5 Questions to Daniel Felsenfeld (composer)

Composer Daniel Felsenfeld doesn’t do much on a small scale. Formerly an MTV devotee and piano-bar prodigy, Felsenfeld’s projects include planning a series of unconventional Masses at Trinity Church, an opera about the students of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, and running the annual New Music Gathering. He also hasn’t given up his pop-music roots: when Jay-Z performed in Carnegie Hall, Felsenfeld got called on to do the orchestrations. We talked about influences from Bach to Bernstein to Bowie, and about how to handle taboo subjects in opera.

Tell me a little bit about the Astrophysical Mass, and the project that is the first installment in. You mentioned you grew up in a Jewish house, so going to church and experiencing this of ritual wasn’t part of your life at that point. What was your first encounter with liturgical music, and what interested you in writing a Mass and gathering more new Masses?

My first encounter with liturgical music that was not the music sung (quite well, if memory serves) in my own temple was likely hearing a recording of, of all things, Puccini’s Messa di Gloria, when I was 18 or 19 (if you don’t count the unfortunate early experience I had with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem, about which please tell nobody) because I was a Puccini freak. Of course I liked much in the way of choral music, especially Beethoven’s Ninth (a scaled-down version of which defined me when my elementary school chorus sang it when I was in Fourth Grade), but the idea of the power of religious music for Great Western Religions Not My Own did not run particularly deep. That said, a few pieces in subsequent years helped me love the mass as a form of drama: Bach’s Passions (of course), my beloved Missa Solemnis of Beethoven (the one piece on this earth I wish I could have written), and Rossini’s tiny masterpiece Petite messe solennelle (in the piano and harmonium version) were all favorites, as was much of the Renaissance canon. But it was Britten’s War Requiem and, above all, Bernstein’s deliciously overblown Mass that got me hooked. Masses that were not meant to be strictly used liturgically, and were full of textual commentary—and in the case of Bernstein, outlandish and grotesque musical commentary—appealed. Ritual and theatre…ritual as theatre.

What I am doing at Trinity Wall Street is curating six new masses from composers all of whom have been paired with writers to create, together, a mass with sections able to be used in church but also whole pieces that work in a concert setting. I am proud of all the work that my colleagues are doing—and very relieved that now all I have to do is introduce the subsequent works! Ascending from composer to curator.

I read some of Rick Moody’s text for the Astrophysical Mass, things like “Holy Second Law of Thermodynamics” and asking God to have mercy on emigrants and laborers. Can you talk to me a bit about the blend of liturgical ritual and current events and technology in the piece?

The theology of the piece is all Rick’s: he is a proud member of Trinity Church (who commissioned the piece) and a Believer, while I am not. His take is that faith—or spirituality—and science need not be separate things, and his text reflects that, even kind of makes a case. My job was to make it sing, spin, and shine. As to the discreet things he mentions, I saw the whole thing as a kind of morass of longing, the longeurs of the rational-spiritual who were not by nature skeptics, and all of the individual things he mentions are kind of like accumulated evidence, lists and lists and more lists. It was, to me, the overarching concatenation of these things crossed with the in-stone Latin text that made the piece—the mere assembly of phenomena gyrating simultaneously makes one question how some kind of design could be absent. As for technology, I think it is a funny notion that I am likely the most acoustic-only composer on the project: my experience with electronics beyond email and a notation program include a course in the Buchla Synthesizer I took some 22 years ago at Aspen.

You’re a man who frequently writes music about women, or music for women to sing when they take on the role of your characters. What are some of the challenges that this presents? In particular, I’d love to hear what turning Jennie Ketcham (a retired porn star) into a character was like for your opera She, After. As seen in Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer’s daughters’ reactions to The Death of Klinghoffer, turning real people into operatic characters can be tricky business.

I do write a lot about women because I have been lucky enough in my life to be surrounded by the most incredible women, and I’ve always been dazzled by how their stories, or even the stories told from their perspective, are still such a small part of our narrative. But it is not about me heroically righting some massive cultural wrong (I am not and want no credit for anything like that) but rather me trying to understand the near-incomprehensible; as an artist it is my job to wrestle with questions, even impossible ones. And while I don’t think my work is “issue oriented,” I do think that the personal choices are political, and in trying to become a better ally and make a better world (with my own limited impact) on this minority who is actually a majority, I write a lot of work that seeks them out from my own flawed position.

She, After was a constant challenge, but none of the three monodramas that comprise the work was as tough to manage as converting Jennie into the stage character that is “Her.” The main difference between what I did and what happened in Klinghoffer, say, is that Jennie was and is my collaborator, and also my trusted friend, so it was not me making her into a fictional stage character, it was us. Everything was done with open communication and honest consent. Your question outlines the whole point of that segment (called “When She Was Her”): the person that is now my friend Jennie Ketcham is of course different than the character both on stage and the role she played in her previous career. The piece centers around a real character making herself into a fictional version of herself—the text addresses how she did a whole lot of pretending in her youth to make herself into the kind of woman that might be desirable (based on the, as we all know, impossible standards)—and as she is explaining this, she takes off her clothes and from this honest naked point of view transforms herself into the fictional character that will go in front of the cameras. So the fictional-nonfictional aspect of all this becomes the defining double act of the piece.

Daniel Felsenfeld

Daniel Felsenfeld

Sex in opera is usually left to the imaginations of the audience for the most part, but you said that The Inner Circle makes Thomas Ades’s Powder Her Face (with its famous blowjob aria) look like a “Saturday morning cartoon.” How do you write sex and sexuality into your operas, without making it demeaning to the characters or performers?

Well, again, it is Kate Gale the librettist who pulled that off—and she wrote a beautiful, thoughtful reading of T.C.Boyle’s excellent novel. And while I was being a little cheeky about Powder Her Face (though, as a true aside here, I am always a little flabbergasted when Ades quite powerful and funny opera is remembered for the Blow Job Aria, but then opera can run a shade conservative) my opera is about sex, the ideas of mores and morality and order and monogamy and all of those pressing issues—but it is also, and most primarily, about science, or that moment when Apollo and Eros are working at cross purposes. The real Dr. Kinsey was the first to discuss some things that we, in a more enlightened time, take mostly for granted, but it is the passionate dispassion of he and his coterie that makes the subject so interesting.

A lot of science operas tend to be about a brilliant man who is terribly haunted and the woman in his life (and their offspring) want him to come off his self-constructed mountain and be a family man and he, built for higher things as he is, struggles balefully. In The Inner Circle, we do have the powerful man, but it is not his story, it is the story of a (completely fictional) person who gets caught up in his utopia which, like all utopias, was destined to be a failure. And yet, at the end, the opera is not about him, it is about the women in and around his group, and as it is a (fictional too) wife of one of the characters who brings down the whole edifice by injecting a bit of strong sense into the proceedings, as well as Kinsey’s wife, the other overseer of (and true power behind) this proto-communal  group exploring the idea of “free love” decades before the summer of love. So it is not just the man who gets off the track—it is everyone. His amazing and important ideas are also dangerous and also necessary and very much subject to wide interpretations. And therein lies the drama—which yes is overheated by the sexual content (these are repressed people, and we all know that repression can come out sideways)—but the sexual content is not just necessary to the story, it is the story. But even in our world as it is, when people have sex they are still people.  

You mentioned David Bowie was hugely important to you as a teenager, starting when your friend sat you down and played you his entire discography from Let’s Dance backward. Can you tell me a bit about your Ziggy Stardust project, and the other Bowie work you’ve done?

David Bowie changed—and likely saved—my life. When I was 13, “Let’s Dance” came out, and I fell in love with it: those icy songs, those gnomic lyrics, the moody horns and all-male backup vocals, Nile Rogers’ specific guitar sound. And I remember telling a friend, a drummer, that I really liked this “new artist” called David Bowie, and he took me to his room and disabused me of my ignorance, working backwards from “Scary Monsters” to some of the early funny stuff (like the “Laughing Gnome” and “Please Mr. Gravedigger.” I wore out cassette tapes on my Sony Walkman, riding my bike all over my little suburban town and dreaming big.  And one of the things I love about him, then as now, is the fact that most people’s attachment to him is deeply personal, that it is both he and all he represents in concert with our own experience of him, and I honestly cannot think of another artist like him. He is, for any queer or weird or slightly off or confused person, a kind of artistic “safe space” and I hope he can remain that.

So when I was 17 or so I loved “Ziggy Stardust” so deeply that I kind of wanted to have written it, and so—back then—I conceived of this project where I’d take all the words as poetry and re-set them to my own music. And that is exactly what I am doing. Now the piece—or the chunk of it I’ve written—has gone through more than a few iterations, with various ensembles playing it, including ACME and, most recently, TURNMusic. But at the moment it remains in a kind of limbo—it is a big project, and I have a producer who is working on it, but as so many projects from non-funded souls like myself, it lopes along. There’s a tragic layer to it in that I had Bowie’s full permission but I am not sure he ever heard it. (There are even more tragic layers, but those are for drinks late night when we know each other better.) So the piece, despite the amazing permission and the razzle-dazzle of the project and the strong reactions to what exists of the music, is kind of reduced to a passion project, a when-I-can-get-to-it. But some classical music stories are long ones.

I also wrote a short solo viola piece for Nadia Sirota called Hooked to the Silver Screen, which is a kind of free-flowing fantasia on the most astonishing song that Bowie (or, frankly, anyone) ever wrote: “Life on Mars.” I love taking a tune like this, somewhere lurking in another genre, and doing just terrible musical violence to it. I’ve likewise assaulted Leonard Cohen and Wild Cherry (don’t ask), as well as done terrible things to works of Debussy and Bach. Because in a certain way all music (if you buy into the whole Agon theory of Harold Bloom) does violence to the music that has come before it, and from this wrestle a new set of ideas takes root. I just wanted to be obvious and extremely brutal about it.

I love writing all kinds of music—I’ve written orchestra pieces, a string quartet, a string trio, a volume of piano music, a lot of works for flute, a big piece I am working on for the cellist Ashley Bathgate—but it is working with texts and stories and singers that really gets me thrilled, or, to be fair to my non-vocal music, is one of the things that gets me excited about new projects. I have three big operas in the works, am working on 114 Songs (paying homage to Charles Ives), and a few smaller vocal pieces (a project with author Cari Luna has me a little breathless), and am scheming even more. I read a lot, so I love words as much as I love music.