leaving their post at the school.
The fellowship was awarded to 175 recipients chosen this year from a pool of more than 3,000 applicants and is given to scholars and artists to help them engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts.
Barnson already has big plans for his fellowship: he received it as a composer rather than as a teacher and he already has plans for four different pieces that he will be writing. Barnson, who trained as a violist, said that he comes from the contemporary classical tradition and writes a lot of music for string instruments.
One of the pieces will be a work for flute, specifically for Vienna-based flutist Eric Lamb, and another for Berlin artist Douglas Williams with baroque instruments. The other two are for strings, one with a group called New Morse Code for cello and percussion and the other for a string quartet.
He added that while many people take a “fellowship year” and take time off from their regular jobs to focus on their projects for the fellowship, he’ll be continuing his involvement at Third Street and will remain at SUNY Stony Brook, where started about a year ago.
“As I’ve gone on in my career, I’ve stayed on at Third Street,” he said, noting that even while he was working at Trinity College in Dublin, he remained involved in the school’s programming. “It’s an important relationship to me to foster programs for teenagers and kids.”
Since Barnson joined Third Street about six years ago, he created a composition and theory program and is currently chair of the theory and composition department.
“This is something that was really important to me,” he said. “I didn’t get to do composition and theory until I was a high school student, so I created a program that I would have wanted as a kid.”
The school is holding a concert performance with the composition students on May 30 for which the students will mainly be writing for percussion and cello, overlapping with Barnson’s work for the fellowship. He noted that the student pieces will be performed by professional musicians which, in addition to being exciting for the students having their work played by real professionals, also gives them feedback on whether the piece is feasible.
“For young composers, sometimes they don’t know how difficult the music that they’re writing actually is, so when a professional musician says, hey, this is way too complicated, then you know it’s not just, oh, my ten-year -old buddy can’t play this,” he said. Since taking up the post at Stony Brook, Barnson has reduced his time at Third Street, but he said that he is grateful to the school for their flexibility in allowing him to work around his schedule and didn’t want to sacrifice that because of his upcoming commitments.
“Teaching is really important for me as a composer,” he said. “It’s really interesting to hear what young minds are doing and what the young students are doing.”