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Marginalia (2018) 43.5'

scored for: soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, clarinet, cello, percussion

text: various public domain sources from the libraries of the University of Virginia, poems by Billy Collins and Myra Sklarew

Commission / Premiere:

commissioned by and developed with Victory Hall Opera

premiered by Victory Hall Opera: Miriam Gordon-Stewart (soprano), Will Ferguson (tenor), the composer (bass), Garrick Zoeter (clarinets), Kristen Wojcik (cello), and I-Jen Fang (percussion)

Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville VA; 02/18/2018

Watch / Listen:

About the work:

“Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!”

- Percy Bysshe Shelley,​ “Ode to the West Wind”

Inspired by the intimate materials found by the researchers of the Book Traces project at the University of Virginia, Matt was commissioned to create an evening of song for the intrepid company Victory Hall Opera, where he is a proud member of the ensemble. The world premiere took place on February 18, 2018, to a sold out audience in the MacGregor Room of the Alderman Library on the UVA campus.

From the program notes:


Over the last several years, the researchers of the Book Traces team have painstakingly examined over 100,000 volumes within the libraries of the University of Virginia, all of them with publishing dates prior to 1923. In the process of engaging with these books, the team discovered all sorts of sketches and scribbles, quotes, remarks, and, occasionally, the most delicate and precious of paraphernalia within their pages. Many of these "interventions" revealed intimate glimpses into the lives of the original owners of the books, and these innocuous markings served to illuminate the books themselves as exquisite objects. Each volume was, by dint of time, transformed into a repository of memory.


When first approached by Brenda Patterson and Miriam Gordon-Stewart with Victory Hall Opera about this project, I was unaware of the sheer amount of material that had been unearthed at UVA. After having spent time wandering through this incredible forest of research that the Book Traces team has compiled, I find myself awestruck by the vastness of this strange and secret landscape, seemingly blown in from the stacks like so many fallen leaves.

The scribbles of marginalia are inherently referential: a student scratches remarks astride the printed columns, a relative records a memorable date in the front flap of a book. In assembling this piece, I mostly chose texts that spoke to me immediately, without too much dependence on outside reference—texts that leapt from the page, of their own accord. Some of the text is marginalia, some of it is drawn from the texts which inspired that marginalia. I incorporated text from various outside sources, also: entries from Walt Whitman’s diary of his days as a medic in the Civil War, as well as the work of two living poets, Billy Collins and Myra Sklarew. In creating this dreamlike mosaic, some texts—marginalia and otherwise—have been freely adapted from their original form. The titles of some individual movements make reference to the classifications the Book Traces team assigned to the “interventions” in the examined volumes: the inscriptions found in the covers, the botanicals found pressed within their pages, and the emphatic underling of texts by the book’s user—underscoring.

None of this work would have been possible without the dedicated researchers whose curiosity and persistence provided the inspiration and materials for this piece. I am incredibly grateful to Kristin Jensen, Andrew Stauffer, and to the entire team of the Book Traces project for their generosity, and for their warm embrace of this extension of their arduous and loving work.

Libraries everywhere, having multiple copies of older books within their stacks, are finding they must consider the option of eliminating some of these copies—a process of “deduplication”—in order to correct for redundancy. Through the process of creating this work, it’s become clear to me that a book has much more value than its printed text; a book gains significance and power from the hands that have held it. Likewise, an individual’s life accumulates richness and meaning through the presence of those who bear witness to it. May we be present enough, then, to listen, and to bear witness to the lives of those around us. Truly, it will not be long before our own covers become unmoored, before our spines crack, before our pages dissolve to dust. —M​B

"Marginalia" from Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins (1941-) © 1998. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. "Monuments": a variation on a sestina written as part of a celebration of Washington, D.C. and the millennium with Citypiece: DC Monuments, a commissioned work by composer Robert Kapilow, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, June 28, 2000. The poem was published in Harmless, Mayapple Press 2010.

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