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Youthful Composure | Two gifted Berkeley teens take an unusual musical journey. | By Jason Victor Serinus

In a region where diversity is the norm and experimentation de rigueur, it’s hardly unusual for young people to forge their own paths. But for Berkeley to simultaneously produce two extremely gifted 18-year-old classical composers and musicians—Dylan Mattingly and Preben Antonsen—who make music together, encourage each other, and are both pursuing careers in composition, calls for double trumpet fanfare.

Bright-eyed, bushy-haired Mattingly, who insists his mop is strawberry brown—“Oh, come on,” his colleague Antonsen moans—graduated from Berkeley High in June, and heads to the acclaimed Bard College Conservatory of Music in New York this fall. Intellectually alert (he immediately challenges me when I describe grades three through eight, which he spent at Berkeley’s Black Pine Circle School, as his “formative years”) and verbally forthcoming, his responses are filled with energetic optimism.

Dark-haired, low-voiced Antonsen makes his mark with an endearing combination of irony, wit, and supercilious understatement. While not beyond describing a piece of music as “way awesome,” he often mutters responses half under his breath, as if there’s far more to him than he’s willing to let on. Antonsen, who has been homeschooled for much of his life, graduated from San Francisco’s private Lick-Wilmerding High School last month; he’ll attend Yale University in the fall.

I first heard Mattingly and Antonsen perform in February, when Antonsen played piano in the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra (YPSO) world premiere of Mattingly’s Rain, Steam, and Speed. At the same concert, Mattingly soloed on the cello in Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. A month later, after attending the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) world premiere of Antonsen’s Thresh of Gear and again hearing him play piano, I found myself so impressed by the pair’s astounding versatility and creative accomplishments that I absolutely had to interview them.

After passing beneath a two-story wisteria-laden bower at the entrance of Antonsen’s house near the North Berkeley BART station, I found the young men in the living room. Ignoring their mothers, who were chatting in the kitchen, we spoke until Antonsen’s math tutor showed up. Some weeks later, we reunited in the equally homey living room of Mattingly’s house off Solano Avenue in Berkeley.

As I was soon to learn, Mattingly was aware of Antonsen—whom he describes as a musical friend—from a young age, because they both often entered the same competitions. “I thought of him as a sort of nemesis,” he admits, because “Preben would always win.” Now, though, Mattingly quips, “I always get second place.”

Antonsen, as is often the case, sees things just a little differently from his colleague. “We clicked right away,” he says. “There’s been a little tension around competition, but honestly, I’ve found that’s how it feels to some degree in any male-male friendship.”

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“I grew up pretty much only liking classical music,” Mattingly says. He joshes that his father, a former French horn player, exposed him early on to Bob Dylan, jazz, Beethoven symphonies, Mahler, and “all the good French horn writers like Hindemith, Mahler, Strauss, and Beethoven, who was not as much of a good French horn writer.”

Mattingly started playing cello at age 5. Soon thereafter, his teacher asked him to practice reading music by writing out his own pieces. He now finds himself composing daily, while walking to baseball practice, in the middle of games, or at school, scribbling notes which he fleshes out late at night “when I should be going to bed.” He took up piano at 11, electric bass at 12, and guitar a few years later. He also participates in the Crowden School’s John Adams Young Composers Program, where he studies with Yiorgos Vassilandonakis. Mattingly also extols his private studies in Marin with David Ramadanoff, conductor of YPSO and former Assistant Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, who teaches conducting, he says, “as a samurai art.”

Mattingly’s older brother, Keith (now 23 and working his way through Europe) would “always tell me I’d like punk rock and rap when I got to middle school. I was always determined to prove him wrong.” Then, in seventh grade, he made a conscious decision to check out music that other people listened to. And? “I think there were a couple of months when I listened to some punk rock,” he says with a shrug. “I didn’t actually like it, but I kept listening to it, trying to figure out why people liked it, before I realized that it isn’t about listening to music because other people do; it’s about listening to music because it’s fun.”

Eventually, Mattingly gravitated toward another Dylan—one named Bob. “Ah, now I get it,” he thought, hearing Highway 61 for the first time. He has since listened to every song Bob Dylan has recorded. Old American folk music and blues are other current non-classical favorites. When not occupied in musical pursuits, he reads, writes, and performs what he calls “the crafty, thinking job” of a baseball pitcher.

Mattingly is clear about where he wants to go from here. “I wouldn’t actually be able to make it more than a couple of weeks without writing music,” he says, “so it’s not going to be a question of whether or not I end up as a composer; it’s whether I get to be a composer full-time. I actually do like teaching, so I could see myself as a teacher. The other thing I really like is conducting.”

Fortunately, his parents are highly in favor of creative careers. Although George, Mattingly’s father, earns a living as a graphic designer, he’s also a lifelong poet who founded tiny Blue Wind Press in 1970. Along with Mattingly’s mother, Lucy (the couple met in 1974 at—where else—The Poetry Center), he has published 23 books, including three by William Burroughs. Lucy’s quip, “We would let Dylan stay home from school to compose, but we wouldn’t let him stay home for a cold,” says a lot about family priorities chez Mattingly.

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Like Mattingly’s parents, Kris and Rebekah Antonsen have always encouraged their children to pursue their interests in whatever way best suits them. “I hated school,” says Rebekah, who plans to pursue a master’s of fine arts in writing after Antonsen enters Yale. “I wanted my kids to have a different life than I had . . . I thought, if they love what they’re learning, and they’re free to choose what they’re learning, they’ll thrive.” Hence, it follows, homeschooling.

As for musical influences, Kris, a chemical engineer with a biotech firm, is also an amateur trumpeter. Rebekah, whose welder father moved the family from one job site to another every few months, played piano by ear whenever she had access to an instrument. Preben’s older sister, now a history major at Stanford University, was for many years a serious violin student. But up until a few years ago, Antonsen had hardly ever heard non-classical music.

Antonsen began “banging around” on the piano when he was 4, and started composing around the same time. That he initially couldn’t read music didn’t stop him from drawing notes on paper. Piano lessons began at age 6, and violin a couple of years later. But like many other would-be string players, Antonsen abandoned the violin “once I realized I had to play in tune.” Instead, he says, “I stuck with the piano, where if it’s out of tune, it’s someone else’s fault.” Antonsen has been studying privately with internationally renowned Berkeley composer John Adams since the age of 10. (As time permits, he says, he also enjoys painting and reading plays.)

Partly to fit in “a little bit,” partly to expand his knowledge, Antonsen began exploring pop idioms in high school. “It started out as a duty to myself,” he says, “but pretty quickly became an interest. Now I listen to all kinds of horrible shit. A hundred percent of the cultural elite and probably most other people would not consider it very valuable. I’m talking very specifically about rap and techno music, like electronica, house, whatnot.”

In April, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Foundation named Antonsen one of 39 winners of the 2009 Morton Gould Young Composer Award—the second time he has received the award. He has also won the Broadcast Music Award, Incorporated Student Composer Award, the Music Teachers Association of California Student Composition Award, and several piano competitions, including the Music Teachers Association of California concerto competition.

“My goals are to not fall into some academic groove and sit there for decades asking why I didn’t do more interesting things,” Antonsen says. “I like the idea [New York’s progressive new music ensemble] Bang on a Can [has], of founding my own ensemble to make chamber music with my friends, which would be an intense, stressful way of life,” he says—or, rather, mutters. “I could definitely picture taking some time off from music to do some crazy things to enrich my life—climbing mountains in Nepal or whatever—but I wouldn’t give up music. I can imagine going more toward popular music [or] being a DJ for a while.”

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or the past two years, Mattingly and Antonsen have co-directed Formerly Known as Classical, a 15-person contemporary classical music ensemble for teenagers. At the April concert, Mattingly played cello, electric guitar, and piano, and conducted the world premiere of his own Going to Where the Rain Falls (Folk Music for 9 Musicians). Antonsen, in turn, played piano in three of his own works, some of which were premieres.

Pianist Sarah Cahill, host of KALW-FM’s “Then and Now” music show, has followed the musical development of both young men for years. She performed a piece by Mattingly last December at the Other Minds New Music Séance, and programmed one by Antonsen in Berkeley’s Hertz Hall, New York’s Merkin Hall, and the Point Reyes Dance Palace this spring as part of her A Sweeter Music peace music project.

“Even at the age of 13,” says Cahill, “Preben knew what he wanted to say, clearly and compellingly. He writes beautifully for the piano, since he’s a remarkable pianist himself. He hasn’t fallen into any particular camp—the ‘uptown’ dissonant camp, or the tonal post-minimalist ‘downtown’ camp—but has followed his own clear path.

“While Preben has been more focused on the classical tradition, Dylan is inspired by a diverse range of music including the blues, Bob Dylan, jazz, and the improv music that he himself performs. With many composers, it’s an awkward fusion of classical and pop music, but Dylan makes it work. You get the sense he approaches these disparate idioms from the inside rather than from the outside.”

When I ask Mattingly and Antonsen what they have sacrificed by devoting themselves to unconventional, not necessarily marketable passions, neither mentions a downside.

“At Lick [-Wilmerding], not many people who are musicians are very advanced, so no one really understood me at all in that way,” Antonsen says of his high school peers. “They didn’t despise it or anything—it was more like ‘whatever.’ We had someone at the school who ranked fourth in the world for fencing or something, so people didn’t know what that was about either. I haven’t fit in exceedingly in high school, but I have some close friends. I don’t need to be super-popular; I don’t think that’s as gratifying as it seems, anyway.”

Then he berates me for bringing up the subject. “‘Sacrifice’ sounds like there was a choice,” he says. “[As though] I chose classical music and sacrificed other things. But I didn’t really choose it. I was drawn to it, and the alternatives were not considered.”

Mattingly follows with the knockout punch. “This always seems like one of those questions that other people have for me, rather than something I’ve actually ever thought about. More or less, if you’re interested in classical music or something out of the ordinary, people wonder how you survived being interested in it. But I never made a conscious choice. This is what I’m interested in. I also like having friends—but if they made me choose between friendship and classical music, I’d think there was something really off-base with them.”

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Although their composition processes differ, Mattingly and Antonsen think similarly about the import of classical music. Both insist it offers a broader spectrum of emotion than popular music, which they characterize as presenting one emotion per song. When Antonsen describes a Mahler symphony as “a whole long big journey through trials and tribulations, ecstasy and horror,” Mattingly chimes right in. In “all good classical music,” he notes, “if you have an incredible, ecstatic moment . . . for the most part it’s going to be integrated into the human experience, and presented within the context of other emotions.”

Each of the pair also has a firm (but, naturally, somewhat different) grasp on the philosophical underpinnings of their shared passion. “All I’m trying to do,” says Mattingly, “is . . . record a single moment in time. I feel that art in general has always been a description of human emotion. Humans are temporary, but in art, you have something that can transcend time. When I’m writing a piece . . . it’s supposed to be a testament that this moment emotionally or in nature or in anything existed, and here it is.”

Antonsen takes this different turn: “Whether art is very important or not very important at all doesn’t matter,” he says, “because I’d still have the urge to create it. Knowing that your music is being appreciated is a great feeling, and it’s kinda part of the idea. But if there were no audience, I’d still have to write for myself anyway. It’s like a fixation. It’s like genetic mutation. I do it for satisfaction. Maybe that’s what makes artists a little bit different from people who aren’t artists. The world just seems a bit off, and you want to sort of fix it by creating.”

“I feel the opposite,” says Mattingly. “I create because I feel the world is on in those moments and I want to save it. I want to write music because things are beautiful, not because I feel there’s something wrong. Maybe there’s something wrong in the fact that things are about to go away if I don’t save them.”

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Music critic Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler who lives in Oakland with his husband David. In addition to writing for Carnegie Hall, Stereophile, San Francisco Magazine, sfcv.org, and 12 other publications, he serves on Oakland’s Community Policing Task Force and Advisory Board. See www.jasonserinus.com.

 

 


Homegrown prodigies: Preben Antonsen (on piano) and Dylan Mattingly (on cello) compete, collaborate, and consider themselves “musical friends.” Lenny Gonzalez.