Monday, August 25, 2008

Teruah interviews Daniel David Feinsmith (8 months late)

We'll get to interview in a second. First I have to come clean (and this is quite embarrassing). Last October I posted about the wonderful Jewish composer Daniel David Feinsmith, noting that I didn't know much about Jewish art music. Daniel sent me a note kindly offering an interview that would help me get oriented. I sent him some an email with some questions, got a lengthy response, which I never followed up and never published. Sigh. Daniel did the reasonable thing and published the interview to his own blog. The interview then got republished on Jewish

I was going to ask Daniel some follow on questions but it's a bit late for that. So here it is, republished on my own blog. sigh.
Jack Zaientz: When I read about or listen to people talk about Jewish music, the same images tend to repeat: the European klezmer, the superstar cantor, the contemporary songleader, the Yiddish Theater star, the Sephardic singer, the Chassidic rebbe, the family zemirot. Could you tell me about the Jewish art music tradition, where it comes from and why you think it hasn't achieved the same cultural status as the others? (Or has it, and I've just missed it?)

Daniel David Feinsmith: The Jewish Art Music tradition is as ancient as Judaism and music itself. In every generation where musicians have authentic spiritual feeling and love for the Creator, the purpose-made talents that God gives them allows for an expression of those feelings. For whatever reason, what is called “Jewish Music” nowadays is mostly music that doesn’t come from the heart, or from genuine spiritual experience, but more often, comes from copying forms of the past, such as Klezmer, etc. Who today can honestly claim to experience and feel the feelings and emotions of the klezmorim of eastern Europe? At the time of the building of what we have now as the klezmer forms, these works were new and fresh and spoke directly to the hearts of the Jews of the time. Do we have those times today? Yes, we can take joy in that music, but ultimately, they only speak to us at a certain level, because they don’t speak to the real experience of Jews today. The great cantorial soloists of the postwar experience, were also truly great Jewish musicians. They felt the profound emotions of Jewry, and their musics were deeply felt and filled with profound emotion. In this day, these kinds of profound feelings, the intense longing and spirituality accompanying the feelings of the prophets, are rarely heard. You can sometimes hear this longing, this combination of exaltation in divinity and sorrow at the human state in genuine niggunim as well, when sung by masters who can feel and project the emotional and spiritual states that the niggunim project. More often than not, what we have today are copycats in Jewish music. Empty forms devoid of real experience or real effort. Forms over time naturally become empty and devoid of real meaning, of genuine emotion.

The Jewish Art tradition can be compared to, for example the paintings of Marc Chagall, a unique and personal expression of the love of God and the Torah. It is unique in that it comes directly from the heart of spiritual practice, rather than coming from the ossification of tradition and traditional form. Therefore, it has always historically refreshed Jewish art, refreshed Jewish thinking, and enabled people, through the powerful force of music, to enter the feeling of the composer.

There are so many examples of Jewish art music, that I will confine myself to the near present in discussing them. The many works of John Zorn and Steve Reich are good examples. My own works as well as my father’s works are other examples coming from more the romantic ideal in music. These are works that deal with either themes or questions that arise from the study of the Tanakh or esoteric studies such as the Zohar or the Sefer Yetzirah.

It must be remembered that the flowering of music is what we can call art music. This music is not folk music, but it is a studied music that is equal part philosophy, spirituality and science, and is involved in the study of sound, the study of genuine emotion as projected through sound, the study of the creation of worlds through the power of sound. This is very different from a folk music, which evolves along different, usually communal lines.

Of course, many non-Jewish composers have concentrated on themes from the Tanakh, notably Stravinsky, and the many Christian composers….. But the very specific Jewish feelings associated with those themes makes the Jewish treatment perforce have a different voice.

JZ: Your biography says that "your family history boasts a multigenerational line of composers, musical performers and writers which has been traced in an unbroken line as far back as the 1600s." Did this multigenerational line participate in Jewish art music as well? How did Jewish art music relate to the other types of music in which they were involved?

DDF: Only back a few generations. Prior to that time, there were Hazzanim.

JZ: Your biography also says that you're a "modern experimental classical composer" When so much of art music, particularly experimental contemporary art music, is abstract, what do you personally feel is the significance of labeling some of it Jewish? Do you think that's consistent with other Jewish art music composers, or do you think that other composers might have very different ideas?

DDF: All music is abstract only to those that don’t understand the language of music. To a person who is not cultured in music, descriptive lyrics, or onamatapoeticism is necessary. But to a person who has awakened the inner ear, who can hear depth in sound, there is no abstraction in music, but just the opposite: A concreteness of feeling, emotion and a concreteness of the worlds created through the potency of the composers craft.

JZ: One of your current projects, the Feinsmith Quartet, has a concert coming up on January 19th in New York. What music will you be performing? Do you feel that this concert is representative of a community of musicians and composers, or that the Quartet is fairly unique?

DDF: We will be performing two works of mine, ELOKIM, a 45-minute work for the quartet, HAVAYAH, a duet for cello and bass, as well as a work by MIchael Manring and two works of Gyan Riley.

The quartet is unusual in that it is the most powerful assemblage of virtuosi playing Jewish art music today. We also play music that is not Jewish art music, for example, Michael and Gyan’s works are not Jewish in content. They are both spiritual men, so there is a genuine feeling of love that comes from their works and their performances, so it is important for me to recognize the universality of the spiritual experience and life.

That said, there is no equivalent ensemble anywhere. Every player is a well-known star in their own right, and I put the ensemble together expressly to be able to perform works that have spirituality as their main thrust. Most ensembles will play whatever is popular, or whatever can bring an audience. Our thrust is different. We want to project depth and ideals that have eternal value, not abstract and clever principles of passing meaning.

JZ: If one of my readers wanted to know more about Jewish art music scene, maybe to keep track of new recordings or to find shows in there area, could you point them to any resources? Maybe a magazine, web page, or mailing list?

DDF: Just keep your eye on google.
I was planning on asking a few follow up questions because it felt we were talking past each other a bit. Oh well. Here's The Feinsmith Quartet rehearsing Feinsmith's "Elokim / See".
Rehearsal San Francisco Two

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