Beauty, California, Christian Baldini, New York

David Felder in Conversation with Christian Baldini

David Felder is an exceptional and unusual composer in many ways. While most composers treasure traveling around the world collaborating with various groups and orchestras, David Felder avoids traveling at all costs. He will not travel. Despite this he has built very strong ties to and valuable collaborations with some of the most important new music performers in the world over the course of several decades. These include Irvine Arditti, and his Arditti String Quartet, as well as the Buffalo Philharmonic (where Mr. Felder teaches), Nicholas Isherwood, Brad Lubman and his Ensemble Signal, and many more. On May 21, 2022, it will be my honor to conduct the West Coast première of Felder’s work Die Dämmerungen with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra at the Mondavi Center. I had the chance of asking David some questions, which he responded to via voice memos, and below is the transcription of these informal but extremely illuminating exchanges.

Christian Baldini: Your music is often inspired by external sources, such as literature, painting, or even a tarot deck of cards. For this piece you utilized poetry by William Carlos Williams, Dana Gioia, and also a quote from Psalm 130, and a direct reference to Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. Can you tell us how this fits into your creative process? Are there any particular ideas that come to mind first, and that inspire you to make references to these works through your music?

David Felder: Each one of the texts is set to instill an atmosphere for each one of the movements. In fact the texts were not picked first, but the music was conceived first. As I began working on the music I started searching for texts that would in some way tie the movements together but also create an atmosphere across the music.

I have a personal relationship with one of the poets. That is Dana Gioia. I have worked with his poetry before. We’ve been associated together and I very much enjoy his poetry. In this poem, he refers to Jacob and the Old testament story. Jacob’s ladder. The ladder which angels used to ascend and descend to/from heaven.

There is a sadness and lack of awareness in terms of the opportunity. The heavenly and the mundane. Jacob slept on a stone pillow through the potential experience. It’s spoken about as “Impossible distances”

1st poem / 1st movement: William Carlos Williams

“sparkles from the wheel” / the wheel can be thought of in many ways: a wheel of time

Ophanim: certain angels that surrounded the throne of Yahweh in certain Cabalistic formations

First two movements: Ascent and Descent

2nd movement: a particular location – reflective of the small town (East Aurora) where I personally reside – humanity attempting to bridge the gap between the mundane and the divine: a concern for me in this work

3rd movement: Psalm 130: ominous Old Testament text

Connecting to Jacob and his ladder

looking at a calling out from the abyss, from a very dark place

In 2017: the world began to feel very dark – I attempted to capture the ominous feeling of the world around me – it is a real calling out, a point of imitation / canonic treatment of a melodic line which is rising out from the depths and finds its expression at the very end of the movement

4th movement: a kind of scherzo

I abridge a Nietzsche’s text – “twilight of the fools”

we are living in a world which is governed by fools in every way – this is being proven more every moment that ensues

this piece has a tremendous sardonic edge to it – tremendous energy – feels like a kind of Helter Skelter and rootless energy

we are being shouted at from every particular angle 24/7 if our ears and eyes are open to it – “I shut my eyes and ears as much as possible now”

binary form: second form is highly repetitive, with a pounding energy

a couple of transcriptions of politicians ‘sloganeering’ – it has become endless today – we are inundated with inanity

as a young man I was fascinated and infatuated by the works of Shostakovich – “there is a Shostakovichian energy in this movement”

CB: To me this piece seems very spiritual. Not only do you have these trajectories of descending and going into the depths of the human soul, but you also have these “impossible distances”, as referenced in the beautiful poem by Dana Gioia. You make a reference to “the Goddess of Dawn and a sense of personal rather than collective place in the second piece. Over the course of the first three of the four pieces the music is quite dark, intense, slow evolving, extremely beautiful and expressive. And in your final movement somehow it all seems to click into place, with bursts of energy that most composers could only dream of. You also make references to the “age of shrill” and the “incessantly repetitive propaganda.” How do all these musical materials come into place for you? How do you balance out purely musical material from all these external elements that are clearly influencing you and inspiring you?

DF: This balance of programmatic and musical elements is always a challenge for any composer. Programmatic ideas come in a pre-compositional way – I know what I want to say and I find the technical means to say that.

Simple binary forms make it much easier for the listener to understand the material presented in the piece – These forms rhyme much like the poets have a relationship in this piece – from a technical point of view, music is meant to complement and reinforce itself through self-similarity

each movement begins in a similar way except for the fourth – the other three are more related to one another

rhyme: there is ascent followed by descent – sometimes the registers of the piece simply flip

We exist as members of a society and a culture, and we also exist as individuals – the piece attempts to try to address some of those various relationships

more personal: the town where I live (East Aurora) – a strong sense of place

3rd mov :a look at universal energy of despair

1st mov: universal phenomenon of sunlight and sunset and sunrise

last movement: a very specific cultural phenomenon: when societies are in intense decay, propagandas are at its highest

pulling all of this together is what one’s training as a composer allows one to attempt to do – I try to hold these divergent images together through my experience as a musician and as a composer for over 50 years

CB: Besides your extremely successful and busy career as a composer you have been a remarkable teacher to so many great composers. Your influence and your legacy mentoring and reaching out to the future generations is invaluable. How have you balanced your life as a Distinguished Professor and Birge-Cary Chair in Composition at SUNY Buffalo, and as the Artistic Director of the “June in Buffalo” Festival since 1985, with your life as a composer?

DF: For almost 50 years I’ve been producing concerts. I felt very strongly that it’s very important for young composers to have their music produced at a very high level.

balance: I’ve never only wanted to do just one thing – It became very interesting and important for me to create musical opportunities for audiences, composers

Now, reverse engineering. There’s been a cost. It’s taken enormous energy to put this into place and maintain it. It comes at some expense to the creative work that you do.

I’m coming now to what I consider to be the end of my creative moment. I recently finished a second cycle of Jeu de Tarot. 14 movements.

After that I’m going to take a hiatus. That hiatus will continue until I have a good idea.

David Felder (courtesy photo)

David Felder has long been recognized as a leader in his generation of American composers. His works have been featured at many of the leading international festivals for contemporary music, and earn continuing recognition through performance and commissioning programs. Felder’s work has been broadly characterized by its highly energetic profile, through its frequent employment of technological extension and elaboration of musical materials (including his Crossfire video series, and the video/music collaboration Shamayim), and its lyrical qualities.

Felder has received numerous grants and commissions including many composer’s awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, two New York State Council commissions, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, Guggenheim, two Koussevitzky commissions, two Fromm Foundation Fellowships, two awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, Meet the Composer “New Residencies” (1993-1996), composer residency with the Buffalo Philharmonic, two commissions from the Mary Flagler Cary Trust, and many more.

In May 2010, he received the Music Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a career recognition award. Shamayim was awarded a Silver Medal in Music from the Park City Film Festival in Spring, 2011.

Felder serves as Birge-Cary Chair in Composition at SUNY Buffalo, and has been Artistic Director of the “June in Buffalo” Festival since 1985, when he revived it upon his arrival in Buffalo. Since 2006, he has been Director of the Robert and Carol Morris Center for 21st Century Music at the University. From 1992 to 1996 he was Meet the Composer “New Residencies,” Composer-in-Residence to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and WBFO-FM. In 1996, he formed the professional chamber orchestra, the Slee Sinfonietta, and has been Artistic Director since that time. In 2008, he was named SUNY Distinguished Professor, the highest rank in the entirety of the SUNY system. In 2015 he was named Co-Director of the University at Buffalo’s Creative Arts Initiative, a plan to bring major international creative artists to the region as guest artists.

Felder recently released a CD on Coviello Contemporary featuring Jeu de Tarot (2016-2017), a chamber concerto recorded by Irvine Arditti and Ensemble Signal, and conducted by Brad Lubman. The disc also features his string quartet Netivot (2016), recorded by the Arditti Quartet, and Another Face (1987), recorded by Irvine Arditti. His recent orchestra piece, Die Dämmerungen, commissioned by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, will receive its complete world premiere at Kleinhans Music Hall on October 5th and 6th, 2019, under the baton of JoAnn Falletta.

A dedicated teacher and mentor, he has served as Ph.D. dissertation advisor and major professor for over eighty composers at Buffalo, many of whom are actively teaching, composing and performing internationally at leading institutions. Nearly 900 ’emerging’ composers have participated in June in Buffalo, the festival Felder pioneered and dedicated to younger composers upon his arrival in Buffalo in 1985. Felder served as Master Artist in Residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in February-March, 2010. His works are published by Theodore Presser, and Project Schott New York, and portrait recordings are available on Albany, Bridge, Coviello, BMOP/sound, Mode, and EMF. Two recording projects were recently completed, both of Les Quatres Temps Cardinaux in surround sound, with one being released on BMOP/sound, and the other on Coviello Contemporary.

Music, Concerto, Experimental, Christian Baldini, California, composer, Conductor, Beauty

UC Davis Sinfonietta Debut: Ligeti, Wald, Catalan, Shirazi.

On Friday, May 13, 2022 I will finally have the pleasure of conducting the first public performance of the UC Davis Sinfonietta, a wonderful large ensemble comprised of some of the most advanced musicians at UC Davis. We will be performing an iconic work of the “large ensemble” repertoire: Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. We will pair the Ligeti with three short works that were written for the exact same instrumentation by Aida Shirazi, Josiah Catalan and Sarah Wald. I asked these three excellent young composers if they’d like to write a companion piece for the Ligeti, and each of them came up with their own beautifulproposal and very distinctive style, which I find fascinating.

PROGRAM

Sarah Wald, Lavava y Suspirava: Fantasy on a Sephardic Romance (world première)

Aida Shirazi, Lament (world premiére)

Josiah Catalan, Cloudburst (world première)

György Ligeti, Chamber Concerto

UC Davis Sinfonietta

Christian Baldini, music director & conductor

Ann E. Pitzer Center, UC Davis

May 13, 2022, 7pm

UC Davis Sinfonietta rehearsing at the Pitzer Center

This performance was actually meant to take place in 2020, but of course we all know that the world was shut down, and this public debut the Sinfonietta was then canceled and it had to be postponed. The existence of this Sinfonietta is very important to me. I am a firm believer in the power of performing chamber music with friends and colleagues. The members of this Sinfonietta are almost exclusively leaders of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, which is in itself a powerhouse among University orchestras in the world. Offering our members a deeper dive into this repertoire is a very symbiotic experience, which promotes artistic growth of its individual members, and also of the whole orchestra. Promoting fluid communication, better understanding and even a closer familiarity among our members is very positive in every way. Seeing their commitment, their joy and their excitement in bringing these four works to life has been a real delight, and I look forward to sharing these premieres with our audience.

György Ligeti’s music always feels to me like visiting a dear old friend. I have been very fortunate to conduct several works by him such as Lontano, Atmosphéres, Mysteries of the Macabre, selections from his Requiem, his Violin Concerto (with the wonderful Miranda Cuckson, which was released on Centaur Records), and also chamber works of his. He was probably the most original musician of his generation (and this is not a minor accomplishment having been a contemporary of Luciano Berio). He was not only a perfectionist and a tremendous innovator, but he was very independent, never quite associated with any “schools” of composition per se. He clearly did not need to associate himself with any of them aesthetically in order to succeed: “I hate all these pseudo-philosophical over-simplifications. I hate all ideologies,” Ligeti said in a 1986 interview. “I have certain musical imaginations and ideas. I don’t write music naively. But I imagine music as it sounds, very concretely. I listen to it in my inner ear. Then I look for a certain system, for a certain construction. It’s important for me, the construction. But I always know it’s a second thing, it’s not a primary factor. And I never think in philosophical terms, or never in extra-musical terms.”

Composed between 1969 and 1970, the Chamber Concerto work utilizes Ligeti’s fascination with micropolyphony, creating textures that arise from many lines of gradually denser canons that move at different speeds or rhythms, and which result in complex sonorities, as described by Ligeti himself: “One clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape.” “This four-movement piece is a concerto inasmuch as all 13 players are virtuoso soloists and are all treated as equals,” Ligeti says. “In other words, we are not dealing with the usual type of concerto in which soli and tutti alternate, but with a piece for 13 concertante soloists. The voices always develop simultaneously, but in varying rhythmic configurations and generally at differing speeds.”

Here is also some very helpful information from Sarah Wald, Josiah Catalan and Aida Shirazi about their own works:

Notes by Sarah Wald:

I composed “Lavava y Suspirava”: Fantasy on a Sephardic Romance as part of my dissertation, which was a collection of seven pieces, for a variety of different ensembles, based on Sephardic folk songs. I was very excited to write this piece because the combination of instruments is really wonderful, and it was a lot of fun to write a companion piece to Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. This piece was also an important precursor to my current, post-PhD work with Sephardic folk songs. It is one of only two in my dissertation collection that is based on a romance specifically. Romances—also known as narrative ballads—are a really special genre within the Sephardic folk repertoire. As my program notes mention, traditionally, they were very much a women’s genre: Sephardic women would sing romances to instill and reinforce important Jewish values. In my current work, I’ve pivoted towards focusing on the romances almost exclusively.

I’m very much looking forward to the premiere. I had originally planned and timed everything to have all of my dissertation pieces performed and recorded before receiving my PhD, but COVID threw a wrench into the works. While I was lucky to have some of my dissertation pieces recorded prior to graduation, it was a little disappointing to have a few performances/recordings still outstanding. So this upcoming premiere is highly anticipated and even cathartic, in a way.

My piece is based on the Sephardic romance “Lavava y Suspirava” (“Washing and Sighing”). Romances in Sephardic culture were traditionally associated with women and the domestic sphere: For example, mothers would often sing them to their children as lullabies. This romance is based on the tale of Don Bueso. At the beginning of the song, a captive woman washing clothes in a river spots a knight returning from war. The knight invites the woman to leave her washing behind and come with him. As the song progresses, the two recognize each other as long-lost brother and sister and are subsequently reunited with their parents.

In my piece, melodic fragments from the original song are altered and recombined constantly throughout the ensemble. I preserve the overall structure of the original song, including the surprising modal shift toward the end. The convergence on one note (Ab) during the last third of the piece serves to emphasize that modal shift and to represent a sense of suspended time, as the long-lost siblings’ realization sinks in that their family will be made whole again.

Sarah Wald holds degrees from Columbia University (BA in music), the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (MM in composition), and the University of California, Davis (PhD in composition and theory). Sarah’s music has been featured at festivals in the US and Europe and on WFMT’s Relevant Tones. Over the last several years, her pieces were selected from calls for scores for New Music on the Bayou (2016), women’s choir Vox Musica (2017), chamber group North/South Consonance (2018), and the Sewanee Summer Music Festival (2020). Sarah has also received a number of grants and commissions from organizations such as the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the Saint Xavier University Flute Choir, the University of Tennessee Martin’s Contemporary Music Group, Keyed Kontraptions, and Access Contemporary Music.

Sarah Wald (courtesy photo)

Lament Program Notes (by Aida Shirazi)

Lament is based on the aria, Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. It revolves around the concepts of longing, death, and sorrow. I have tried to reimagine these concepts according to my personal experience of loss and the burden and darkness caused by it.

The core idea of my piece is a descending chromatic bass line which represents the traditional lament bass line and borrowed from the aria. The chord progression built on this bass line moves slowly and the bass line is mostly embedded in the overall texture of the piece. In time, the harmonic rhythm becomes faster and the bass line more recognizable. Towards the end of the piece, I have incorporated a melodic fragment of the aria, which is an homage to this heart-wrenching opera and Purcell.

I am thrilled about the premiere of Lament by the UC Davis Sinfonietta under the direction of Maestro Baldini. While working on the piece, I anticipated to be present at the rehearsals and premiere, like all other performances of my works at UC Davis since 2016. The idea of working with Maestro Baldini on yet another occasion and sharing the program with my dear friends, Sarah Wald and Josiah Catalan, for the inaugural concert of our Sinfonietta would give me enormous joy. However, the pandemic changed the course of everyone’s lives and sent all of us into a limbo. Thanks to science and, of course, the perseverance of our artists, we are finally able to get back to the halls and savor the beauty of live music-making. It is a pity that I cannot be present for this concert. I wish I could be there to celebrate the gift of my fellow composers and performers, but I thank all of them from the bottom of my heart and cheer them with a standing ovation all the way from Paris. Writing Lament was a rich and, at times, intense emotional journey for me. I hope I have succeeded in creating a similar experience for the audience

Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, Aida Shirazi (1987) is a composer of acoustic and electroacoustic music. Shirazi’s music is described as ”unfolding with deliberation” by The New York Times, “well-made” and “affecting” by The New Yorker, and “unusually creative” by San Francisco Classical Voice.

In her works for solo instruments, voice, ensemble, orchestra, and electronics, she mainly focuses on timbre for organizing structures inspired by Persian or English languages and literature.

Shirazi’s music has been featured at festivals and concert series including Manifeste, Mostly Mozart, OutHear New Music Week, MATA, New Music Gathering, Direct Current, Taproot, and Tehran Contemporary Music Festival in venues such as Maison de la Radio France, Lincoln Center, and Kennedy Center. Her works are performed by Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Miranda Cuckson, International Contemporary Ensemble, Oerknal, Quince Ensemble, Ensemble Dal Niente, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Empyrean Ensemble, and Bilkent Symphony Orchestra among others.

Shirazi has earned her Ph.D. in composition and music theory from the University of California, Davis. She has studied with Mika Pelo, Pablo Ortiz, Kurt Rohde, Yiğit Aydın, Tolga Yayalar, Onur Türkmen, and Hooshyar Khayam as well as participating in workshops and masterclasses by Mark Andre, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Riccardo Piacentini, and Füsun Köksal, among others. Shirazi holds her B.A. in classical piano from Tehran University of Art (Iran), and her B.M. in music composition and theory from Bilkent University (Ankara, Turkey). She has studied santoor (traditional Iranian hammered dulcimer) with Parissa Khosravi Samani. Shirazi is a class 2021-22 participant in IRCAM’s “Cursus Program in Composition and Computer Music.”

Aida Shirazi (courtesy photo)

Catalan: Cloudburst

For flute, oboe, clarinet in B♭, bass clarinet, horn in F, trombone, piano, celesta, and strings
Composed 2022

Duration about 6 minutes

Cloudburst explores a couple simple ideas throughout this piece: the accumulation and release of movement and energy. Over time, the keyboard instruments with ostinato lines become slowly distorted through countering waves of sound that cause subtle to intense degrees of rhythmic and harmonic dissonance. Eventually, this progressive accumulation of energy reaches a breaking point where all that momentum is released, leaving the aftermath of incessant ostinatos behind to slower-moving masses and trickling of sounds. I would like to thank Christian Baldini and the players of the UC Davis Sinfonietta for their work in performing this piece. 

Josiah Tayag Catalan (he/him) is a Filipino-American composer born in New York City and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Recently, his compositional interests have become centered around the intersects of merging alternative modes of temporality and harmony by fusing elements that stem from influences in traditional, avant-garde, popular, and Southeast Asian musics. He has been awarded prizes from NACUSA, the Sacramento State Festival of New American Music, the Megalopolis Saxophone Orchestra, and the American Prize, has been a finalist in the Thailand International Competition Festival and ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer’s Awards, and has served as a Fromm Foundation Composer Fellow in the Composer’s Conference. Josiah’s music has been commissioned and performed internationally by individuals and groups such as the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Earplay, Empyrean Ensemble, Lydian and Arditti String Quartets, the MANA saxophone quartet, The Megalopolis Saxophone Orchestra, violinist Miranda Cuckson, percussionist Chris Froh, and soprano Helena Sorokina. His music is published by BabelScores.

Currently, Josiah is a Bilinski Fellow at the University of California, Davis researching the music of composers in the Philippine avant-garde movement and teaching as a lecturer in Music Theory and Composition at Sacramento State. He is a tennis and baseball nerd who plays competitively, enjoys riding road bikes on scenic California highways, and often hikes around Northern California with his partner and adopted mutt. 

Josiah Catalan (courtesy photo)