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 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.