A 28-year-old MacArthur winner still doesn’t think he’s good enough

Aucoin says he usually wants to “curl up into the fetal position” when he hears his compositions.
Aucoin says he usually wants to “curl up into the fetal position” when he hears his compositions.
Image: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
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Matthew Aucoin is a composer and conductor who, at 25, was heralded as “opera’s great hope” and, last week, was awarded a MacArthur genius grant at age 28. Aucoin was the year below me at college (though we didn’t meet at the time), and the day he was officially anointed a genius, I was congratulating myself on remembering to bring a packed lunch into work. Clearly, it was time to re-assess.

Twenty-something geniuses tend to make everyone else feel woefully inadequate, and I wondered how it felt to be such a recognized talent. Is a lifetime of self-doubts immediately banished once you’ve achieved so much, so young, or are you still wracked with insecurities? I called Aucoin to see how the MacArthur grant had affected his work, his goals, and his sense of self. Throughout our conversation, Aucoin emphasized that though he was delighted to receive the grant, he couldn’t take it as a sign that he had achieved what he set out to. Though his operas have been met with great critical acclaim, he still isn’t quite satisfied.

The conversation below has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: Did you have any sign that a MacArthur grant was coming?

Aucoin: Zero. They do a very good job doing their work in total secrecy. I thought it was a hoax when they called. I was at the farm house that I just bought with my boyfriend in Vermont and it was exactly a month before the public announcement. I was very close to finishing the draft of a new piece and I didn’t want to be distracted, so I missed the call the first time. I assumed it was spam. It took a second try for me to pick up, wondering who this very insistent spammer was.

What did they say?

They don’t waste any time. They said, “we’re calling from the MacArthur Foundation, this is the deal.” It’s really incredible. They read you a description of your work and ask if it sounds accurate. What I said—accurately—is that it sounds like what I’m trying to do, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t done that yet.

Has it changed how you think of yourself or what you’re doing?

It doesn’t change how I think of myself. I know that I’m nowhere near the artist I want to be yet and so I’m going to keep my head down and work. The thing it does change long term is the issue of creative control. I’ve been very lucky to have commissions pretty steadily for as long as I’ve been a professional composer, but the whole nature of commissioning gives a lot of power to the commissioner. And when you’re a composer, sometimes the music that’s boiling in your brain is wildly impractical. Maybe you want to write for twelve trombones and a bunch of percussionists or something that’s really wild, but that’s what the music means. So I’m really thinking of this as a gift of time to write the music I need to write without worrying too much about how and when it will first be played.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment so far?

I’m proudest of two things. One is a few smaller scale pieces of music piece for violin and piano. I’m actually not satisfied with my operas, which are the things that have gotten me the most public attention. And the other thing I’m proudest of is this ensemble that I’ve just founded called AMOC, which stands for American Modern Opera Company, and it’s really an opera company on the model of a rock band or a touring theater troupe. It’s a collective—we have 17 singers and instrumentalists and dancers—and I’m really proud to have created this artistic space and to find all these people that inspire me and bring them together to make new work.

What’s the path that you’ve taken to get where you are, and how much work did you put in to get here?

It was an enormously scary leap to say “I’m going to be a composer,” because there’s no set path. It’s not like you start out as junior composer and eventually you make partner. I also perform, I conduct, and I play the piano, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to make a living as a performer. So, I think one of the most important steps for me was just saying, “I have to put composing first, I have to clear out the time to just sit there with the empty page and wrestle with it.” And I’ve never regretted that decision.

When did you first become interested in music?

I fell in love with music when I was six years old or so, but I was not touring the world as a prodigy pianist. There were plenty of kids who were more skilled at playing the piano than I was. That’s been the case for my whole life. I think that when you’re very young, the only image you have of being successful in this field is being a dazzling virtuoso pianist. And so there was a real danger for me that I might have turned away from this path because I didn’t know that composers still existed, and I didn’t think I could make it purely as a pianist. It wasn’t until college that I realized there is totally a place for me in this world and I’ve got to do it.

Now that you’ve got this grant, do you think you’ll ever again question whether you’ve achieved enough?

If you’re committed to making art, the only thing you should allow yourself to think about is what you’re working on now and what’s on the horizon. I don’t know if I’ll ever be really satisfied with a piece of music that I write. I’m not just saying that, I honestly don’t know if I will ever sit there in a concert hall and say, “That was it, I nailed it.” It definitely hasn’t happened so far. Normally I want to curl up into the fetal position…. Unless I happen to be conducting it. That would be a really awkward position [from which] to conduct.

What do you have planned next?

The next big piece for me is my new opera, which is an adaptation of Sarah Ruhl’s play Eurydice. Sarah is a wonderful playwright and we’re working together to adapt her play into an opera, so my next year is going to be full of tidying up that piece. That’s the funny thing about classical music—things do get booked so far in advance that my next two-plus years are already spoken for. So, the MacArthur won’t really change anything on the surface for quite a while.

And what about any 12-trombone compositions?

Absolutely. Maybe not literally, but a lot of percussion music, a lot of music for multiple pianos, a lot of music for strange combinations of sounds. Yes, that’s on the horizon.