National News

Matt Marks, Cutting-Edge Composer and Musician, Dies at 38

Posted May 15, 2018 11:05 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Matt Marks, a composer and musician who was at the epicenter of a diverse community of open-minded artists as a founding member of the contemporary chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound, died Friday in St. Louis. He was 38.

The cause was heart failure, said Mary Kouyoumdjian, a composer and Marks’ fiancee.

Marks, who lived in Brooklyn, had just performed in St. Louis with Alarm Will Sound, she said.

As a performer, Marks was known best as a French horn player for Alarm Will Sound, of which he was an integral member. The ensemble has been critically praised and is known for its unusual stylistic breadth and commitment to innovation.

When the group ventured further into theatrical concerts and multimedia events, he rose to the occasion as a singer, an actor and a keyboardist. He also contributed one of the group’s signature pieces: an eerily accurate arrangement for live performers of “Revolution 9,” the notorious 1968 musique concrète sound collage recorded by The Beatles.

Alarm Will Sound’s versatility and commitment to stylistic diversity ideally suited Marks, whose work as a composer showed similar range. In both concise concert pieces and sizable stage creations, like the operas “The Little Death, Vol. 1” (2010) and “Mata Hari” (2016), he demonstrated a knack for crafting works of substantial appeal and subversive cheek, generously endowed with sharp wit and relatable pathos.

His compositions demonstrated his compatibility with pop music’s stylistic palette, production effects and emotional affect.

Marks was also known as a community organizer. In 2009, he was among the founders of New Music Bake Sale, a fundraiser, concert and social mixer. The event proceeded from the notion that rather than competing for limited funds and audience, New York’s independent new-music ensembles could band together to emphasize common bonds and goals, while increasing visibility for the entire scene.

Motivated by similar notions of mutual regard and strength in numbers, Marks was among the founding organizers of New Music Gathering, a festival and conference that brings together performers, composers, academics, journalists and others from around the world for concerts, lectures, topical discussions and networking.

In addition to matters of aesthetics and economics, the event was conceived to address social and political issues, such as access and inclusiveness. First presented in San Francisco in January 2015, the New Music Gathering has recurred annually in a new city each year; the 2018 event will begin on Thursday in Boston.

Marks’s death, announced by Kouyoumdjian on Facebook on Friday, touched off a flurry of social-media posts that continued throughout the weekend, attesting to the art he made, the organizations he helped to establish and the values he championed.

The tide of posts was also a reflection of the oversize personality he cultivated online, particularly on Twitter: goofy, gregarious, provocative, self-deprecating and equally happy to discuss powerful musical experiences and trashy horror films.

In his online commentary, Marks confronted instances of institutionalized discrimination or aesthetic snobbery with caustic wit; mostly, though, he espoused a worldview animated by optimism, generosity and boundless curiosity.

Matthew Colin Marks was born on Jan. 23, 1980, in Downey, California, a small town in Los Angeles County. At age 9 he was found to have HHT, or hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia, a genetic disorder that leads to abnormal blood-vessel formation. His condition forced him to avoid physical exertion — a limitation that sparked his intellectual curiosity, his sister, Suzanne Marques, a Los Angeles television journalist, said.

A diligent musician from 9 years old onward, Marks excelled in high school bands. His passion for The Beatles, Marques said, bordered on fanatical.

Marks pursued his formal education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, the Royal Academy of Music in London and Stony Brook University on Long Island. He became a founding member of Alarm Will Sound in 2001, while he was at Eastman.

Less than a year later, he was the featured soloist in the New York premiere of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Hamburg Concerto,” performed by that ensemble in one of its numerous early appearances at Miller Theater, at Columbia University.

Other ensembles with which Marks performed included the International Contemporary Ensemble, Wordless Music Orchestra, the Argento Chamber Ensemble and the Brooklyn Brass Quintet. He was featured as a soloist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2013 presentation of Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels.”

With Hotel Elefant, a group founded by Kouyoumdjian, he performed “Songs of Love and Violence,” a cycle of his pieces for voice and chamber ensemble.

Beyond “The Little Death, Vol. 1,” an exuberant showcase for Marks’ longtime creative partnership with soprano Mellissa Hughes, and “Mata Hari,” a new production of which was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant last week, Marks’ stage works include a setting of Berthold Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children”; “The House of Von Macramé,” a low-budget slasher musical; and “Headphone Splitter,” a pop-horror theater work left incomplete.

In addition to Kouyoumdjian and Marques, Marks is survived by his parents, Jerry and Henrietta Marks; an older brother, Jerry Marks Jr.; three nieces, and two nephews.