5 Questions to Xavier Foley (bassist, composer)

Double bassist Xavier Foley is a decorated performer and composer working at the intersection of classical, pop, and traditional folk styles. A recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant, Foley’s seemingly endless creative energy has resulted in public performances with major orchestras, a prolific catalog of compositions for double bass, a sizable following on YouTube, and a series of eclectic and often humorous blog posts.

Foley’s compositions showcase an impressive range of technical demands and expressive possibilities for the double bass while defying the rigidity of the label “classical music.” As just one example, his Etudes for solo double bass move seamlessly between virtuosic flourishes, soulful lyricism, and vamps that are downright groovy.

Foley also embodies the versatility required of musicians in the 21st century, fully embracing technological advancements and entrepreneurship as integral parts of his artistic profile. He has been commissioned by Santa Fe Pro Musica, the Sphinx Organization co-commissioned with Carnegie Hall, Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW, the Oregon Symphony, and Juilliard Pre-College.

Listeners can look forward to the premiere of Foley’s Resurrection of Titan, a double concerto for violin and double bass, on August 13 at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, featuring Foley as a soloist along with violinist Eunice Kim. The piece draws inspiration from the double bass solo from Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony (“Titan”) and the orchestral bass part from Mahler’s Second Symphony (“Resurrection”). Foley describes the work as an allusion to “Mahler’s dedication to raising awareness of our planet through music.”

Eunice Kim and Xavier Foley -- Photo courtesy of the artists

Eunice Kim and Xavier Foley — Photo courtesy of the artists

Could you tell us a little of the backstory and what we should listen for at the upcoming premiere of Resurrection of Titan at the Cabrillo Festival?

I was commissioned by the Mahler Foundation and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music to create a new work for this year’s festival. The ask came from the granddaughter of Gustav Mahler, so I felt it was my duty to reincarnate some of his symphonies, particularly the one featuring the bass solo, and I chose to transform it into a large-scale double bass concerto.

In movement three, keep an ear out for musical references to Mahler’s works, particularly his Symphony No. 1 “Titan” and the opening orchestral bass part from his Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection.” As a bassist who has played these beautiful themes in Mahler Symphonies, this is my very special homage to the composer.

Your work A Letter to Beethoven has been a longtime favorite of mine for how it recontextualizes the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a modern idiom. With this and your new work for Cabrillo Festival, what inspires you to reframe canonical works?

I like working with and draw inspiration from the motifs created by the composers who have influenced me. In some way, every composer influences me — I learn from everybody. The works of Beethoven and Mahler have lived on for centuries — and there’s got to be a reason why. Their themes are remarkably unforgettable; even now, I can easily whistle the bass solo from Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The fact that their music has that much power — it’s worth learning from and it’s worth playing around with.

I love how some of your works elude any single label (e.g. classical, R&B, or pop). Do you have a specific approach to genre and style in your compositional process?

I like that my music defies easy categorization. I’d like to think I have my own distinctive style that weaves together elements from the diverse genres of music that inspire me. This gives me more freedom to explore and experiment with ideas without feeling limited to a particular genre. I also think this makes my music accessible to a broader audience allowing more listeners to connect on an emotional level with my work.

Xavier Foley -- Photo by Astral Artists

Xavier Foley — Photo by Astral Artists

I imagine that establishing a career as a soloist is not a common path for many double bassists. What kinds of experiences and opportunities have been pivotal in helping you to mount your career?

Having my compositions featured in solo recitals and chamber music collaborations has allowed me to showcase the bass to audiences that may have never seen the bass played as a solo instrument. The solo repertoire for the double bass is relatively limited compared to other instruments. So it is important to me that I make a positive impact on the wider double bass community and contribute to the overall growth and development of the double bass literature, providing aspiring bassists with fresh and exciting pieces to explore and perform.

You seem to be endlessly productive in your artistry. How do you balance your demanding performance schedule with your other creative work?

Over time, I’ve come to realize that perfecting my own creative process is a long and evolving journey — a continuous learning experience. It’s a perpetual struggle to identify the right environment and create the necessary space for composing new works while constantly being on the road. So, as a multi-faceted artist, I am always seeking ways to strike that delicate balance between performing and composing, which requires a great deal of flexibility and adaptability. When I’m away from my primary workspace, like during travel or rehearsals, I’ve learned to embrace the downtime and use it wisely.


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