Matteo Sommacal





Matteo Sommacal was born in Roma, Italy, in 1977. He splits his creativity between music and mathematics. He was introduced as a child to ancient music and recorder, which later on inspired him to pursue extensive research of Renaissance and Baroque repertoire. The meeting with Carmelo Piccolo, professor at the Conservatorio Statale di Musica “Gioachino Rossini”, was a turning point of his musical career: through Piccolo, he discovered the freedom and beauty of the language of modern music and began focussing his studies in composition and piano. A mathematician as well, he was ultimately attracted to the disciplined, highly structured and near scientific treatment of the musical material typical of many minimalist and postminimalist composers. Since late 2000, he has been serving as the artistic director of the Italian chamber ensemble Piccola Accademia degli Specchi, that premiered and recorded several of his compositions. His works are regularly performed in Italy and major festivals dedicated to contemporary music, as well as being regularly featured in international radio shows, such as John Schaefer's New Sounds on WNYC in the U.S. and Concertzender in the Netherlands. His music has been released on Italian and international record labels, including KHA Records and Centaur Records. His scores are published by KHA and Casa Musicale Sonzogno. As a scientist, his main research is in the field of nonlinear evolution equations and dynamical systems. After an MSc in Physics and a PhD in Mathematical-Physics at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, he lived and worked in Italy, France, the United States, and the United Kingdom. He is currently Senior Lecturer in Applied Mathematics at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.



What does music mean to you personally?

At one point, in “Swann’s Way”, Marcel Proust, researching on the idea of involuntary memory, describes the effect of music on the character of Charles Swann. He has been in love with Odette de Crecy, their relationship turning around a certain “little phrase” from an (imaginary) sonata by the (imaginary) French composer Vinteuil. Progressively, Swann grows jealous of Odette and the two drift apart. Then, one day, Swann attends a society concert, where Vinteuil’s sonata is played. In Proust’s words:

[...] And before Swann had had time to understand what was happening, to think: “It is the little phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata. I mustn't listen!”, all his memories of the days when Odette had been in love with him, which he had succeeded, up till that evening, in keeping invisible in the depths of his being, deceived by this sudden reflection of a season of love, whose sun, they supposed, had dawned again, had awakened from their slumber, had taken wing and risen to sing maddeningly in his ears, without pity for his present desolation, the forgotten strains of happiness. [...]

This is the force of music on me, its synesthetic connection to memory, its ability to unlock emotional mechanisms beyond our control. As a composer and a mathematician, I cannot imagine a more perfect way to conjugate simplicity of forms and complexity of structures, in a universally accessible language.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

If the question asks whether I believe that fantasy is the only important aspect in music and, in particular, in composition, or whether fantasy is more important than the technical ability in the creation and the rational conception of the content and its relationship with the context, then I certainly disagree. In fact, I would even venture to say that I would probably never consider seriously any artist claiming that music, or more in general any art, is (just) all about fantasy in the above sense. In my view, this is a false myth, partly due to the generally perceived image of the artist as a human deserving a special status, which in turn results from the artist’s recognised demiurgic ability of creating worlds and visions, as observed by Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz in their beautiful essay “Legend, myth, and magic in the image of the artist”. During the construction of Milan cathedral, in 1399, the French architect Jean Mignot was consulted when masons faced the problem of lifting stones to an unprecedented height. On that occasion, Mignot argued that the building was running the risk of collapse and famously referred to the principle that “ars sine scientia nihil est”, there is no art without science (and, in fact, in many respects, there is no science without art). This principle for me acts as a watershed between craftsmanship and art, telling the aimless, self-indulgent, uncontrolled (and uninteresting) flow of passions that speaks the language of few from the passionate expression of a universal message rooted into the exploration of human nature and condition. This old idea has informed and permeated Western and Eastern culture since the most ancient times, and instances of it can be found everywhere, ranging from the cathartical mises-en-scène of the Attic tragedy in 5th century BC, to the development of perspective in Italian painting at the beginning of the 15th century, from Bach’s “The art of the fugue”, to Kandinsky’s writing on “Point and line to plane”. American novelist Raymond Chandler once wrote: “Without science, art would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional quackery. The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous”.

If you were not a professional musician, what would have you been?

This is a rather intriguing question, for I consider myself only partly a professional musician. Indeed, alongside my musical studies (ancient music, as performer on the recorder, then composition and artistic direction of “Piccola Accademia degli Specchi”), I pursued scientific studies and an academic career in mathematics. I confess that it is quite hard for me to imagine myself in any other way than what I am today: I may have done many things differently, and this may have led to a different balance, namely, a different distribution of the weights of music and mathematics in my life, but I am sure that, in any case, both, music and mathematics, would have played a role in my life.

The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about your future?

The current situation with classical music audience is indeed rather worrisome, and, in average and in proportion, the audience aging phenomenon (substantially due to a combination of small new audience influx and poor audience rejuvenation) has been confirmed by several studies and surveys, even in recent times, including the one commissioned in France by the “Association Française des Orchestres” in 2013/2014 (the only positive finding of this being that, although confirmed, “the trend is not more prominent now than it was in previous decades”). The situation is even worse with contemporary music. For reasons that would be too long to discuss here, the connection between the general musical audience and the world of contemporary classical music has weakened significantly over the decades, more than for any other music form, to the point that, in wide layers of the Western society, contemporary classical music is considered as a niche art form. In that context, audience aging is even more evident and relevant. This is a huge problem that creates much concern in me (and in many fellow musicians), for it poses big questions about the future of this art, and it should pose similar questions even to those radical composers (I have met a few) that declare that they write just for themselves and not for having their music played.

Classical music audience aging is a deeply-rooted, extremely complex phenomenon, and its dynamics is still highly debated. Partly, it is the result of what may be seen as a one-sided match, where classical music has to survive on a “market” where the “competitors” are financially more robust and grab most of the space for visibility. At the same time, part of the blame may be placed on the people (or, at least, some of them) responsible (at least, in the Western countries) for choosing programs and repertoires of generalist concert seasons, recordings and TV and radio broadcasts, as they traditionally insist in the old sin of chasing the tastes of the prospective audience, rather than aiming at giving a more rounded, balanced and inclusive representation of classical music (for then defending themselves behind the excuse that any other strategy would be too financially risky). American composer Steve Reich, referring generically to the music composed in the period between Haydn and Wagner as “romantic music”, once famously stated in an interview: “This romantic music is for older people. It is great music and it should be played, but we should have the same amount of Guillaume de Machaut as we have Mozart. It must be 50% Josquin Desprez, 50% Beethoven”. I do not share Reich’s distaste for what he calls “romantic music”, but I share the philosophy behind his message. By over-programming certain authors or certain titles, major concert halls, as well as major labels and major TV and radio networks, have played a role in convincing part of the new generations of the utterly false idea that there would exist a uniformity of language within classical music (perhaps, Steve Reich would say that 1 Josquin Desprez cannot counter-balance 99 Beethoven, no matter how much you like Beethoven better, no matter how much you deem Beethoven more relevant than Josquin Desprez in the history of music). Classical music spans several centuries and embraces a galaxy of cultures, societies and individualities. This immense variegation is quite rarely represented by the existing “musical supply” from networks, concert halls and album releases. It is a little bit like if I opened an Italian restaurant but I served only “spaghetti al pomodoro” (spaghetti with tomato sauce): I may even succeed to involuntarily convince the unaware customers that “spaghetti al pomodoro” is the only thing that is eaten in Italy, but still this would not be true and it would not be a fair representation of one the oldest and most diverse cuisines in the world (and I cannot complain if at some point my customers get tired of yet again another revival of the same recipe).

What do you envision the role of classical music to be in the 21 century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

Nowadays, what we refer to as “classical music” should be more precisely called “Western art music” (which is considered sometimes as a slightly larger label, including improvised music and jazz too). This is in itself a cocky, dangerous and disputable statement, as it apparently implies somehow that “pop music” or “rock music” are not part of the “artists’ league” of “Western art music” (and this is obviously false inasmuch as it entails that “pop music” and “rock music” are not art forms). For centuries, there was no such label as “classical music”: what we call today as “classical music”, back then was in fact the only musical form associated to writing and notation, and whose role in human society is nowadays covered by a myriad of other musical genres, only very few of them belonging to the label of “Western art music”. Similarly to Caravaggio, who, in his painting “Death of the Virgin”, modelled a prostitute found dead in the Tiber as the Virgin Mary, all great composers of the past, from Monteverdi to Bartok, have been able to create lasting works at one time linking to both the people and the academia, borrowing elements (themes or narratives) from folk culture and developing them in a higher artistic language, register and context. In many circumstances, the boundaries between low culture and high culture (as sociologist Herbert Gans would say) were somehow blurred, and high artworks, whose original material had been borrowed from popular culture, eventually came to be part of the popular culture for the following generations. This mechanism of communication within Western societies has broken and fragmented during the last century, parallel to the increase of the ease of access to artworks (in music, notably due to the availability of sound recording and sound reproduction technologies), and parallel to the partial loss of the social and collective role of art, much to the advantage of an individual fruition. Even if you believe that both low culture and high culture have to be regarded as subcultures, then, by the end of the 20th century, much of the artistic production within high culture, including classical music, had finally become that typical of a subculture as defined by culture theorists, in concurrence with an internal conservative process of self-segregation within academia. Personally, I believe that this process has become irreversible (irrespective of any moral judgement that one may give to it). The fruition is typically individual, based on a low-fidelity reproduction (for instance, the mp3 format) rather than a live event, and it is scattered and fragmented throughout the day. The extension of the audience reached is less and less related to the intrinsic quality of the artwork. The average expectation for art from the average audience is that of providing some entertainment. At the same time, quite paradoxically, while entertainment is the most demanded scope or function for music, it happens that, as art enters more and more into the individual sphere, it amplifies also its spectrum of potential functionalities. However, I nurture some doubts about the possibility of carrying out a deep exploration of this new potential, without falling into excessive conceptualisation, or without a major loss of identity; I nurture other serious doubts also about the audience’s ability to use some of these new functionalities, whenever they might be made available by the artists. As sad as it may sound, I suspect that, the deeper music will enter into our private sphere, the more it will play the role of a background, a wallpaper for thoughts and actions, a wrapping paper for memories, and we will select it more and more to fulfil this aim.

When I say that classical music is searching for new ways or that classical music is getting a new face, what would come to your mind?

I agree that classical music is getting a new face, but I think that this research for new ways – using your language – is focused more onto the commercial aspects, rather than onto the essence of what music is really about. I see a lot of rebranding of old stuff: “talent” is called “prodigy” or “geniality”; “clever reassembly of old ideas” is called “novelty” or “revolution”; “targeting a niche market” is called “exclusivity”. This is becoming a common observation, but still, when saying this, you may feel a little bit like the child in the crowd shouting “the emperor is naked” in Hans Christian Andersen’s short tale “The emperor’s new clothes”. One of the extremes is touched when classical musicians begin to develop a sort of “sense of guilt” or “sense of inferiority” suggesting that classical music is not as cool or fashionable as rock or pop music: then they resolve to rejuvenate their image, acting and dressing up as rock stars or pop stars, the next step being stylistic contaminations and crossovers motivated only by the desire of reaching a wider audience and not deriving from an intrinsic, personal, expressive urge. On the positive note, however, I still see, now and then, the rare virtues of honesty and self-awareness: musicians doing music out of passion and commitment, more interested in the final outcome of their work rather than in its branding. Italian literary critic Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, in his essay “Tempo di edificare” (“Time to build”), when inciting a new generation of writers to return to a kind of architectural fiction, suggests that there are no unpoetic ages in history. I believe that these moments of true poetry, the true advancements in our search for beauty, can come only from honest, self-aware artists (composers and performers), capable of critical thinking and owning something to say.

Do you think that the classical musician today needs to be more creative? What is the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

Amongst the many things that music shares with mathematics, there is a natural inclination for abstraction. This is very different from, say, painting or photography or even literature, which have the potential for an immediate representation of reality (a notorious challenge for music). Because of this abstract nature, music typically resorts to establishing a connection with the mind of the listener, powerfully stimulating at once many different aspects of the brain: memory, rational thoughts, irrational emotions, sometimes even beyond the listener’s will (like in the story narrated by Proust that I mentioned in the first answer above), and only eventually summoning images and feelings (this is also the reason why music is a favourite for combinations with other arts and for association to images, allowing communication to establish along two channels simultaneously, visual and auditory, thereby reinforcing the message). Personally, I believe that music and mathematics have another point in common as for the creative process involved. Contrary to common belief, mathematicians do not prove new, challenging theorems just by a mere and cold application of rules and logic: they usually refer to have seen or discovered the proof in their minds, something like “feeling the proof”, and then they spend time to transform this vision, what they call “intuition”, into a precise logical flow (and not infrequently, a first intuition may prove wrong after a more careful check). Indeed, mathematical intuition and musical inspiration play similar roles within rather similar creative processes. For me, creativity is this ability to provide novel ideas where nothing or just attempts existed before, the ability to see and foresee solutions, to imagine something that has not been imagined yet, an original structure to explore, a new path to follow, a new form, a new sound shape, a new pattern to combine. It is difficult, if not impossible, to say what other classical musicians should do in terms of creativity, which is the result of an evolutionary process and it is supposed to work for humans only on the collective perspective of an animal species over a long period time, rather than on a one-by-one basis over a short period of time (in other words, only time knows which, of the novelties introduced at one generation, will or will not pass to the future generations). I am little bit tired of being presented every new item that appears on the market as a revolutionary discovery (somehow, this happens also in science). “Novelty” does not mean “originality”. Maybe, classical musicians should focus more on being honest and selling themselves and their art for what they are. Maybe, classical musicians (and their agents) should be more careful with what they say and be more patient before claiming that they have done something revolutionary. Maybe, classical musicians should give the example, and lead the research for the new, rather than spending time to branding as “original” and “novel” (or, worse, “revolutionary”) something that is only “new” because it has just been made shiny, but, still, it is the (clever) reassembly of existing ideas. Maybe, after clarifying their goals, classical musicians should cooperate to obtain more support from governments and societies, for the discovery and investigation of the new requires investments from the collectivity (I look at the example of the IRCAM in France).

Do you think we musicians can do something to attract young generation into the classical music concerts? How would you proceed?

As it may be clear at this point, I am rather adverse to the plain imitation of models deriving from rock or pop music clichés, unless this is a well-conceived, inherent choice, harmonically fitting with the planning of the show. This behavior might convey the false idea that indeed it is correct to assume that classical music is “old stuff for old people”, and the imitation of pop and rock stereotypes may create the illusion of something that is not young, but pretends to be young, and thus, if it pretends to be young, then so does it because it is old. It would be like a mature man, feeling old and colouring his hair to appear younger, but paradoxically resulting older (and pathetic) rather than younger, just because people may think that, if he feels that he needs to colour his hair, it must be because he is old.

Indeed, in order to attract young generations, classical musicians should try not to be what they are not, but be proud of what they are, be proud of the years of studies and sacrifices, be proud of their music. They should transmit a sense of collectivity, conveying the idea that playing and listening to classical music are activities shared by a multitude of people on the planet. They should inspire curiosity, by widening the repertoires to reflect the ample range of styles and periods and individualities embraced by classical music. They should pass the message that classical music is healthy and alive, by performing more frequently pieces from living composers (not limiting the choice of the contemporary repertoire to movie soundtracks).

Tell us about your creative process. Do you have your favorite piece (written by you)? How did you start working on it?

At this stage of my life, I think that it is fair to say that I do not have a favourite piece amongst those that I have composed. Clearly, I recognise that some of them have played an important role in the development of my language (for instance, “Fibonacci’s Piranhas”, or “Le ragioni dimenticate”, or “La ragazza che dormiva sotto il letto”) and for this reason they hold a special place in my mind: however, not always a piece that has been pivotal in the achievement of a goal in the artistic expression, has also been the most successful in this achievement. For example, the four-hand piano suite “Fibonacci’s Piranhas” has surely been critical for my later use of piano four-hand in chamber (and even orchestral) music, for my development of a language for this instrument, and, more in general, for my way of conceiving structures in music: however, in my view, it still features some ingenuities, and not all eight movements are equally successful. Later pieces have been more successful in achieving the same goals, but maybe they have lost the energy and surprise of the first achievement. Speaking of structures in music, due to my background in science and my affinity, in many respects, to process music from the 1960’s and 1970’s, they are not only the load-bearing walls of my compositions, but a big part of the very message carried by the music (one of the “motives for writing”, quoting the title of an album of Wim Mertens). Typically, I have a mathematical approach to the structure, and I am not interested in hiding it as a mere support for the music: in fact, I want the structure to be somehow “observable”; I want the attention of the careful listener to be captured by the structure, at some point, during the performance. This is one of the reasons that have led me to consider beginning the composition process by choosing and utilising simple materials. Many years ago, with some friends, we worked on an artistic manifesto for a briefly-lasting movement called “gEuM”. One of the points in the manifesto was the avoidance of “traditional narrative” to favour the emergence of structures. Nowadays, I am far away from that extreme thinking, but I still support this idea, borrowed from pure mathematics, of a well-ordered combination of simple elements and simple operations acting on these elements, allowing to design an intricate and complex picture. British director Peter Greenaway once famously said: “Counting is the most simple and primitive of narratives – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 – a tale with a beginning, a middle and an end and a sense of progression – arriving at a finish with two digits – a goal attained, a dénouement reached”.

We, Moving Classics TV, love the combination of classical music with different disciplines: music and painting, music and cinematography, music and digital art, music and poetry. What do you think about these combinations?

For the ancient Greek people, the word “music” (from ancient Greek “mousike”, meaning “pertaining to the Muses”) referred not only to the art of sound organised in time, but, broadly speaking, to any activity inspired by or associated to the Muses: literature, science, and the arts. In this sense, music is the queen of the arts, possibly the epitome of the synergy of human expressions. In personal terms, I have had few experiences in combining my music with cinematography, digital art and poetry, with mixed feelings (and mixed results). As in the original Greek concept, I like when the combination allows an equal degree of expression for all arts involved and the cooperation towards a common scope. I am not particularly enthusiast when music becomes (or is required to be) a mere comment on the background. I agree with many that combining music to cinematography may be a great opportunity to reach a wide audience, but often this occurs at the cost of a major loss of identity. Indeed, historically, it is not uncommon that the combination of music with other arts has seen the former relegated to the role of “ancilla poesiae”, servant of poetry, borrowing an expression used by Renaissance composers of madrigals (whereas, in that context, the expression was not meant to be derogatory, on the contrary suggesting a use of music aimed at revealing the various meanings, shades and undertones of the lyrics). On observing music subdued in the presence of another art, sometimes my feelings are well represented by one of the lines (ironically) chosen by Michael Nyman for his famous operatic duet “The kiss”, reading: “Images were introduced because many people cannot retain what they hear, but remember if they see images”.

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

This is another complex question, for the answer hinges upon many factors: the nature of the advice might depend on the age of the young people, on their musical and cultural background, and on their motivations to discover classical repertoire. Over the years, I have been asked for and have given advice to many young people that expressed some curiosity in what we call “classical music” (which, as I said, actually should be called “Western art music”, and which has been for centuries the “only” music form, playing the same role in human society that other genres of music play nowadays). Typically, these young people have little existing knowledge of the classical repertoire and have had some negative experiences that made them expect that classical music is all the same. The typical question is “where should I start from?”. In all these cases, I have drawn ideas from the two periods that I know best: ancient music (Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque) and contemporary music. In the lists of names and titles that I have provided (which ultimately depend on the person interested), one may find “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” by Monteverdi, or “Les barricades mystérieuses” by Couperin, or “Lascia ch'io pianga” by Handel, or the “Little fugue in G minor” by Bach, alongside and alternating with “Fratres” (the Kremer-Jarrett ECM recording) by Pärt, or “Eight lines” by Reich, or “Miranda” by Nyman, or “Maximizing the audience” by Mertens, or even “Anagamin” by Scelsi. It is always nice and exciting to see these young people surprised to discover how, contrarily to expectations, classical music can be varied and diverse, emotionally immediate and powerful, complex and thought-provoking (in this respect, I agree with Reich when he says that it would be better to have this natural diversity more represented in concert halls). For the young people with a certain background in classical music who want to start an exploration of the contemporary repertoire, I often suggest two valuable readings: “Musica coelestis”, by Carlo Boccadoro; and “Experimental music: Cage and beyond” by Michael Nyman.

Now it is a common practice in the media to say that classical music is getting into the consumption business: do you agree? We are speaking about the supply and demand rules and how to sell your “product”, in your case your compositions. How do you see it?

Classical music has been regarded as a product on the market (in the way we conceive it) maybe already since the beginning of 20th century, when humanity entered the age of mechanical reproduction, quoting Walter Benjamin. However, over more than a century, the music market has undergone multiple transformations, which have been particularly frenetic in the last 30/40 years. My memory goes back to my childhood, when CDs became available, at the end of the age of the musicassette: initially, CDs were extremely expensive; then, all of a sudden, their price dropped when mp3s started to become popular and people began to use pods and phones to listen to music. Now we are witnessing the age of streaming and many internet platforms provide services like Spotify. The multiplication of the number of ways or channels for a composer to reach the prospective audience has paralleled to the decrease of the financial income associated to each one of these channels. Unfortunately, the total income deriving from the distribution of the music of a composer has not remained constant, but has sensibly declined. Few decades ago, part of the income for many composers (not just the celebrities) originated from royalties and sales of albums. Both sources of income have become less and less relevant, particularly the latter, which has reached levels of negligibility. Few big names cover and dominate the limited market of the high-visibility jobs and commissions: their compositions (or the selling thereof) constitute their main source of income. The majority of the other composers, that create and produce new music for lower-visibility jobs and commissions, cannot derive their main source of income simply from their own creations. In this context, fighting for visibility has been one of the reasons for many musicians and many composers to make some of the extreme choices that I have accounted for in my other answers above. This is the ultimate effect on the artists due to the (consumeristic) market that pervades Western societies: the artists’ loss of identity in the struggle to survive.

Do you have expectations with regard to your listeners, your audience?

When I compose, I never think of my audience, unless the music has been originally commissioned for a specific context (like, for instance, if the music is expected to accompany drama or dance). However, the mere existence of an audience is central in the idea itself of music: it is no secret that I do not go particularly crazy for some of these avant-garde movements claiming a theoretical or conceptual aesthetics only in the pure act of writing, regardless of any eventuality that the music will ever be performed, implicitly aiming at the approval from a congregation of connoisseurs and peers, something like 16th century’s “musica reservata”, whose motto read “reservata per purgatissime orecchie”, set aside for purified ears. Without audience, music does not exist. Without performance, music does not exist. In fact, differently from painting, music needs repeated performances in order to state its own existence. Indeed, after the composition, music stops to belong uniquely to the composer (well, except for royalties and authorship, of course), and becomes material for further investigation for the musicians and for the audience as well. This function, as raw material for further research and expression, is essential in the life cycle of compositions, and hence of music.

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

I believe that my experimentation is more in forms and structures, rather than in the use of the sound. Lately, I have been working on a series of compositions for solo instrument, inspired by the late Renaissance “ricercari”, following an original commission from the Philharmonic Academy of Rome. The first one of these works, “Ricercare I sopra Engels Nachtegaeltje”, has been played by Italian flautist Alessandra Amorino. Parallel to this, I am working on a piano piece inspired by the Trinity test, the first experimental detonation of a nuclear weapon, in July 1945. Some music of mine for piano four-hands has been recently recorded by Alessandro Viale and Assunta Cavallari and will be released soon in an album produced by KHA Records. Meanwhile, I continue my activity as artistic director of the chamber ensemble “Piccola Accademia degli Specchi”, which has been confirmed as ensemble in residence assisting the school of composition at the Conservatory of Music of Rome, and which has recently recorded an album dedicated to the music of American composer William Susman, to be released very soon by Belarca Records. Hopefully, after much work, a new album, titled “L’Angolo Incolume”, with music of mine, recorded by “Piccola Accademia degli Specchi”, will be finally released next year.