Becoming a composer was simple to Matt Ulery.
“If you like something, you say, ‘Hey, I want to do something like that,’” Ulery said Tuesday afternoon over a cup of coffee at A Cup of Commonwealth. “Eventually, you start working on something that you want to be good at, and you get good at it; you get better. So, liking music as a kid, like everybody else does, I wanted to make some music like what I was listening to.”
At the time, it was 1990s grunge rock and punk.
But as it developed, Ulery’s writing led him down the roads of jazz and classical music, and this year’s Chamber Music Festival of Lexington is letting him play in that intersection.
He is this year’s composer-in-residence, and the festival has programmed works by Ulery in each of its main stage concerts. Friday night’s concert will feature the world premiere of his “Become Giant,” to be played by the festival’s core string quartet and Triptych — the trio of Ulery on bass, festival artist-in-residence Zach Brock on violin, and drummer Jon Deitemyer.
“I was a little bit daunted,” Ulery says of the commission from the festival. “‘These are some great players, so I’d better write something great,’ which I don’t think is a good mindset. Fear-based composing is bad, so I try to avoid that.
“I started ‘bark and polish,’ a term I recently heard from a novelist, which is writing stuff ... I guess you’d call it sketching, with some sort of feeling in mind, and eventually came up with this long piece that was way longer than I was asked to do — like five times longer. But Nathan (festival artistic director Nathan Cole) the whole time was saying, ‘I want you to write the piece you want to write.’”
And it was a combination that he had been interested in composing for: a classical string quartet with a jazz trio, or, as Ulery says, a string sextet with drums. One of the major challenges with that combination is pairing the classical style of meticulously playing notes on a page with the much more improvisational style of jazz.
“It is oftentimes very romantic, and there are times throughout the piece that feature Zach improvising, kind of woven in through essentially being the lead violinist at times, kind of going back and forth with Nathan — sort of two first violins,” Ulery says. “It’s not jazz, that’s for sure. It’s not chamber music. It just so happens that some of us are improvising some of the time, subtly.”
Brock, who grew up in Lexington and played in the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras but went on to become one of the nation’s foremost jazz violinists, is an ideal collaborator for Ulery. They met, Ulery says, at a recording session in Chicago and eventually met with Deitemyer. They played together a lot, in various ensembles. But only recently did they form the trio that Chamber Fest listeners will hear this week.
“It just magically worked out that we were able to be an entity among others at this festival,” Ulery says. “Nathan asked Zach to be the soloist, then Zach recommended me as the composer, we were talking about it and realized, ‘Let’s get Jon in here.’ This is the music that I wanted to write, with the strings.
“It was mainly inspired by Nathan, because when he originally brought this up to me, I was extremely flattered and honored that such a great violinist would ask me to write some music.”
Ulery is happy to work with a group that is not concerned with genre purity. As a bass player, Ulery says he gets involved in a wide variety of music, from classical to jazz to funk and rock.
“We listen to all kinds of music,” Ulery says. “I just try to refine what I like about all that stuff.”
If you go
Chamber Music Festival of Lexington
Performing: Matt Ulery (composer-in-residence, bassist); Zach Brock (artist-in-residence, violin); Triptych (trio of Ulery, Brock and drummer Jon Deitemyer); WindSync (ensemble-in-residence); violinists Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto, violist Burchard Tang, cellist Priscilla Lee and pianist Alessio Bax (Festival core artists)
Where: Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St., and Al’s Bar, 601 N. Limestone
When: Aug. 30-Sept. 3
Tickets: $15 students, $35 adults (Aug. 30, Sept. 1, Sept. 3); $15 (Aug. 31)
Call: 859-425- 2550
▪ Aug. 30: Main stage concert I: Ravel’s “Violin Sonata No. 2 in G Major,” Miguel del Aguila’s “Woodwind Quintet No. 2,” Matt Ulery’s “Nightshade,” “Sweet Bitter” and “Kentucky Animal Orchestra;” Schubert’s “String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, ‘Rosamunde.’” (7:30 p.m., Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center).
▪ Aug. 31: Cabaret concert featuring all Chamber Festival artists. 7:30 p.m. at Al’s Bar. $15 at the door.
▪ Sept. 1: Main stage concert II: Haydn’s “String Quartet No. 4 in B-flat, ‘Sunrise;’” Faure’s “Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor”; world premiere of Matt Ulery’s “Become Giant.” (7:30 p.m., Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center).
▪ Sept. 3: Main stage concert III: Ravel’s “String Quartet in F Major”; Matt Ulery’s “Hubble,” and Shostakovich’s “Piano Quintet in G Minor.” (2 p.m., Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center).