by Carol J. Oja
In the chaotically diverse American compositional scene of the late twentieth century, a return to longstanding traditions has taken hold in some quarters. Yet the zany pluralism of American culture often makes “tradition” a slippery concept. These days historic European music stands alongside that of Japan or Indonesia. Songs of the Beatles are labeled “classics,” and Mozart is piped into the dentist’s office together with the latest dose of New Age serenity.
The music of Joel Feigin invents its own response to this eclecticism. It is deeply rooted in the history of European-American concert music yet rich with the yin-yang juxtapositions possible in post-war, postmodern America. A practicing Buddhist, Feigin declares that “Bach influences me more than anyone; I got involved in hard-core European music very early.” A composer of atonal music, Feigin unabashedly—and effectively—laces his scores with tonality. A lover of intricately woven counterpoint, Feigin can pull out a soaring melody that rivals Schubert. All this adds up to a music that is never easy-listening, yet always approachable—music that confidently negotiates today’s tricky aesthetic borders.
Feigin has a strong sense of who he is, and his compositions show it. Born in New York in 1951, he went to Columbia as an undergraduate and came of age at a turbulent time. “When I started out in the late sixties,” Feigin recalls, “it felt crazy being a composer. On the one hand the serialists were saying ‘do the numbers,’ and on the other I heard, ‘do a happening.’ None of it worked for me.” What did work was to defy the anti-establishment Zeitgeist of the day and turn to, as Feigin puts it, his “musical grandparents or even greatgrandparents,” studying first at Fontainbleau with Nadia Boulanger, the famed pedagogue then in her eighties, and later at The Juilliard School with Roger Sessions, an important teacher in mid-twentieth-century America.
Feigin holds great respect for both figures, and in describing their traits says as much about himself as his teachers. Of Sessions, Feigin observes, “He was very much a modernist but he was very open.” Once when Feigin got tangled in writing a twelve-tone composition, Sessions told him, “Why don’t you write what you hear and forget the row?” Feigin’s own approach to so-called modernism is exuberantly unbounded, especially in his imaginative combination of tonal and atonal writing. Of the pieces on these discs, First Tragedyshows this suppleness most graphically, with distinct switches between diatonic and chromatic sections. But it is elsewhere too. Such polarities also separate whole pieces, as with Veranderungen, which has an atonal inclination, and Nexus, which tips in the other direction. These works are not composed consecutively; there is no linear progress here from one style of writing to another. Rather Feigin uses both languages simultaneously. “Tonality vs. atonality is really a false issue,” observes Feigin. “What’s really tough and demanding is to express your true self.”
Looking back on his time with Boulanger, Feigin singles out her focus on craft, a trait noted by many of her students over the decades. But he also admires something les~ widely proclaimed: her view of music “as a spiritual practice.” It proved to be a bond between a staunch Catholic raised in the nineteenth century and a young man who within a few years would find himself involved in Buddhism. “I think she regarded herself as a nun for music,” Feigin muses. “As long.as you can realize that a spiritual practice is the most ordinary thing that could be, it’s almost the only healthy way to approach composition.” Feigin’s personal form of spirituality shines out from his music in various ways. Sometimes it assumes a beatific calm. At others it has more to do with his choice of texts and extra-musical themes, which tend to confront the inexplicable profundities at the core of the human experience. The quickness of life darts through Feigin’s work, yet it is never far from the starkness of death. Perhaps because of his Buddhist practice, Feigin’s vision of death is neither fearful nor horrific. Rather it seems a natural extension of the living that leads into it. Buddhism also provides a key to Feigin’s tendency to combine tonality with atonality. “Serious Zen practice made me open to the tonal possibilities that are so much a part of me,” he notes. “Apart from craft, there’s the continual openness to your whole life and the whole universe — a kind of disintegration of that separation.” And the practice of meditation basic to Buddhism might explain why Feigin often ends pieces with tranquil tonal sections. Meditation can be exceedingly difficult—a battle with intrusive agitation before true mental quietude is achieved.
Feigin’s music shows a glorious gift for melody, so it comes as no surprise that songs are at the core of his output. He understands the human voice and relishes nuances in the English language. “For me,” he points out, “music is about expressing feelings, embodying them in sound and gesture—a way to get to those states of feeling that are beyond the verbal. Even with texts, music permits you to convey the preverbal subtext.” From a historical perspective, Feigin’s songs would seem to derive from an American vocal-music tradition, but when asked about his influences he names Dallapiccola and Britten. His vocal music grows more out of opera than lied, as he often claims, and his taste in poetry leans toward spare language and probing messages. He acknowledges the appeal of “very far-flung world texts.” A strong vocal impulse also marks Feigin’s instrumental works, many of them featuring such traditional melody-carriers as flute, oboe, or violin. “All of my music comes out of melody,” Feigin states, “out of an imitation of natural human expression—the way we communicate with each other.”
Feigin’s lyrical bent and penchant for ravishing poetic images characterize Five Ecstatic Poems of Kabir, a song cycle for soprano, flute, clarinet, percussion, and piano, completed in 1989, with texts by a fifteenth-century Indian poet and Sufi mystic. Composed while Feigin was artist-in-residence at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, the songs have a spiritual aura—which is not to suggest, however, that they are without turbulent emotions. There is a literal Buddhist touch in the Tibetan cymbals that open the work (sounding D and E-flat), providing, according to Feigin, “the tonal language from which it emerges.” The cymbals return in the third song. In both cases they set a mood of ecstatic delirium, picked up by the rippling flute in the first song and frenetically oscillating instrumental figures in the third. But Buddhism resonates from another aspect of the piece—the contemplative peacefulness of the second song and the radiantly sonorous chords at the end. The five songs flow together, with the fourth an instrumental rendering of the poem’s evocation of a storm. Originally written for contralto Dorothea Brinkmann, the cycle was revised in 1995 for soprano Christine Schadeberg.
Veränderungen (“Transformations”) for violin and piano (1995) represents, in Feigin’s words, yet another “reintegration of atonal possibilities with tonal possibilities.” Reflecting its title, the work is cast in variation form, a common vehicle for musical change. But according to the composer it also deals with the issue on another level, evoking “the transformation of life into death.” He dedicated this work to the memory of a friend who died of cancer. This is a challenging piece, both musically and emotionally. As Feigin describes it, internal sections are linked by “elided cadences… The first variation is a rhapsodic solo for the piano, followed in the second by an impassioned recitative in the violin. The next four variations feature more articulate movement leading to a climax after which the violin breaks into the seventh variation, a fast violin solo in double-stops.” Nine variations appear, the last releasing into a chaste closing chorale.Veränderungen was composed at the request of David Andruss and Christine Eisenbrand-Andruss, a violin-piano duo based in Germany.
With Four Poems of Linda Pastan for soprano, flute, viola, double bass, piano, and percussion (1987), Feigin turns to texts by a contemporary writer. His settings lean toward the atonal and incorporate spoken segments, giving the songs an expressionistic cast. Feigin writes:
This piece originated when I glanced casually at a book of Linda Pastan’s poetry at the Millay Colony, opened to ‘Instructions to the Reader,’ and knew immediately I would set it. Eventually this poem was complemented by ‘We Come to Silence’; and in between I placed the two evocations of childhood that gave the book its title: ‘PM/AM.’ ‘Instructions to the Reader’ is basically concerned with the nature and difficulties of artistic communication, while the final hymn to silence suggests that quietness of mind which is essential both for creation and receptivity. It is also, in my mind, a poem about a quiet, peaceful death.
These songs were written for Mimmi Fulmer and the Currents Ensemble of the University of Richmond, directed by Fred Cohen.
Four Fantasy Pieces for flute and piano (1987) is an especially vivid case of Feigin’s tendency to craft music for the delight of performers. With a cascading flute line that seems native to the instrument, the piece appears to be uninhibitedly spontaneous. “For me, composing comes out of improvisation,” Feigin proclaims. “Often a piece starts out as an improvisation. I consider drafting as improvising on paper.” Four Fantasy Pieces also shows Feigin’s desire to convey emotional states through music. “The Cavatina is a sad, songful piece, culminating in an angry climax which recedes back to a quiet ending,” he writes. The “Scherzo” (second movement) and “Molto Perpetuo” (fourth movement) have “joking moods,” and “Notturno” (third movement) features “a peaceful line which is interrupted by fast, mercurial segments.” “Notturno” also has a magically delicate conclusion. This is a fanciful work, economical to the core. Four Fantasy Pieces was written for flutist Jill Dreeben.
Four Poems of Wallace Stevens was composed in 1985 and revised in 1996, although the first song dates back even earlier to Feigin’s student days. It has a scoring characteristic of Feigin: soprano, flute, percussion, cello, and piano. Also characteristic is the coloratura writing for voice, with angular expressionistic lines alternating with spoken sections. Feigin calls the cycle “a dramatic evocation of its text.” The more modernistic strain of Feigin’s work is apparent here, with consistent chromaticism and a prismatic placement of instrumental fragments across a wide span of musical space. The songs flow into one another, connected by brief instrumental interludes. They were written for the soprano Patrice Pastore and the Sati Ensemble of Ithaca, New York.
Nexus for flute and piano (1993) is “an homage to Bach” written in three distinct movements. “I agree with my Zen teachers that Bach had a beeline to the center of the universe,” says Feigin.
The “Prelude” is pure fun, contrapuntally conceived in perpetual motion. It is “built out of a simple descending suspension series as an attempt to create ‘out of airy nothing’ a light and graceful music.” With the “Adagio,” a frank melody soars over an accompaniment of fresh simplicity. This movement “features a rhapsodic, non-metric introduction and interlude for piano alone, which articulate metered sections for both instruments.” Playfulness re-emerges in the concluding “Gigue,” in which there is exceptional composerly assurance. This fugal movement is “derived from the suspension series of the Prelude. Like most of Bach’s Gigues, it is binary, the second part beginning with an inversion of the subject and coming to a cheerful cadence in D major.” Nexus was commissioned by chemist and flutist Jerrold Meinwald.
First Tragedy for soprano, clarinet, and piano, was written in 1982 and revised ten years later. Described by Feigin as “the first piece in which I combined tonal and atonal writing,” it uses these musical idioms to illustrate wildly fluctuating emotions. “With atonality,” muses Feigin, “Angst is a cinch. It’s great for expressing very extreme emotions. But it’s not very adaptable to joy, and it’s only to a limited degree capable of conveying more peaceful emotions.” That formula precisely describes the shifting states of First Tragedy. Set to a poem by Trieu Vu, the cycle includes four songs of mourning in which a young woman learns that her husband has been killed in the Vietnam War and begins to cope with the news. Throughout, the contrast of tonal with atonal writing dramatizes her emotional seesaw. At the outset, atonality and spoken delivery combine to depict stark terror. In the second song, as the woman attempts to absorb her anguish, tonality enters—sometimes distinctively altered, sometimes straightforward. It is a deeply moving section, spare in both text and music. The third song is again chromatic, with the young widow manically obsessing about the future. She begins with speech but, as Feigin puts it, “goes into song when she can’t any more deny how extreme the reality is around her.” With the fourth song, she grapples with another crisis: she is pregnant with the dead man’s child. Here too there is atonal torture, but it dissolves into tenderness when tonal gestures convey her supplication to the unborn child to “try to grow up like your father.” First Tragedy was composed for Christine Schadeberg and the Voices of Change Ensemble of Dallas.
Echoes from the Holocaust for oboe, viola, and piano (1993) explores another tragic realm of the human experience. A kind of sonic memorial, it confronts the horror of its subject with an ultra-lucid structure, built as “a set of variations on an idealized Jewish ‘folksong’ inspired by features of two songs written by Holocaust victims.” The first song is Makh Tsu Di Eygelekh (Close Your Little Eyes) by David Beyglman who died in the gas chambers of Treblinka and the second Babi Yar by Riva Boyarsky, a Soviet Jew. Both appear in We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust, compiled by Eleanor Mlotek and Malke Gottlieb, with a foreword by Elie Wiesel, and published by The Workmen’s Circle. Feigin describes the piece this way:
The oboe states the song alone at the beginning of the piece, followed by fourteen variations and a freer coda. Some short free extensions between variations help to articulate the outlines of a fast-slow-fast structure, which in turn is flanked by a slow introduction and coda. At the still center of the piece, the song becomes a slow, solemn chorale for the piano alone, followed by an ornamental variation in E minor. Finally, after a climax, fragments of the song die slowly into silence.
Echoes from The Holocaust was written for oboist Sarah Lambert Bloom.
Eight Japanese Poems sets a group of traditional Buddhist texts that depict, as Feigin puts it, “the struggles of a practitioner on the path.” Like a Japanese painting, the first poem is filled with naturalistic images—a stone, mountains, a stream, rain, thunder, the cold—and the poems that follow are all aphoristic haiku. At times Feigin’s melodies are reminiscent of chant; the first few measures, for example, could be intoned by a monk in a forest. More often they are disjunct, filled with angular leaps that suggest the mental agitation—sometimes called “monkey mind”—that can occur while meditating. These songs provide no mellow passport to bliss, rather they show the difficulty of achieving it, conveying “bothtranquility and violent protest.” This is even so at the end, which has a “peaceful if not quite conclusive resolution.” Feigin has written that he “wishes to communicate the toughness as well as the compassion that are inseparable in Zen.” The most distinctive sound here comes from the harp, which uses little of the gossamer filigree traditionally associated with the instrument. Rather the harp is transformed into a koto, at times sounding austere and percussive, at others delicately ethereal. Note especially the splendid harp cadenza at the end of the fourth song and the dramatic harp gestures at the beginning of the fifth. Eight Japanese Poems was written in 1983 for tenor Gregory Mercer and harpist Barbara Chapman and revised ten years later for soprano Christine Schadeberg.
Buddhism also infuses Transience, a work for oboe and percussion from 1994 that is inscribed with a poem from the Diamond Sutra (translated by A. F. Price):
Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
Once again, though, listeners expecting a New Age bromide will be surprised. “Most of it is angry, loud, disjunct, and dissonant,” observes Feigin. “For me, impermanence, the transitoriness of all things, has usually led to sadness and anger. However, perhaps we could find peacefulness within this world of change — a peacefulness such as the Buddha glimpsed when he saw ‘a star at dawn.'” And so Feigin conjures up both states — the agitated and the luminously centered — in part by using the antipodes of atonality and tonality. Most of the piece features an angular dialogue between oboe and nonpitched percussion (cymbals, tom-toms, temple blocks, snare drums). Glimpses of tranquility appear in “Adagio” sections for oboe and pitched percussion (vibraphone, marimba). These are harbingers of the final extended segment, which uses oboe and pitched percussion to create an otherworldly sense of repose. There the wisdom of Buddha joins hands with the spirit of Bach.
Transience was commissioned by A Due, the ensemble of Robert Falvo and Alicia Chapman.
Carol J. Oja is currently William Powell Mason professor of music at Harvard University. Among her many books, Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s (2000), won the Lowens Book Award from the Society of American Music and an ASCAP – Deems Taylor Award.