Berklee Today

Berklee Beat: Faculty Profile

Metaphysical Wildman?

Matt Glaser
Photo by John Fitzgerald

To those who know him, it almost seems a little incongruous that Berklee's String Department Chair Matt Glaser, who prides himself on representing the far left side of most discussions, comes across as such an enthusiastic "company man." Nearly two decades after accepting an offer from Berklee's late provost Bob Share to help launch Berklee's String Department, Glaser is more excited than ever about the work. "I find it thrilling to be here," he said. "Sometimes I can't believe that I get to come to this place everyday where everyone is a musician. It is vastly preferable to going on the road in a bus."

Glaser has found that his success in developing a multifaceted string program has been closely watched by string educators across the country. "There has been a sea change in the world of classical string pedagogy," said Glaser. "I constantly get calls to come and teach at classical string conferences." Initially, that was a surprise to Glaser, whose violin playing is grounded in jazz and ethnic music.

With the graying of the classical music audience, Glaser views these efforts to be inclusive as a way for classical music educators to preserve string playing in America. "There is a move to embrace other idioms so that violin playing in the United States won't die out," he said. "It used to be that musical idioms were less connected--you were a classical violinist, a jazz violinist, or a rock player. But young people are coming up now who want to play at a technically high level and master a variety of idioms. They view that as the norm."

According to Glaser, Berklee's String Department is the flagship of this new paradigm. Not only is it a draw for string players interested in a variety of styles, but the Berklee String Orchestra, which features improvisation and observes few stylistic boundaries, is the only orchestra of its type in the country.

After starting the department by himself, Glaser is now one of five faculty members (including Melissa Howe, Eugene Friesen, Mimi Rabson, and Sandy Kott) who are offering a comprehensive contemporary string education. Howe and Kott specialize in teaching the classical repertoire and fundamental skills, Rabson's turf includes klezmer, rock, and folk music styles, and Glaser handles jazz and improvisational music. "Eugene Friesen," says Glaser, "transcends all idioms and is one of the world's great improvising musicians."

Glaser's pursuits as an educator and a player have placed him in a wide variety of situations ranging from working with organizations like Chamber Music America, IAJE, and the American String Teachers Association, to playing at Carnegie Hall, to teaching young students at summer music camps. He has also worked extensively with famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whom he met over 20 years ago.

"I told Ken that I owe him a debt of gratitude that I can never repay," said Glaser. "I played on his first documentary, The Brooklyn Bridge in 1980, and have played on almost every other film he has made." Glaser and fellow fiddler Jay Ungar performed Ungar's popular tune "Ashokan Farewell" on the hit soundtrack to The Civil War. That endeavor brought Glaser, Ungar, and their group Fiddle Fever wide visibility.

Glaser now has a new musical role on-camera in the new Burns epic, Jazz. Burns had been speaking with Glaser about the film's content over a period of years and was intrigued by how passionate Glaser got listening and commenting on the music. He captured him in the act.

"I actually appear in the film this time," said Glaser. "Ken decided to shoot me talking and listening to music. I told him he should list me in the credits as the film's metaphysical wildman." Glaser also served on the film's board of advisors with people like Gunther Schuller, Wynton Marsalis, Gary Giddins, and Dan Morgenstern. "For me, that was a great honor. We all spent a week together watching and commenting on the rough cut of the film deciding what should and shouldn't be included."

The film--19 hours long--will air on PBS stations in January. Each of the 10 decades of jazz history will get its own episode. "Most students wrongly view Charlie Parker as being at the beginnings of jazz," said Glaser, "but he appears at the midpoint. There was a lot of great music in the early years. Some elements of modernism in Louis Armstrong's playing--rhythmic things he did--have not yet been fully absorbed."

Also in January, Glaser will release a CD for Rounder Records with Wayfaring Strangers, a large group of renowned musicians experimenting with fusing elements of jazz, klezmer, bluegrass, and ethnic music together. "It has been a huge undertaking," said Glaser. "You could spend your life studying any of these idioms. Like a lot of players, I feel that I am just knocking on the front door of what is possible. I feel like a child . . . and I want to keep growing."