‘Tremor’ – pianist Brianna Matzke takes control with unique response to adversity

“I’m fine,” says pianist Brianna Matzke. “My hands just shake a little bit sometimes.”

Those are the opening words of a three-minute video about Matzke called “Tremor,” created by filmmaker Biz Young – a former Cincinnatian now living in Denver.

The video is an ever-so-short exploration of Matzke’s “essential tremor,” as it’s known in the medical world. Essential tremor is a progressive condition, and like so many neurological conditions, the rate at which it may progress or the nature of that progression are impossible to predict.

Matzke’s tremor could remain fairly mild. Or it could become debilitating. 

Brianna Matzke

“For me, it has progressed ever so slightly,” said Matzke in a recent conversation. “But I imagine something more extreme is probably in my future – when I’m an old lady. There’s no way to tell. It’s different from person to person.”

But what we see in Young’s video is sobering. Matzke’s hand trembles as she applies mascara. There is no wild, out-of-control flailing. But there is enough movement that she has to stop in an effort to calm her hand. A moment later, we watch her pour a cup of coffee. The pour is uneventful, but as she picks up the mug, we can clearly see that the surface of the coffee is constantly rippling. Like a tremor.

Matzke is matter-of-fact as she discusses her tremor. There are no woe-is-me vibes, despite that this is a condition that could completely derail what has been a stellar career. At 37, she is an associate professor of music at Wilmington College and remains active as a performer.

She is also the co-artistic director and project manager for progressive classical chamber ensemble concert:nova, as well as the CEO and president of the International Foundation for Contemporary Music and executive director of the Cortona Sessions for New Music, an annual two-week contemporary chamber music institute that has moved around the world from Italy to Florida to the Netherlands, where it will be held this June. 

It would be no exaggeration to say that over the course of the past decade, Matzke has become a widely regarded champion of new music.

In 2014, she created something called The Response Project. The idea was that she would commission composers and artists from a variety of other media to create new works in response to a specific artwork or idea.

In 2015, for instance, The Stockhausen Response Project asked artists to react to a single work by noted avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Mikrophonie.”

In 2018, the project was “Something is Happening Here,” and brought together 13 composers, nine filmmakers and six multidisciplinary artists to create works responding to Bob Dylan’s 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited.”

In the past, the inspirations that have guided the projects have been thoughtful and have invited probing examinations. But they have, at times, felt slightly distant – “academic,” you might say.

This year, Matzke decided to make the Response Project more personal. Much more personal. It is called, very simply, “Tremor.” 

“I was hesitant about this theme for a few reasons,” said Matzke. “I didn’t want to make this a project that was all about me. And, of course, there is a stigma about tremor. Think about it – a pianist whose hands shake? She must be inept. So, part of me doing this project is to take control of my own narrative.”

“Tremor” is made up of two primary components. The first is an art exhibition at The Well in Camp Washington. The opening takes place from 4 to 8 p.m. on Sunday, April 28 and features Visionaries + Voices and also musical responses by several members of concert:nova. 

A week later, at 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 5, Matzke will perform at the American Sign Museum. Her program? The five premieres of works commissioned by the Response Project. 

Composer Molly Joyce has known Matzke since her high school years.

“We weren’t really friends back then,” said Joyce, explaining that they both attended a summer session at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina. “She was in the college division and I was just in high school. I don’t know if she played my music back then. But we kind of knew of each other. I definitely knew of her. Everyone did.”

Joyce participated in the 2017 Response Project – the “On Behalf Project.” But this year is different for her. Just as “Tremor” is very personal to Matzke, it has presented a very intimate opportunity for Joyce to examine her own music.

When Joyce was 7 years old, a car crash severely injured her left hand and left it permanently damaged. Rather than give up music – she was already a promising violinist – she began playing the cello, holding the bow in her left hand and working the fingerboard with her healthy right hand.

Soon after she entered the composition program at the Juilliard School, she discovered the Magnus Electric Chord Organ Model 391. Initially, she thought of it as a toy. But as she grew to play it more, she realized that the instrument complemented the physical limitations of her body.

Composer Molly Joyce at her Magnus Electric Chord Organ Model 391

“I wasn’t really suited to a lot of musical instruments,” she explained in a 2019 video. “I kind of realized it was made for my form and made for my deform.”

When Matzke contacted her about composing for “Tremor,” she was enthusiastic about the prospect.

“Recently, a lot of my projects have been centered around the idea of disability as a compositional force,” said Joyce. “So, I liked the idea when I heard her talking about embracing her tremor, having some sort of grace for it. But that was easier said than done.”

For nearly six months last year, she worked on the piece. Initially, she thought of it as a grand work, celebrating the way in which Matzke has overcome her disability.

“But I didn’t really like what I had written,” said Joyce. “It was too forced, too . . . well, it was wrong. So two weeks before the deadline to turn it in, I ended up scrapping the idea and starting over. With so little time before the deadline, what I wrote was more spontaneous. Now, it’s much more gentle, a more meditative work.”

Composer Matthew Evan Taylor was thrilled to be asked to write for Matzke. He was an alumnus of the Cortona Sessions and, thanks to Matzke’s many entrepreneurial undertakings, he was well aware of her reputation.

“I was really honored that she would reach out to me,” said Taylor. “But when I started to work on the music, I pulled up short for a while. I mean, how could I approach this with sensitivity? How do I approach this in a way that is not maudlin or clichéd? How do I avoid tropes of onomatopoetic representations of tremor?”

Composer Matthew Evan Taylor

There was another issue that was even more practical.

“For the past three years, I’ve been developing a compositional practice that focuses on breath,” he said. “My initial pieces were written with wind players in mind.” Taylor is a saxophone player, so the relationship of breath to his instrument is very obvious to him.

But it’s very different when you’re writing for the piano. Yes, a pianist needs to breathe. But it is a pianist’s hands and arms that provide the connection to the instrument. Where, precisely, does breath fit into the creative equation?

“It’s been tricky developing it,” admitted Taylor. “But that has also been part of the fun of writing this piece. It’s been a challenge. But by talking to Brianna about it, I’m learning new things about writing for the piano.”

For her part, Matzke isn’t certain precisely what she might have said that helped Taylor grasp the relationship of breath to the piano.

“I know much more about my tremor than I did 10 years ago,” said Matzke. “Initially, I didn’t actually notice it. It was other people who pointed it out to me. People would ask me if I was OK because I was shaking. I thought it was too much caffeine or I was stressed out. Then, slowly over time, I started to notice that I was probably shaking more than was normal for someone who was over-caffeinated.”

Perhaps she needed to prepare more with her music, she thought. Or possibly some sort of meditation to ease anxiety.

“But then, I had some performance experiences where the shaking got in the way of performing,” she recalled. “I felt as though my hands were not my own. I didn’t feel like I had perfect control.”

That was more than 10 years ago. Finally, she spoke with physicians. And that’s when she discovered essential tremor. They suggested various medications – beta blockers – or even surgical solutions like deep brain stimulation.

She understands that those sorts of approaches may be in her future. But not yet.

“I feel as though I’ve settled into how my body functions at the piano,” she said. “When I miss a note, is it because of my tremor? Or am I just being human – everyone misses the occasional note. I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that this is all part of my journey of acceptance. This is all I can experience. This is the only way I know how to play piano.”

The Response Project: “Tremor”

Part 1: April 28, The Well, 2868 Colerain Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45225

  • 4-8 p.m. Art exhibit opening reception 
  • Visionaries + Voices artists and sound artist Britni Bicknaver (Exhibit runs through May 26.)
  • 5:30 p.m. Performance by members of concert:nova and New Downbeat

Register: free

Part 2: May 5, American Sign Museum, 1330 Monmouth Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45225 

5:30 p.m. Brianna Matzke, piano – five world premiere works in response to her essential tremor. Composers Hanna Benn, Adeliia Faizullina, Matthew Evan Taylor, Forrest Pierce and Molly Joyce

Register: suggested donation – $20

The Response Project

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