Musicians Making a Difference: Matthew Arndt, Associate Professor of Music Theory,University of Iowa
Updated: Mar 25
Matthew Arndt, Associate Professor of Music Theory at the University of Iowa, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He studies the application of insights from the history of music theory to music theory pedagogy, analysis, and criticism. He also studies structural aspects of three-voiced chant from the Republic of Georgia and other instances of spirituality in music. He is the author of The Musical Thought and Spiritual Lives of Heinrich Schenker and Arnold Schoenberg (Routledge, 2018). His articles appear in the Journal of Music Theory, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Music Theory and Analysis, Music Theory Spectrum, the Proceedings of the Eighth International Symposium on Traditional Polyphony, Theoria, Theory and Practice, and Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie. Dr. Arndt, thank you so much for this opportunity to interview you, and we are eager to present your career and work to our readers. Before we get to the questions at hand, I would like to ask you to talk a little bit about yourself. What are your hobbies and interests? I keep a sketchbook in which I draw things out of my imagination. They tend to be abstract and geometrical, but with a sense of the mysterious and the massive. Sometimes I just sketch things, exploring proportions; other times I set down a definite idea. I like to read and write-–I enjoy the genre of aphorisms quite a bit, and my inspiration often comes from books I’m reading. The fellows I studied for my doctoral work, Heinrich Schenker and Arnold Schoenberg, wrote and kept notebooks of aphorisms, so I feel like I’m carrying the torch (laughs). I also compose, listen to music, and to podcasts. I’ve been really enjoying “The Lord of Spirits” podcast. Sounds like you have wonderful and varied interests! And yes, the podcast is, in deed, so novel and a very nice breath of fresh air. It’s been a long time coming–I’ve had questions about spirits and paranormal phenomena, and now they’re being delineated from an Orthodox perspective! And, of course, I spend time with my wife, go to church, pray, watch films, work out, spend time outdoors, and take photos. Besides music, I am interested, for example, in countercultural perspectives on cosmology and history, and in cultivating personal and financial freedom. Countercultural perspectives? Please elaborate. I was trying to figure out a word to go to there (laughs). Basically, what I mean is that I’ve always been an independent-minded individual, and I’ve never enjoyed being told what to think, believe, read, and so on, especially nowadays as we’re aggressively being told exactly that. I’ve sought out other resources and like-minded individuals to cope with those pressures. It’s refreshment for my mind and spirit. You honestly must “strike out” on your own to get different perspectives. I’ll go digging around and sometimes I find something of interest. How did you discover the Orthodox church? I am long-time friends with Richard Barrett, Artistic Director of the St. John of Damascus Society. We corresponded about politics and religion at a time when I was by any observable measure outside the Church, and he shared with me about his conversion. A bit later, I was led back to Christianity, and still later, when I moved to Iowa and needed a new church, I went to the local St. Raphael Orthodox parish, being attracted to the historical depth of the Orthodox Church. I had been reading a book given to me by Richard about Fr. Seraphim Rose (Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, by Hieromonk Damascene, ed.), with whom I resonated on account of his countercultural fervor and his spiritual regard for the music of Bach. It made a pretty big impression on me because at the time I didn’t have much of an idea about Orthodoxy in America. Not that he is super-representative, he’s a very individualistic representative of American Orthodoxy, and that’s what I really needed. I also journeyed with The Orthodox Church, (Met. Kallistos Ware) and I had an understanding where the Church came from and what it meant to stand in it. So, I was basically already converted when I walked in the door and have been able to open up more and more to its sweetness. What I’ve always found inspiring about Fr. Seraphim is how he enjoyed music and art, how he discovered Orthodoxy after claiming atheism, and then explored ancient Chinese philosophy. I was so excited to find Christ the Eternal Tao from him! I know what you mean! I’ve thumbed through that book also and I was pumped to learn about his work studying, for example, the Tao Te Ching. I have reflected on relations between Christianity and Eastern religion and philosophy on my own, but he brings a whole other level of specificity, rigor, and depth, which I really appreciate. How did his regard for the music of Bach resonate or relate with you? Well, both our cases are like the story of the prodigal son. I grew up Lutheran, and Bach was part of my heritage. There came a time when I fell away from the church and explored, trying to figure things out. It was bitter because I couldn’t any longer feel what Bach felt in terms of his faith; I could only appreciate him as a great composer. When I found my way back to Christianity, how sweet it was to play Bach unambiguously and unironically for the concrete God that came to Earth and lived with us. So when I read that Fr. Seraphim Rose had a similar journey–growing up Baptist, falling away from that, exploring various philosophies, the episode where he heard someone playing a piece by Bach and he just sat there riveted and stone-faced and allowed himself to just feel it and live in the moment–that was truly awe-inspiring. Was there a moment or event that returned you to Christianity? An epiphany? Yes. There are many sides of myself, like everybody; I tend to oscillate between moments of intimacy and scrutiny with God. What got me oscillating in this way was a book entitled Jesus under Fire. A chapter evaluated evidence for the Resurrection, and at the end, it concluded that basically there was no explanation for what is documented in the activities of the disciples after Jesus’ ministry other than that they had witnessed what they said they had witnessed. Their lives were transformed, the Church arose, and they gave their lives for it without exception and without hesitation. If the Resurrection had not happened, then that wouldn’t have happened either. That put things into a new light for me–the Resurrection was something real and transformative that they were committed to, and I thought, I could get into that. You mention intimacy as well as scrutiny–there’s certainly a mysticism that you’ll encounter in Orthodoxy because its philosophy and theology are bound together through a kind of living connection to the past, even though the Faith has evolved. Do you find Orthodoxy to be countercultural, and does it tie into your perception of counterculture? Ideally (laughs)! I think the way you put it is nice–a marriage of philosophy and theology. It describes a duality of the mind and the heart that I think of as I try to experience God, and since those are core aspects of our being, the Church gives space for a person to develop their whole selves as true individuals that don’t conform to culture. They create it. This holds through all the vicissitudes of modern times. Currently, you are a professor of music theory. For how long? Since 2008, when I graduated. I enjoy the opportunities to study what I love, and to cultivate and express my passion for music in teaching; like, I get legitimately choked up sometimes. I try to impart that same passion, creativity, and excitement onto my students. I try to give to students a sense of almost spatiality of music that’s all in the imagination. I’m not just showing them what’s on the score, but also what’s mental, and I invite students to follow along. I’m finding ways to make vivid and color (using literal color in music analysis) what we are hearing. I’m just getting started with those methods. What focus of students do you work with? What courses do you teach? I work mainly with students who take courses as a requirement or perhaps as an interest. I teach musicianship and theory to undergraduates, music theory pedagogy, history of music theory, Schenkerian analysis and neo-Schoenbergian analysis. The latter is my baby! Analysis helps me to emote and I don’t know why that is (laughs)! There’s a care involved with attending to those details. With this mindset as a professor and professional musician, what do you enjoy most about your work? About music? Being thrust into the unknown and the mysterious, hearing spaces that have no name and no concept, but that can yield deep, personal connections. This isn’t just in composition, but in all kinds of musical activities, and all kinds of music. This is a kind of freedom. I’m glad you mention composition, because in addition to being a professor, you are also a noted theorist and composer. How did you come to pursue this career, and were there moments that solidified those career decisions? It wasn’t due to anything I had written; rather it was my relation to the music I was playing (I studied piano). In particular, the Chopin B-minor prelude really got to me. I lost somebody very close to me, and that music helped me get in touch with my feelings at that time. It was then that I felt music as inseparable from me. This loss happened, and now this music happened, and I would never be the same. I thought, if music could do that, I want to write like that! Music is certainly transformative! How would you have defined yourself back then as a composer? When I started, I didn’t think of labels, because I liked all music. But because the music I studied in piano lessons was mostly bereft of 20th century literature, I developed conservative tastes. As I was introduced to more modern music, I latched onto more styles, but I didn’t have that same mindset as many of my composition colleagues of wanting to experiment with an abstract scheme and layout. I enjoy sonic experiments, too, but I want to care about every single sound, and every single note being exactly what I want. I can only do that from the perspective of what I can process in my imagination. I just want to write music! What led me from there into theory is my desire to take my time in this way with my stylistic development. I was stubborn! What’s ironic now is that, as an Orthodox composer, I’m equally stubborn, but on the opposite end of things. I still write whatever is in my imagination, and I think of it as conservative, but what I write is oftentimes… radically different than a lot of Orthodox music. How does the unknown and mysterious manifest and come together for you? How much freedom do you allow yourself? It relates to that oscillation of intimacy and scrutiny, wherein I’ll have a sonic impression that’s more feeling than sound, and it’s hard to hear. As I try to scrutinize it, it materializes into sound. It’s a delicate process, and you can easily get off track from what you wish to inhabit. I try to give space for what I don’t know while using what I do know to invite it. So I think not so much in terms of how much freedom I allow myself as how much freedom I am able to obtain (laughs)! That’s clever! You’re inhabiting a space. That space I was talking about is that freedom. I am not placing any limits, but rather I am cultivating freedom within the limits that are inherent as the matters of practicality and tradition. So for example, church music is purely vocal, and I’m not going to be adding in sound processing effects. These kinds of limits are just conditions of the medium in which I’m working, one that I’m very comfortable with and love. Do you consider yourself more of a composer or theorist? Does this question even have any meaning to you? It only matters based on how I’m categorized by whoever gives me my paycheck–if they want to categorize me. I guess you could say I’m more of a theorist inasmuch as I imagine myself in my hubris to be making strides beyond Schoenberg and Schenker. If I’m claiming the same territory as them, I must claim that I’m a theorist otherwise I’d be ridiculous. I’ll call myself a theorist in contexts where it makes sense, but I myself don’t think about it in those terms. I like people who do lots of different things, and I like to do lots of different things. What made you decide to become a theorist? Was there a moment that you knew this was serious for you? Well, I had long thought to pursue a career as an academic composer, and I took that route as far as natural gifts, practice, and fortuitous circumstances could take me. At the end of my master’s program, my conservative taste (relative to my compositional colleagues), my desire to cultivate other activities, my disinclination to be continually on the road, and my direction from mentors all pushed me to take my theoretical work seriously. I found that I could craft theoretical ideas with the same sense of, how to say, elation in delineating a ramified network, and I could keep composing to boot, so I soon found myself equally satisfied with this route. In addition to your courses, are there any projects you’ve been working on? I’m presently working on a theory of musical speech that has a lot of resonance with trinitarian theology and involves analysis of a fair amount of Orthodox music. I’m reevaluating Schoenberg’s understanding of music as an idea and its presentation in terms of the trifold nature of signs, not just the sign itself and its referent but also its interpretation. Theoretical notions get delineated out in a different fashion this way, and a major consequence is specifically understanding the rhetoric of musical speech in terms of structural functions that relate to the interpretation of form in general, and incredibly, this perspective illuminates the same kind of differentiation taking place across all levels of music, from phrase to “sentence” and so on. This project is taking shape as a book, which I’m writing in conjunction with teaching- especially with the upcoming Society Masterclass! Have you ever looked back on your entire career and claimed something that still has you thinking: “wow, I really just did that?” Well, I was just listening back to a synthesized version of my fiery Fantasy on “The Jesus Prayer, looking forward to Paul Barnes performing it at some point (it’s currently postponed), and I thought, “You know, that’s nice!” And I remember back to when Cappella Romana performed my choral piece “The Jesus Prayer” in 2018 under the direction of John Michael Boyer. Really, I’m more amazed at him and the singers than at myself, because it is a bear, but it is really satisfying to be able to say, “You know what, I wrote that beast.” Or, put differently, I wrote it down. I mean, I’m drawing the music down and compressing it into the score. I think art is just presenting ideas, more or less faithfully, from the eternal repository of ideas. When the ideas “come off”, where other people can feel them, well, that’s pretty cool! How long have you been involved with Orthodox sacred music, how did you get involved and attracts you to this genre of music? I’ve been involved in Orthodox music since 2009, when I converted. I was almost immediately drafted into the choir at St. Raphael, since I was a trained singer, and soon I was also drafted into being a co-director, although I had no experience. It’s been especially meaningful to sing with my parish through the church year, through the different seasons, and especially for Pascha. I became friends with some Georgians at St. Raphael and learned about Georgian music that way; then I visited Georgia a couple of times and got more into the music that way. I am attracted to the tenderness, solemnity, and majesty of the genre, and particularly the ethereal yet rugged sounds (if that is possible) of Georgian chant. How does one theorize about Orthodox church music and do you perceive an opportunity for such a pursuit to grow? There is potential for growth. I think that as Orthodox musicians, we are confronted with practical questions that could benefit from theoretical reflection–the most basic of which is what music to use. In America, many of us are in convert-dominated parishes where there is no particular attachment to one musical tradition over another, and so you have a host of different musics that possess different underpinnings. So how do you determine what to use and how do you make it all go together? How do we go forward from here, and what does Orthodox music look like in America if its not simply choosing from amongst existing traditions? What should be there? From my taste, I’m not one to place restrictions, but we should at least come from a place of reflection on what the music is doing. Do you think that it’s important to develop an “American” Orthodox sound, or perhaps work within an established Orthodox musical sound? We live in a time and place that is very different from the circumstances that facilitated the codification of the tones that we find in different bodies of Orthodox chant. So, when we entertain the idea of an American version of Orthodox music, we can’t expect that somehow there’s going to be a melting pot of ideas and American tones for stichera, irmoi, etc…. It’s not going to work that way. Instead, and I’m not projecting anything specifically, I just think that we need to connect with each other as much as possible and really think clearly about what we’re actually doing and creating without fear or any attachment. Now, I’m super attached to my influences, so I’m scolding myself because I’m too old-fashioned (laughs)! There’s some irony there, for sure! So then, how do you reconcile your influences within Orthodox music that would consider you revolutionary? I want to give something living that revolves around my love for God in this time and so I don’t see it as revolutionary; I’m just writing music. I just hope a sufficient quantity of people who encounter my music will take it in the spirit it’s given and will be able to live their faith in concert or sympathy with the beauty I’m trying to convey and share. What would you say is the role of the Orthodox church musician? It’s so important that we recognize our roles as mediators of church culture in the present because, as I say, we are cultivating individuals within church culture. If we are not cultivating the culture, we are not cultivating the individual. Think of it in comparison to architecture. Consider the same setup of the iconostasis, the royal doors, all the same way now as it’s been for centuries. You can modify the styling of those specific things, but the whole structure remains the same. With music, the texts are the set things, but we ought not think the styling is set. When we think that way–when we do not support living composers and just latch onto music from the past–we lose touch with our roles as mediators of the tradition, leading us to think of it as something that’s just there. The church, ironically, becomes more of a concert hall. What, for you, is different about Orthodox church music vs. classical (Western European) music? One difference I observe is that Orthodox church music (leaving aside Orthodox concert music, which is much closer to classical music) has to negotiate more practical hurdles. Most Orthodox singers and chanters are untrained, and even if they are trained, these days they have limited time for musicianship training and rehearsal, especially given the constant turnover of hymns from week to week. By contrast, classical choral singers, who may also have limited training, can sometimes rehearse for several weeks for a single performance. In addition, just as Orthodoxy in general is an open secret for most Americans, so most classical musicians know nothing about Orthodox music in particular, except maybe they’ve heard of the Rachmaninoff Vespers. So, the two spheres have been developing separately, with Orthodox composers and arrangers writing church music that their choirs can sing, and classical composers having somewhat more latitude, but with no Orthodox touchpoints for their work. However, I stress that these circumstances are particular to the situation. There is no Orthodox church music essence that differentiates it from classical music, and vice versa. In the old country, when the Church had stronger support, it was easier to have strong choirs and chanters. I have seen that to be the case again in Georgia to an extent. Stylistically speaking—and speaking very broadly—in classical music, the music is primary, whereas in Orthodox church music, the text is primary, such that substantial chunks of the music can just be intoning the text on the same note or the same chord. This primacy also applies to chant, which is of course integral to church music. But I do not want to push this stylistic point too far. You’ve mentioned the country of Georgia throughout this interview–first with your parish, and then actually going to the country! What was that like? I’ve been to Georgia three times. What made the biggest impression for me what the last visit where I took a two week singing trip with Malkhaz Erkvanidze, a master chanter and singer. He’s heavily involved with the Georgian Patriarchate’s issuance of volumes of Georgian chant, and he is himself a theorist and incredible musician. Looking back on it now, the trip, in the age of COVID, was so precious. Being with the Georgian people in Georgia singing Georgian music was so intense and really made an impression. We visited Shemokmedi monastery, the center for the Shemokmedi school of chanting, and we sang an elaborate chant that we were taught. Wow! Malkhaz told us that music hadn’t been sung there in a hundred years! Can you believe it? It was unreal and there’s nothing like it. You take the most beautiful country in the world, the oldest church in the world, the most glorious music in the world, and there’s nothing you can compare it to. Obviously there’s a big focus of Georgian chant within your work. When did your interest and dedication to this music mature? I’d say I gradually got into it while singing at church. We do a tiny bit of Georgian chant already and I thought that I could do more of this kind of music. So, I started arranging chant for the church, and in the course of doing that, I was becoming more ingrained with it and caring about every note as we’ve talked about. That basically got me more involved with this music. Today, it’s an underpinning of sound that for me is really important for my composition of church music and Orthodox music in general. It represents my connection to the Church in my heart. How have you coped with the impact of the Corona Virus and what encouragement would you offer to fellow musicians? I know people who have gotten sick, but the coronavirus has not impacted me personally. What has impacted me are governmental, corporate, and ecclesial restrictions on my work, movement, commerce, speech, and worship. But these restrictions have invited me to reflect more deeply on my personal, professional, financial, social, and spiritual situation and become more self-reliant. All of my work and worship habits–my whole environment–was uprooted last year. I’ve had to reestablish for myself what I was doing, what I believed, what I valued, and then put that all into practice. Music was really therapeutic in that regard, and I wrote my longest work–my third sonata for flute and piano. You may not be able to do anything about certain aspects of your situation, but you can choose how to handle it and what kind of person you’ll be. I chose to be creative. It has been a productive year for me, as for many others. For example, the Tenth International Symposium on Traditional Polyphony in Tbilisi, Georgia, in October adapted to the necessities of the situation by inventing ways to conduct the symposium online. They held an incredible online gala concert featuring twenty-four ensembles from around the world. Everyone can find new ways to network and express themselves. It’s an exciting time to be alive! What’s the best piece (and piece of advice) you would give to the aspiring Orthodox musician? I would give them “The Bridegroom” by John Tavener. It’s one of the most beautiful and moving pieces I’ve ever heard. It’s a visceral experience of sound that digs at you. As for advice, love the Lord Jesus Christ with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Let your love be the pole star that orients your singing. If you want to make a difference in the world, remember that all change is local. Recognize the value and resilience that is there in communities and relationships and focus on cultivating that. This interview was conducted by Theodore Zajler, Society Board Member-at-Large. Mr. Zajler has assumed the role of Lead Editor of the newly-conceived Society Review. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Music Degree in Music History and Theory from the University of Evansville and is a tonsured Reader of the Orthodox Church in America.