A Conversation with Composer Joel Feigin Print E-mail
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Written by Michael Cameron   
Thursday, 29 November 2012

A Conversation with Composer Joel Feigin

My first extended exposure to the music of Joel Feigin began in a review of a disc by pianist Margaret Mills ( Fanfare 34:2) that included two of his works, both of which struck me as skillfully realized and beautifully evocative. He clearly had a very natural way with the piano, but not until I heard two more discs, reviewed below, did I realize that he was equally at home with chamber ensembles and the human voice.

Q: I find it fascinating that you received training from two musical legends, Nadia Boulanger and Roger Sessions, who would seem to have very different approaches to composition. Would you say that their similarities were more important to you than their differences?

A: Boulanger and Sessions actually had very similar attitudes toward composition, but their personalities were very different. Sessions really hated Boulanger because she had interfered in his divorce from his first wife. He certainly respected her as a musician, and when I returned to Fontainebleau the summer after my first year studying with him at Juilliard, he said, “say hello to Mlle. Boulanger for me—she’s a very old woman now and all her sins are forgiven.” But I was too afraid of Boulanger to say anything.

It was Sessions’s essay later titled “What Can Be Taught?” that led me to go to Boulanger in the first place. This was in the early ’70s, and the new music world seemed divided between 12-tone orthodoxy and experimentalist “happenings” and chance. Neither seemed a path toward the music I needed to write. In both cases, ideas about music seemed more important than the music itself. Sessions emphasized that music is made of sound, not verbal or mathematical ideas, and that it was necessary to master the crafting of sound, so that it could be shaped at will. He outlined a very traditional approach—ear-training, harmony, counterpoint—and emphasized that what was to be learned went to the bedrock of motion in sound, not to any particular style or musical language. My desire to master this craft as much as possible led me to Boulanger and then to Juilliard and Sessions. The sense of the composer as craftsperson was central to both of them, and they both took for granted that music was expressive—that sound could embody emotions and even ideas, not external to the sounds, but one and the same with them.

Q: Given that your music seems to drink from so many different stylistic wells, did you ever get the feeling with either of them that certain influences or styles were off base?

A: Neither teacher tried to impose any particular stylistic orientation; rather both aspired to help their students discover the music that they, in a very personal sense, needed to write. I was impressed by how varied their students were: Copland, Carter, and Glass all studied with Boulanger; Babbitt and del Tredici studied with Sessions—all very different from each other. Earlier, Boulanger might have led students towards neo-classicism, but not when I studied with her. And Sessions assumed that music had moved into a basically atonal period. But when I brought him a tonal piece, he liked it very much. I asked him “Mr. Sessions, do you see those four sharps at the beginning of each line, the key-signature?” And he said, “Who cares about that at this late date?” One of Sessions’s often-repeated statements was “the younger generation is always right.”

Q: Did either of them ever express admiration or disdain for composers that you found surprising?

A: Neither Boulanger nor Sessions led students away from particular composers. Of course, they came from very different traditions: Fauré was central for Boulanger, and Schoenberg was central for Sessions. But Bach was central for both.

Q: I’m assuming that inspiration for your vocal works begins with a specific text. What draws you to these texts? Is it always the meaning of the words, or does the sound of the text also have an influence?

A: A text just starts singing —it is glorified speech—the words can be stretched, the contrasts can be much more extreme than when spoken, and hopefully the meaning can be made one with the music and thus conveyed to the listener. I set texts I love, and part of my love is the beauty of the sound: but I chose texts mostly for their meaning. Some of my favorite poems, like Keats’s Odes, are so magnificent in sound that I can’t imagine setting them to music. Naturally, the specific vowels and consonants, the flow of the verse, are decisive in the actual notes and rhythms that I write.

Q: Your instrumental works also seem to come from non-musical inspiration. What form does this process take? Do you begin with an idea or commission for a particular instrumentation, and then search for a concept?

A: Sometimes my instrumental works begin with a non-musical inspiration, and sometimes not, but I usually try to find a title that conveys some of the meaning of the piece, usually after the piece is written. Of course, there are sometimes extra-musical encounters that help clarify a piece: one took shape only after I saw the film Gallipoli and realized that this was a memorial for a dead soldier.

I start with a sound, a vague sense of flow, texture, and mood. At some point this crystallizes into a real musical idea : specific notes and rhythms, which I try to give “a local habitation and a form.” I usually have to ask at some point, “what is this about ”—what combinations of sounds are driving this music, creating these contrasts? And what is its emotional flow? But the mood is one with the music: the sounds are the affects; the affects are the sounds.

Q: Lament Amid Silence consists of works with contrasting instrumentation from different periods in your life. In the earlier works, did you suspect at the time that the concept would be expanded later?

A: When I wrote the piano pieces I had no idea that they would form a part of an extended work using other instruments, although I hoped from the beginning to make a concert work from some of them. With the viola pieces, I hoped that they could all form one larger piece, but finally decided that there wasn’t enough contrast. So, with the MSR project, I searched for pieces as contrasted as possible both in sound and affect: the piano pieces very quiet and tonal, the viola pieces anguished and dissonant. And then I was amazed that this combination worked so well, to the extent that I think of Lament Amid Silence as one large, evening-long work for two different and totally contrasting sound sources. This idea is very intriguing; I suspect it depends on the “modular” concept, the identity of content among the modular pieces counteracted by the extreme contrast of instrumentation and mood. I’m curious to do it again.

At the same time, each separate piece remains an independent work, designed to be performed separately. There is a very good performance of the third viola piece, Lament with Ghosts, on YouTube at http: //youtu.be/mXAFQKNJnvw and http://youtu.be/i7mO5fpiBq0

Q: Considering that your music has evolved over time, were there any issues combining pieces that reflect these changes in your musical personality?

A: Of course, my music has evolved, but it has never rejected anything: it’s a matter of opening to different sounds, extending the range and available contrasts in my music. The biggest changes followed the completion of my two operas: After Mysteries of Eleusis , I delighted in exploring tonality, which had been anathema during my studies. Two works from that period can be seen on YouTube, the Mountains and Rivers Trio at http://youtu.be/ZZk8K5sR4Ek and http://youtu.be/8jFsGR7cxAg; and a movement from Mosaic for String Orchestra at http: //youtu.be/nLGghHukCzo. But some of my work during this period continued to be predominantly atonal, such as in the Variations on a Theme of Arnold Schoenberg , commissioned by Leonard Stein and Piano Spheres.

My second opera, Twelfth Night, is extremely lyrical, as seemed natural to portray the mood of Shakespeare’s Illyria (http: //youtu.be/H6gUXDI9b8Q). After this work, I wanted to explore modernist techniques that I hadn’t used earlier, above all, silence. In all this, I was looking for different sound worlds to embody what I needed to express. Perhaps it’s naïve, but I don’t think atonality is very good at happy music, and I wanted to write happy music. I suspect the problem is rhythmic—atonality doesn’t take well to dance meters, and real joy wants to jump up and down. Later, wanting to find sounds to express the experiences opened up by my Zen practice, it was natural to use silence to evoke—well, silence! The Lament Cycle exemplifies this, as well as Variations on Empty Space , commissioned by pianist Margaret Mills. Of course, Cage was a big influence in this, especially the number pieces. But after Twelfth Night , I continued to explore tonality in gently flowing (http://youtu.be/8KypMIfh1tg and http: //youtu.be/aY4A3cwBdHQ) and the Fromm commission piece, Aviv: Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (http://youtu.be/6MBtpjXQ9hc), written for Yael Weiss. And extended silences are used at the climaxes of both operas—the reunion of Demeter and Persephone in Mysteries of Eleusis , and the reunion of Viola and Sebastian near the end of Twelfth Night.

Q: Works for viola ensemble aren’t exactly commonplace, but there have been many examples in recent years of works for multiples of the same instrument. Were any of these models for you? Were you concerned that future performances might be hindered by the unusual makeup of the ensemble?

A: I’m afraid that the works for multiple combinations of the same instruments weren’t really models for me—my motivation was simply the excellence of the studio that Helen Callus has gathered at U.C. Santa Barbara. It was natural to write for them. Of course, it’s an unusual ensemble, and that always makes it harder to get performances. My hope is that these pieces will prove exciting for master-teachers and their studios, and that the solo piece shouldn’t be too hard to program in various contexts.

Q: In your program notes you mentioned using a “modular” approach to the combination of two viola works into a single work for seven violas. Have you ever used this technique before?

A: This is the first time I’ve used a “modular” approach. Actually, I just had this weird idea for these three inter-related pieces. Then a student asked, “Do you realize that you’re using a modular technique?” And I was astonished. Looking back, it’s a natural, given my interest in Cage.

Q: Do you think some of Rzewski’s works involve similar concepts? Sometimes works like this give the option of a single performer playing one part accompanied by a recording of the other voices. Is this an option you’ve considered?

A: Some of Rzewski’s works use similar ideas, but they weren’t in my mind as I wrote. I’m so bad with all machines that I haven’t considered recording the other voices. But it’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll work on it with a student who’s not so afraid of machines!

Actually, I think modular composition is an extension of the ideal that each aspect of a piece should be able to stand on its own. And it’s really just an extension of the idea of multiple counterpoint—but with lots of rests!

Q: The piano pieces originated as a soundtrack for a film. Did you take a pictoral view of events or images from the film, or was the music simply reflective of more generalized moods?

A: The piano pieces in Lament Amid Silence originated in the soundtrack for the film Mountains and Rivers , by my first Zen teacher, John Daido Loori Roshi, who was also a videographer. Featuring beautiful footage of the Catskill Mountains near Zen Mountain Monastery as the seasons change, the film is a visual exploration of the Mountains and Rivers Sutra by Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Japanese school of Soto Zen, and one of the great religious teachers, writers, and philosophers of the world. Naturally, the music reflects the visuals, whether of early spring or of a pond on a quiet summer day. But, above all, both music and visuals try to express something of the meaning of Dogen’s text.

Daido Roshi explained that water is used by Dogen to denote the absolute or unconditioned nature of things, which as a composer I represent by silence. Mountains refer to our everyday world, and for Dogen, the realization of the identity of the mountains and waters transforms all our experience. I hope in a little way to embody this transformation in my music, which is a small offering to whoever would like to listen, play, or sing, and which I hope provides some pleasure and relief from suffering. In Moscow once, an old woman thanked me for a piece that I wrote to a Vietnamese poem written during the war—she said she had been a nurse at the siege of Leningrad. I felt like bowing to her in gratitude. The offering had been fulfilled.

Q: I read that an archive of your work will be opening soon. Can you describe this?

A: Yes, the opening of the Archive of my work in the Special Collection for American Music at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center is very exciting, and the Library plans to put material up on the Web as soon as possible. It’s very humbling to have my manuscripts there along with those of John Cage, and treasures such as the autograph of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody and a draft of the Mahler Seventh Symphony. Very humbling indeed—it makes me blush!

FEIGIN Five Ecstatic Poems of Kabir. 1 Veränderungen. Four Poems of Linda Pastan. 1 Four Fantasy Pieces. Four Poems of Wallace Stevens. 1 Nexus. First Tragedy. 1 Echoes from the Holocaust. Eight Japanese Poems. 1 Transience. Fred Cohen, cond; 1 Christine Schadeberg (sop); Musicians’ Accord NORTH/SOUTH 1011 (2 CDs: 126:42 Text and Translation)

This two-disc set of works from the Santa Barbara—based composer Joel Feigin dates from 1996, and contains chamber works from the previous 14 years. In the context of his new recording, Lament Amid Silence, this earlier collection deserves another look. Five of the works are vocal cycles with texts derived from a variety of sources, and feature the terrific soprano Christine Schadeberg, clearly an ideal match for Feigin’s intimate, engaging settings. The composer’s skill and imagination are on constant display in Five Ecstatic Poems of Kabir , with texts by the Sufi mystic dating from the 15th century. The first poem includes references to a flute, and Feigin obliges with glittering passagework from the instrument, and the rest of the ensemble contributes to a soundscape with more than a few impressionist references. The opening of flowers, a glowing moon, and a “rain bird” longing for the next shower are among the many potent images. Texts such as these nearly beg to be set to music, and Feigin’s close connection to the spoken word is ever apparent with each setting.

His musical language in Four Poems of Linda Pastan is quite different than the Kabir songs even while the instrumentation is similar. The settings are more angular, atonal, and include spoken passages. The effect is not unlike the expressionistic works from the Second Viennese School in the 1920s, and the text revels in themes of isolation and angst that call to mind that era. On a superficial level Four Poems of Wallace Stevens unfolds along similar stylistic lines, although the degree of fragmentation is more pronounced and instrumental interludes act as a binder between poems.

First Tragedy , the earliest work on the recording, also mixes speaking and singing, and according to the composer was his first piece to combine tonal and atonal writing. Sheldon Berkowitz’s clarinet telegraphs many changes in mood, by turns lyrical, brooding, and playful. Eight Japanese Poems for soprano and harp are steeped in Buddhist imagery and thought, including an opening incantation that could pass for a monk’s chants.

The purely instrumental works are no less engaging, and often are generated by traditional abstract methods rather than extra-musical inspiration. Veränderungen (Transformations) is essentially a theme and variations for violin and piano, though Feigin puts his individual mark on the venerated form. The nine variants cover a wide range of moods and textures, calling forth a remarkable level of virtuosity from the violinist Julie Rosenfeld and pianist Margaret Kampmeier. The composer’s skill at coaxing idiomatic playing from his performers is also evident in Four Fantasy Pieces , a suite of movements with traditional titles yet still glistening with modernist touches. Flutist Kathleen Nester and pianist Evelyne Luest give the work a vivid, characterful reading. Nester is equally enthralling in Nexus , an homage to Bach and the lightest, most cheerful piece on the recording. Feigin’s souful Echoes from the Holocaust comes from a different world entirely, and oboist Matt Sullivan, violist Martha Mooke, and pianist Sara Laimon give expressive, dramatic performances. Sullivan shows a much more playful side of the oboe in Transience , joined by the superb percussionist William Trigg.

This collection of works is a must-have for anyone who cares about music of our time. Given the consistently high quality of Feigin’s compositions, it’s no wonder he has been able to assemble such a high-octane roster of world-class performers. Michael Cameron

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 27 November 2012 )
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