02/07: Composer Interview #15: Daniel Felsenfeld
Photo: Thomas Struth
Daniel Felsenfeld is one of the featured composers in Journaling (part two), which will take place at The Stone on August 15, 8PM. I first met him at a concert of the excellent pianist Jenny Lin, who recorded his work and my own on her CD Insomnimania (2008). I have been a big fan of his music ever since that time.
I'll be performing his intense and virtuosic solo violin piece entitled Air That Kills (2000). The title alludes to a poem by A.E. Houseman (“Into my heart an air that kills, from yon far country blows…”), and also to the pollution (air that kills!) in Los Angeles, where Danny grew up.
Danny is also currently writing a piece for ETHEL, which he discusses in the interview below.
Dufallo: Can you name some of your musical influences?
Felsenfeld: It’s always a weird thing to consider influence because I never know exactly what it means: a citation of your “sources,” or a list of music you just simply adore? There’s been a lot that has been deeply inspirational that I think I sound nothing like, so I never know if influence is a matter of what turns you on or in what category your music is to be placed. Like most composers, I started out as a lover of music, so I can say that early on of course the glittering names like Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky (I lost track of how many times I listened to Bernstein’s recording of the Rite), Brahms, Berlioz, Chopin, Sibelius, Paganini, Mahler, Puccini, Debussy, Ravel, Wagner. I was raised in a decidedly non-musical family, so all of this kind of music was something I unearthed on my own, and each discovery felt new and wild to me. Eventually I discovered new music—and by this I mean Barber, Schoenberg, Adams, Ives, Copland, Menotti, Bernstein (Mass!), Glass, Weill—and never really cleaved to one particular style. And of course along with this, a healthy dose of all kinds of music (and it should impress nobody that I listened to this too) like David Bowie, Kate Bush, Elvis Costello, the Beatles, Aimee Mann, that kind of thing. I particularly love Michael Nyman, have for years—I have a soft spot for things British: Britten and Percy Grainger (weirdo that he was), even Bax and Delius. I remember being completely knocked sideways by John Corigliano’s First Symphony, Louis Andriessen’s De Stijl, David Lang’s Cheating, Lying, Stealing, Michael Tippett’s The Rose Lake, Christopher Rouse’s Trombone Concerto, Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, Stockhausen’s Gruppen, Babbitt’s Philomel, Rorem’s Second Piano Concerto and Poems of Love and the Rain, Peter Maxwell Davies’ Ressurection, Raymond Roussel’s Le Festine d’arrigne. But now I’m just off talking about what’s on my iPod, which is interesting only to myself (and since I love music, I’ll happily tell you all about what I like), because a musician is not just a cumulative result of all they’ve heard. Enthusiasts accumulate knowledge, develop collections, and anyone who spends the bulk of their time playing an instrument or scribbling notes is more deeply invested. Influence, for an artist, is a different matter because it has more to do with what you’ve absorbed, what aspect of the tradition you’ve taken it upon yourself to internalize so that it moves unthinkingly through your fingers while you are working, an alien mode of thinking with which you’ve chosen to align yourself.
I also am a pathological reader, especially in college and grad school. I absorbed tens of thousands of pages of not only novels and poetry but also aesthetic theory (I even considered pursuing lit crit as a kind of bisnuous forking path to music). I Loved anything about the endless play of signs and signifiers, Situationism, text-only criticism, deconstruction, modes of entry into a document, postmodernism (whatever that is) and existentialism, the “society of spectacle” because that kind of thinking seemed like one big sexy game—that joissance of the big syncretic throb between thinking and feeling. I was a sucker for the dorm room epiphany. In my head it all seemed a perfect metaphor for music, so this kind of thinking (the idea that something with a deep structure can make you not only think but feel, and that this was all to the end of the experience of the “literary orgasam” of understanding) had a profound effect on me—or at least made me chatty and probably unbearable for a few years
Dufallo: Please discuss your creative process: what kinds of ideas usually come to you first, and how do you develop them into musical compositions?
Felsenfeld: Frequently it’s a game I play with myself: can I write a piece that does this or that. Not something that nobody’s ever done before (that’s never up to the composer but rather up to the filtration of history) but something that’s new to me. I don’t favor repetition (either in thought or deed), which means I tend to write slowly. And this “that” is usually very simple, even programmatic: can I depict something in sound? Can I recapture a feeling? Can I do a variation on a piece of music I abhor and also on one that I love? Can I find good music to fit my fabulous title? Sometimes it’s a “throb,” like a single musical notion that starts life as a dull little pre-embryonic seed. For me, then, composing is a dulling and arduous process: like painting a wall with a thin-nibbed ball-point pen. Whittling, moving around, shaving off, expanding, sitting with something, thinking. Pounding the piano; staring at a screen; sharpening and re-sharpening a pencil and thinking I’m working; recopying. I’d like to make it seem effortless here, but that would be a lie. Composers are not necessarily people with the best ideas, because I believe that everyone with at least a shadow of an ear comes up with musical notions on an almost hourly basis—or they have “ideas” for pieces much like people have “ideas” for screenplays, television series, or whatever strikes them; composers, to me, are the people who can get in their chair and work them out.
I compose music (rather than write fiction or work in theatre) because it is the only way I can think of to take a single moment and splay it out into a wrenching stretch of time. When I was younger, and I first heard that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was “fate knocking,” I wondered, then, if that was the opening tattoo, what happened next. Now I suspect that if that was Beethoven’s intention (and I’m not sure it was) that the whole symphony is descriptive of that single moment. At least I like to think that, and I like to write that way. Humans are vast creatures, and moments are never just that, but are more often freighted with much much more. Enter music. That’s the kind of ineffable for which I signed up, and that’s why I spend so much time doing it.
Dufallo: Please tell us a little about the piece you are composing for ETHEL.
Felsenfeld: I am very fortunate to be writing my first string quartet for ETHEL, because it’s like writing your first symphony for the New York Philharmonic or your first opera for The Met. And what’s more, I’m writing a piece of straight-up music—no author, no rights to set a text, etc. Just me, pitches and rhythms, which is, at the moment (due to the other more collaborative projects I’m working on) novel, refreshing.
The piece is called You. Have. No. Idea. It is a pretty standard four-movement string quartet (which is new to me if not to the world) with the caveat that it can be divided into four separate movements (called “You”, “Have”, “No” and “Idea”) or played as a whole. I don’t even think shuffling them around would be a problem—even though they are intertwined musically, it’s not a set of expanding variations or anything like that. This makes it a kind of a musical “open scene.” I remember from High School acting class where we got these banal scenelets to perform (with dialogue like “Hello” “How are you?” “Fine” “That’s Good.”) that our teacher would freight with the appropriate emotion, guiding our subtext. So to me this is a work of shifting meaning, depending honestly on how you arrange the movements. But as a whole I think the sentiment of the title is powerful--there’s of course a bunch of coded and hidden personal meanings for me, like there are in many pieces of mine, but that’s nothing one need know to hear it. Other than that, I just liked the idea of a piece called “You” and another piece called “Idea” because these are little words with vast implications.
Besides, I always wanted to write a piece called, simply, No
Dufallo: What do you see as the role of the creative artists in our emerging global community?
Felsenfeld: I’ve always thought that in the days of the cave monkeys, there were some who went out and hunted, some who stayed home and organized, some who created better tools with which to do these things and some who just stayed home and painted pretty pictures. Now it would be pretty easy to diminish this: the cave may have looked great, but if there was no food and nobody to look after things, things might get a little ugly. So I think this explains our role: we have to keep making the cave nice, because a nice cave, though not as immediately important as certain other duties, rounds out a set of creatures into not just a tribe but a culture. I’ve always been convinced that art—from best to worst—doesn’t affect the at-large world, but I also think it shapes the way of thinking of those who do. Which can make it seem non-essential; which is why when the going gets tough, education-wise it tends to be the first thing lost, which is the most dangerous thing that can happen to US as a culture (rather than as a miasma of disparate souls sans common aims) as far as I am concerned.
If you were to remove from the collective consciousness of The Great Western Tradition one piece, even an important piece like The Rite of Spring—not just from the repertoire but from the collective memory, erase all trace of it—I suspect the world would be exactly the same, but remove the accumulation of work in and around that time that was shaking the aesthetic mountains, and I think you could safely say the world would not be the same. This means that The Rite matters, quite a lot, even if its effect remains 1) indirect and 2) totally untraceable. Ideas waft up (or drift down, if you like) to everyone: they define, they explain, they allow us and people like us to unpack. They of course don’t help the starving or give people jobs—not in the most immediate sense—so I think it is unwise for any artist to assume they’re doing a great social turn for mankind with their specific work regardless of how much (or little) it addresses the problems of the day. But mankind is a lot of “kinds” and all are necessary. And the world has always needed the unwanted legislators, now more than ever, and as their roles diminish and they shake fewer mountains, in a way we need them more (and more of them) than ever. Screaming into a void is a longstanding and very effective tradition.
As to our role in the culture, I wish ours was greater—but then I long for the not so distant days in America when there was such thing as a public intellectual. I’m sure this lament is cross-discipline, and I don’t want to join the chorus of wailing, eschatological Cassandras, speaking of a decline in intelligence etc. But I do wish we were more represented and stood for more than our choice of topics. For example, while I would like to hear what musicians have to say on matters musical, I also wish we had purchase on other matters—most of the great composers I know are extremely erudite, sophisticated, and never get to talk about much beyond their own work. I’ve got the same strong opinions on everything from books to food, politics to film, and because music is so at-root “technical”— unlike writing or cinema, it doesn’t traffic directly in ideas: you can ask Salman Rushdie about Islam or Michael Haneke about the rise of German fascism; you can ask Jonathan Lethem about pop music and its effect on race relations, or John Ashbery about modern art; you can ask Toni Morrison about Civil Rights or Oliver Stone about the impact of the Vietnam war—of course, I’m using the coarsest examples I can think of here—but it becomes difficult to think of composers to whom you can pose similarly relevant questions, not directly at any rate, and I wish this were not true). But perhaps this is our fault, perhaps some of us stray from the notion of the towering intellectual because in this culture nobody likes—or gets—an intellectual, not unless they come replete with a vast and supposedly ironic canvas of popcultural references, so composers stick to the margins, being more creatures of raw and untutored feeling than of vast and sprawling study, and I think this can be a pose: it takes a certain kind of searching mind to write music, and I wish these brains were more prominently displayed. But I suppose we take the limited exposure we can get, right?
Dufallo: Do you have any advice for younger composers?
Felsenfeld: You just have to compose. Always. Technical mechanisms will follow; more is learned out of problems that arise when you are working. Write some bad music, a lot of it; write better music later. Read books, look at art, go to the cinema, have conversations with people who are not musicians: what we do is important and often misunderstood, but is also part of a latticework of ideas. Tune out the din of the trappings of career as much as humanly possible because it can drive you mad. Try to stay out of discussions of fashion and marketing masquerading as grand statements. Listen. Listen. Listen. Get to know not just the current moment in our profession but also the impossible-to-inherit unconscionable depth of the tradition. Study. Write pieces “in the style of” just to have the sense of a great composer moving out of your own pencil. Live in your own time, even if you don’t find much good there.
Be nice to and about your colleagues. Ask a lot of questions, especially from performers (you can learn more from a violinist than from any university). Work as much as you can, but try not to only work. Help other composers. Promote yourself in a way that you feel only slightly uncomfortable doing. Join ASCAP or BMI and take advantage—those organizations are there to help you. Try your damndest to write only the best music: don’t worry about which side of an historical thread or an aesthetic debate you land on, try hard not to overthink your “place in it all,” just make the best work you can. If you make something that’s not as good as you like, be forgiving. If someone else writes a bad piece, be even more forgiving. Make friends with people who can help you, but not only because they can help you. And above all, know it’ll be hard no matter how successful you are because there’s always a huge threatening pile of things you don’t know, and there’s always achievements that seem far beyond the horizon, no matter who you are. And stay young for as long as you can!