Composers: Daniel Felsenfeld

Daniel Felsenfeld, another one of our most celebrated new music composers, born in D.C., raised in California and living in Brooklyn, has consented to speaking with moi of all people, even with his busy activities writing music and doubling as a journalist (Besides his column in the NY Times, he has even authored books about the dead white guys! Bach, Tchaikovsky and Connecticut’s own Charles Ives, among others).
I have to apologize in advance for the lack of available clips either in audio or video form (save for a few) as I really wanted to do my typical form of saturation, but I was unable to imbed any of the audio that Daniel sent me. If you go to Daniel’s website DanielFelsenfeld.com, there is an audio page (Click on Sounds, and it gives you a list of his audio pieces).

CM: Before you had your training in composition, was there a time that you heard certain pieces that you weren’t ready for as a listener? I had this experience when I heard Del Tredici’s ‘Final Alice’ on the radio in the 70’s (It’s not quite as intimidating now).

DF: This is, by the way, an excellent question.
I got kind of a late(ish) start in music, especially that was not rooted in obvious tonality. So when I got to college I was ill-prepared for the 20th century. But some of the warhorse pieces—like the Rite of Spring or Quartet for the End of Time immediately turned me on. But the masterpiece I really had to come to on my own terms was Pierrot Lunaire. Now I have to say, I first heard all three of these pieces in the same few days, sitting in the listening library following scores, so perhaps by the time I got to Pierrot, I was already seriously misfiring with a lot of new information. But I listened hard—I tried it with score, without score, with the lights out, slightly drunk, wide awake, and it just never really spoke to me. Now, years later, having heard it live several times (and admittedly knowing a bit more than I did then) Pierrot and I have come to a kind of understanding. I love Pierre Boulez’ recording with Yvonne Minton, probably because she breaks the rules and “sings” more than a lot of people would deem stylistic. And its inherent resplendent creepiness holds a perverse appeal.

Funny you should mention Final Alice, because in that same week, my teacher, who made me rush to the library and hide the shame of not knowing these seminal pieces, included that piece in this list of great-and-imposing masterworks. So in my memory, Final Alice is up there with the Sacre and Quartet for the End of Time as necessary 20th century music listening.

CM: When you are writing, do you already have the title in mind to fuel the process?

DF: This depends. I am what one might call a “titler” in that I like evocative monikers for pieces. So often as much as I keep a running tally of musical ideas I also keep one for titles. Earlier on, I was more inclined to use “edgier” titles (in grad school I wrote pieces called “Smoking My Diploma”, “Cultivating Cool”, “New Forms of Control”, “Bad Coffee Serenade”, “O I LIKE the LIFE that I’m LEADING”, that kind of thing) while now, as a (slightly!) older person I am more inclined to write more emotionally solid music warranting titles to match (my new pieces are called “To Committee”, “Things Like That Never Happen to Me”, “A Genuine Willingness to Help”, “The Curse of Sophistication”). I do confess my love of a good title.

I don’t think I will ever write my Second String Quartet or my First Piano Sonata because musically I just don’t think that way. I don’t, though, have a problem with this kind of thing—many of my favorite composers, from John Corigliano to Lee Hyla, use these sorts of titles for their works—I just always get caught up in something at least cloyingly extramusical. But who knows. I’m not by any means averse.

Titles, though, are kind of the first line of defense for composers (or anyone who makes creative work), so they are as important as anything. We expect different things out of a piece called “From the Dawning of the Misbegotten Earth” than we do out of a piece called “Cracker Jacks” (and I am just making these titles up out of the air), and so when I hear something called “Quintet for Piano and Strings No. 97″ I just have different things in mind than I think my music is good for.

All Tomorrow’s Parties (Robin Cox Ensemble, 10/20/09; Based on The Velvet Underground’s song)

CM: Is classical instrumentation (orchestra, strings, brass, chamber, operatic voice, etc.) a format, if you will, that you are most compatible with? I really like the use of the harpsichord on ‘Every Composer Is a Murderer’, but has anyone ever said to you “We’d like to hear you use electronics on a piece”? Would you consider that or is that best left to the Fausto Romitellis of the field?

DF: I think this is a two part question. The first is about being married to the conventional “classical” instruments, which I think is an interesting point of discussion. The answer is both yes and no, because there’s been so much use of certain “non-classical” instruments (and I put the scare quotes for a reason I’ll get into in a moment) in my field that I’m not sure what the conventional instruments are any more. Going to a concert of new “classical” music one might hear pieces for electric guitars, saxophones, synthesizers, non-operatic voices, drum kits, laptops, and a whole host of “world” instruments that the definitions of conventional have changed. Nobody should be surprised to see a concerto for balalika or throat singer or a hybrid electro-acoustic instrument. Nor should anyone be surprised to see a string quartet that simply plays music for string quartet. We live in an amazing age for music because literally everything goes.

Which leads to the second part of the question re: electronics. This kind of thing seems to be the specious “tonal vs. atonal” or “extended techniques vs. conventional techniques” false schism of our own disunified age. What I mean is, I think the use of elctronics in and of itself is nothing noteworthy (nor is it anything new; this has been going on for decades in some form or another) and yet I keep hearing about it as if the mere fact of doing it is a remarkable—or, perish the thought, rebellious—thing to do. There are composers who never use anything save for the acoustic instruments who I think are totally brilliant and there are those who I think are less so; same goes for the use of electronics. It has to be more than just done, it has to be done persuasively. And I think we’ve all heard it used in a less than artful way by someone who thinks they are on the vanguard, and to me, as a listener who is taking the music qua music, that is just not that interesting. On the other hand, I think, say, Mason Bates, Anna Clyne, Judd Greenstein, Paola Prestini, Missy Mazzoli, and Nico Muhly (to name a few) are good composers whose sound palate quite naturally uses different kinds of electronic sounds (and they do so differently because they are all singular composers) because that is how they are hearing things, rather than it being done to buck a (prebucked) system.

This is the long way of saying that, like anything, I am not averse to using electronics but I’ve never heard things that way—the old music I devoutly adore tends not to make use of these sounds and so neither do I. And I think one of the challenges a composer faces is to find the most appropriate bottles for their exact wine, and outlets for the work they believe in. If I just started writing electronic or electro-acoustic music because I felt that was what was expected of me I would certainly likely fall into the category of people using the medium in a less-than-artful way because the sonics of it all don’t necessarily gel effectively with the way I hear my own music.

We can live in a world that is both multivalent and not drawn by bunker mentalities—no “us” and “them” in art—because the divisions are never simple, and more often than not the “groups” of artists are more for the convenience of critics than anything the artists themselves want to be involved in. But ultimately, these differences come down to little aside from timbre. We associate a string quartet with “classical” music regardless of what they are playing (or at least often people do this with an eye to a sectionalized market) just like a saxophone means “jazz” and an electric guitar “rock,” but of course the realities are much more complex. And while the idea that people might finally start to accept “classical” music as not being a single line out from Gregorian Chant to whatever they feel like is the “next” step and start seeing the music world—or any world in which artists offer their wares—as a place impossible to pin down in any way, where there are listeners and thinkers who like one thing and other listeners and thinkers who like something that might be quite different.

I guess what it all boils down to is that I’d love to use electronics if; 1) I had a project in which it seemed appropriate and 2) I could do it without the “political” associations. It really is just another palate with which to play, which delights many talented composers and enthusiastic listeners, and what can be bad about that?

CM: Have you ever gotten any commissions that were bizarre or that you’ve had to pass on?

DF: If by this do you mean have I been asked to write a piece for bassoon octet or kazoo chorus and just found I couldn’t do it? No, not exactly—though there’s always that weird “talk” of commissions (meaning someone says “you should write a piece for…” and inserts the most absurd thing here) that never, for some unthinkable reason, make it past the idea stage—or even out of the bar.


There have been offers to write for too little, though. And by too little I mean too little of anything. Money, sure, but also exposure, prestige, a great reading, a handy piece in one’s work list, these are all good reasons to write a piece. But I’ve had bizarre propositions to do a huge amount of work in an absurd amount of time (meaning too little) for no money and a single performance in a far-off city by a mediocre pick-up group. These I pass on, without rancor though because I think it is important to take seriously anyone who wants to perform one’s music. We’ve all been the victim of too little at some point or other, and these can be valuable to a composer even if not the best and most immediate experience because honestly anytime you’re working with people who are trying their best—and I don’t believe that there’s a soul out there who plays music and decides to do so poorly and in public—to get down to the psychology of players, to figure out how to talk to a wide range of people in a slew of settings. But then there are those projects that feel like the return will be disproportionate, which are the ones I tend to (politely) decline.

CM: Is there a story behind the solo piano piece “Toscanini’s Glasses”? :)

DF: There is. An alarmingly long one, for such a short piece (!) I wanted to challenge myself with a kind of compositional etude: I wanted to make a piece that worked (by my estimation) out of something I totally loathed rather than something to which I wanted to pay homage. So many pieces that are variations start with the premise of greatness—Brahms on Handel or Haydn, Chopin on Mozart-—Or with the premise of a kind of national pride-—Anyone, from Beethoven to Bartok to Copland to Britten et al. who ever made a piece from a folk song. I wanted to do something from the point of an EarWorm, a piece of music I felt was just too out there and not remotely good. So I chose “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. But what gave me the idea for the piece really was reading the book The Fortress of Solitude by my friend Jonathan Lethem (who is the dedictatee of my piece), especially the scene where one of the characters simply says the words “lay down and boogie and play that funky music ‘til you die.” I’d never really thought about that with any seriousness, playing music until you die. It conjured up all kinds of images of a certain kind of madness crossed with a certain kind of nostalgia—-Or perhaps nostalgia for madness? Either way, I took the title from another of Jonathan’s short stories. In a way, all homages (like the work or, in this case, hate the work to which you are paying heed) are a kind of refraction, seeing the thing, the object, through your own lens. Ergo my piece “Toscanini’s Glasses”.
I should mention I wrote it for pianist Andrew Russo, who recorded it, and it has also been taken up by Blair McMillen. Both of whom play it so absolutely brilliantly and in such different ways. I’m hoping it has a bright future!

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A clip of Toscanini’s Glasses could not be located, so a similar piece “A Dirty Little Secret” is presented here) A Dirty Little Secret (Blair McMillen, piano; Greenwich House, NY, 5/21/09)

CM: What was the main idea behind writing new music for the lyrics of David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’? Were/are you a huge fan of Bowie’s (I am, and I love ‘Ziggy’ in particular), and would you say your re-imagining of the story is like a folk song (or rather the story in a folk song) being re-sung or rewritten with a different melody?

DF: The idea of this project was to take David Bowie’s words and just pitch the music out altogether, re-setting them to my own music. And yes, I am a fan of Bowie, for so many reasons. But leaving aside his brilliance as a performer and songwriter, what the cycle is about is a pretty prototypical story of a confused teenager: me, riding around my ghostly suburb listening to the record and dreaming of escape, of bigger, epoch making things to happen, of places so distant (like, say, New York City, where I now live) as to seem like other planets. Everyone who’s even slightly weird can really get behind the fantasy that they are a landed alien sent across light years to observe. Add youthful frustrations viz. love and sex, glamour and obscurity, going forth as a comet or as a snail, and you have the appeal of the whole fiction of Ziggy Stardust.

In a way, what I wanted to do was have written that record. So this the closest I can get. I’ve already irked more than one die-hard fan with this one (the why of it all takes some explaining, and to a certain extent the real deep fans, especially those who had the same reaction and attachment to the record that I do, will be the least supportive of the project), but to them I say: do it too! Write your own take. Charles Ives taught me that the only reaction to a piece of music was another piece of music, and so this will be mine to Ziggy, a love letter to a great piece of art as well as a prior version of myself.

CM: Can you tell us anything about the upcoming commissioned piece for cello/piano duo TwoSense?

DF: One of the reasons I wanted to write for Two Sense (aside from the what-ought-to-be-obvious fact that they are not only astonishing players but also distinct and wonderfully forward musical people) was a conversation I had with Ashley Bathgate in which we both communed over what we liked in music, and what she wanted a new piece for her to be. One thing we agreed upon: It ought to be long. Not minimalist slow-developing long, but Beethoven-or-Brahms-sonata long. More than just the usual seven minutes. This sounded challenging in the best way: how, in this day and age, can you keep engaged and keep listening interesting with only two instruments in a long(ish) form.
Pictured Left: Lisa Moore and Ashley Bathgate are TwoSense

And I had read Georgio Agamben’s book Nudities, and while I’m still working out how the piece will relate to the ten separate chapters of the book, what struck me is the overarching theme, which could be summed up in the question: what is nudity? For a composer, the answer is obvious: chamber music. What’s more naked than two instruments playing, sans gimmick, for twenty minutes? And rather than gussy up the idea, why not embrace? My favorite composers—Britten, Brahms, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, etc.—were all unafraid to “expose themselves” in this way. To me, it is the essence of excellent art, that kind of exposure.

CM: You collaborated with singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding on ‘Charles Jessup Considered as a Murderer’, and on a future occasion we’ll talk about that project as well, but I might as well ask you about this clip of you performing with Harding along with several other folk-rock performers like Josh Ritter, David Wax Museum, Tift Merritt and Andrew Bird: How did that happen and what was your take on it?

DF: I met Wes (Wesley Stace, aka John Wesley Harding) twice: once at a party for our mutual friend Jonathan Lethem (who had just turned in his novel) and another time at ASCAP–we were both judges for the Deems Taylor Award (given out as a prize all to do with writing ABOUT MUSIC). He was, at the time, working on his book Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, which is all about a (fictional) composer and a grisly crime he commits. He wanted me to read it to just see about the trajectory of his title character (not for help with his prose or development–he needs little help from someone like me on that!). At that same time, he was commencing his series the Cabinet of Wonders, a thrice-seasonal concert over which Wes presides. He has writers, comedians and musicians perform, and I’m fortunate enough to be his “court composer”. So it means, not only does a piece of mine get played once a season–especially the two collaborations Wes and I did: a set of madrigals called Music Doesn’t Want Me and the song cycle Every Composer is a Murderer, both with words by Wes–but I also play piano (the theme music Wes and I co-wrote), sometimes (thrillingly) with the group. I’ve met some amazing people there (including these people) and it serves as an excellent counterlife to that of a quote-unquote serious composer. Plus it is always a good time. And I’ve made friends, met heroes, and had an absolute blast playing music as opposed to just writing it.

Cabinet of Wonders (Featuring John Wesley Harding, Josh Ritter, Tift Merritt, Andrew Bird, David Wax Museum, Paul Muldoon, and in the back, Daniel Felsenfeld; City Winery, NY 3/11/11; Rock on dude!)

DanielFelsenfeld.com Official website
Felsenmusick Daniel’s blog
Opinionator Daniel’s column on the New York Times

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One thought on “Composers: Daniel Felsenfeld

  1. Pingback: Kinds of Burgessian: the Apollonian versus the Dionysiac « In Search of Anthony Burgess

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