CNMAT Felciano Interview

 

Nevada County, with its tiny, exquisitely preserved capitol, Nevada City, is an historic Sierra foothills region which became a magnet in the 'Back to the Land' movement of the 1970s and home to such creative spirits as composer Terry Riley and California's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Poet Laureate, Gary Snyder.   Snyder's writings on the environment, reported in the New York Times, were seen by Felciano in 1971 in Boston, where he was attached to the office of the mayor as Ford Foundation composer-in-residence.   They inspired his 1971 live electronics work, The Angels of Turtle Island, which used soprano, flute, violin, and   percussion, and was described in the January, 1975 Musical Quarterly as "eye/ear/head music that embraces several levels of meaning; and it works."                                               

 

In 1997 the Nevada County Composers Coalition invited Richard Felciano to present a full evening of his works.   Prior to his visit, he was interviewed by Eric Tomb.

 

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"The most consistent influence," Richard Felciano has written about his life, "is that of my childhood in a small northern California community with substantial Japanese and Portuguese populations.   From these groups I learned a sense of ritual, of structure, of awe, and of music as a social function....The reality of the world to me is East and West, stasis and dynamism, meditation and dialectic.   It is also what California is - the edge where the two meet."

Over the past five decades, Felciano has traveled far from that Sebastopol childhood, he studied music and Santa Rosa Junior College, San Francisco State and Mills College - where he worked under Darius Milhaud - then went on to Paris for more study with Milhaud and Messiaen and to Florence for composition work with Luigi Dallapiccola (who said he had "the finest preparation of any American who has studied with me").   Returning to the U.S., he became professor of music at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco in 1959 and at U.C. Berkeley (where he still teaches) in 1967.

Already an accomplished composer of instrumental and vocal music, Felciano turned to electronic and tape-enhanced forms in the mid-60s.   Crasis (1967), his first major electronic piece, was inspired by the harsh but subtle wailing of the Japanese Noh drama.   Glossolalia (1967), composed for the dedication of a Pennsylvania church, fused electronics and a sparse set of conventional instruments in a setting of Psalm 150.

In these years, Felciano also blazed new trails by bringing contemporary music into unconventional settings.   He wrote pieces for Detroit high school students, devised works for television, including pieces in which the television and its viewers took part in creating the final sounds, and composed an environment for the great atrium of Boston's new City Hall ( Municipal Box , 1972), in which 17 speakers and light sculptures of his own design produced a sonic and visual landscape which changed as listeners moved through the space.

In the last two decades, Felciano has continued to explore new musical forms and environments with such major works as Orchestra (1980),   written for the opening of San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall, Shadows (1987) for chamber ensemble, and Overture Concertante (1996) for clarinet and orchestra, composed at the request of Kent Nagano for virtuoso clarinetist Jean-Michel Bertelli, performed in Berkeley and Lyons, France, and recorded by Bertelli and the Czech National Orchestra in Prague under Paul Freeman (Albany CD TROY 322).

Mr. Felciano's work has been recognized by - among others - grants and awards from the Fromm, Ford, Martha Baird Rockefeller, and Guggenheim Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.   ( update: In 1999, he received a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress.   The result was An American Decameron , an hour-long song cycle based on the interviews of Studs Terkel.   It was performed in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in 2003.)

In December 1996, I talked with Richard Felciano about two of his best-known works.  

Eric Tomb:   I've been listening today to Angels of Turtle Island (1972).   I get a sense of remote echoing, abstracted from life, and I don't get any sense of sorrow or of heavy burden; but the notes imply that it was written during the Vietnam War and that a lot of it was written in real distress about what was happening there.

Richard Felciano :   Well, that's true.   Hanging of the wall of my study in Boston, where I wrote this, was a clipping from the New York Times about Gary Snyder.   He was speaking very eloquently of the nature of the earth and the importance of preserving it and its processes.   The article so moved me that I began to think of the way that natural processes in the ecosystem work:   a perpetual cycle, where things move very slowly and where even erosion is a part of that.   In the universe nothing is created and nothing is destroyed; matter becomes energy and energy becomes matter.   This is a very moving concept.

I have done a number of pieces which I guess you might call political, but I can't turn music into a political tract: if that's one's agenda, then I think one simply has to get involved directly in politics.   If one is going to use art to do these things, there has to be something in the basic idea which can be abstracted and made the structural basis of the music itself.   What I attempted to do in this piece was to take the ideas he had talked about and put that into the structure of the piece.   I tried to devise it so that any music idea, once introduced, would be perpetually present until in a slow process = like erosion = it would gradually be overridden with other ideas.   That set up the process which would give me the form of the piece, and my task was to come up with ideas which were small enough--that's the real problem with dealing with live electronics.   Teilhard de Chardin said that the nature of technology is to complexify.   What we put into the system has to be very minimal so the system can do the elaboration on it.   If we put in stuff which is already well-formed and finished, once that gets elaborated on, you're going to come out with noise at the other end.

Stuart Canin, the former concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, did the violin part in the first West Coast performance.   He looked at the page and said, "My God, there's nothing there, and listen to what comes out!"   Once you start playing with the electronics, what comes out is absolutely wonderful and very complex.   That was exactly the goal: I wanted those very processes to function in that way.   Turtle Island is the Hopi name for the American continent.   The idea in calling it The Angels of Turtle Island was simply that, if we would leave these things alone, they would sustain both themselves and us.   That concept was totally contrary to what was going on at that moment, when we were still involved in the Vietnam War.   The way I put that into the piece was that this static, calm, evolving aspect, which is really the majority of the work, is interrupted four times - by the flute, violin, percussion, and soprano.   It's interrupted in each instance by having this calm texture violated with a very dramatic outburst.   When it gets to be the soprano's turn, she has a series of stream-of-consciousness words which include some references to Vietnam.   They link abstract word syllables together: she gets to "me", "you" and then it's "me", "lie", which refers to the My Lai massacre.   The word after that is "they", which suggests that we, as humans, have a constant tendency to blame other people for whatever we may have done wrong.

ET:   When I hear it, I hear the drama of the calmness, the interruption and then more calmness, the process of erosion and recreation as an ongoing overarching process that washes away any of the personal grief.

RF:   It's interesting that you put it that way.   I had a friend come visit me this afternoon.   We were discussing Jung and Freud, and I said to him that I always had a big problem with Freud, in that his ideas were all centered on the individual, who can end up being quite empty.   [For] Jung, on the other hand, the individual was not important in him- or herself, but, paradoxically, [was important] because he or she existed in relation to the cosmos, all that archetypal structure that he demonstrated had occurred in cultures without any known contact with one another.   The richness of that cosmology is simply staggering.   It's remarkably accurate in its reading of the way the earth functions.   I think we are overly concerned with the individual.   What I get out of concentrating on the individual is that it tends to reduce itself to zero.

ET:   Do you see a particular goal for your music?   You say you're not trying to be political.   Are you trying to create a particular state of mind, a particular emotional state?  

RF:   My wife and I were among the first people in San Francisco to use the Lamaze method of childbirth back in the '60's.   The doctor we had asked the prospective fathers about the raising of children.   One after another said the child should not have any negative experiences and everything should be positive.   It got to me and I said, "If you're not careful you're going to raise a generation of emotional cripples, who will not be able to respond to a Shakespeare play, much less to a Greek tragedy."   I don't think people should go looking for negative experiences or hardship, but I do know that we have a psychological makeup structured to cope with bad situations as well as good ones.   The greatest challenges draw the greatest nobility out of human beings.   Art, after all, is not the experience itself; it is some kind of abstraction of what it means to be alive at a given time and place.   That's why I use the materials that I do:   I use the musical materials of my own age.   The people I admire in the older arts are people like Mozart and Shakespeare; you have a wonderful sense of humor in both of them and the most profound tragedy at the same time.   I have always wanted my music to be able to encompass that whole range of things.   In that way I'm very much an Occidental: I believe in dramatic structures.   It's not that I don't believe in meditative ones.   I think that the East is right; the paradox is that I also think that the West is right.   I have done pieces based on Gregorian Chant; I lived three weeks in a Benedictine monastery.   We have a meditative tradition in the West.   But I also realize that the importance of the individual came out of that [tradition]; it did not come out of any Eastern thought.   I don't think one is better than the other.   I'm very amused at this point in history, because we're watching one of them inform the other.   In my piece for gamelan and organ [ In Celebration of Golden Rain (1977)] I tried to deal with that symbolically because the two of them coexist, but don't fuse musically.   They manage to coexist because they both exist in the same physical world: we as human beings hear them with the same neural mechanism and the same brain.   I don't think we have to know anything about the cultures involved to be able to make sense of them.   I don't think one has to start out from a verbal theory which suggests that the basic principles of the East are this and the basic principles of the West are that.   If the sound is there and we hear it, it is not because of theory.   We're hearing it because our perceptive capacities do that, and what we need to know is the way our perceptive capacities function.   That's why I'm so interested in cognitive psychology; it has made enormous strides in helping us understand the difference between what is out there in the physical world and what we perceive to be out there, which is terribly important to anyone who is going to work in the arts.   You need to know the way that the person who experiences your work is going to perceive it.   For instance, when we think that something is getting louder, it usually is getting brighter: it's adding harmonics to its spectrum, not pushing more air molecules at one's ear.

I got into music because sound turned me on.   I'm in love with the physical world.   When I was a child, I used to strike objects together.   When I discovered that a stone striking another stone or striking a piece of metal or striking a wooden box would make a different sound, I thought it was wonderful.   It seemed to me that each one of those objects was speaking to me and telling me by the way it spoke what it was made of...   and that's what happens.   You don't need words to understand a piece of music; you just need the sound.

ET:   You have a lot of theories about how things work and your music is very abstract at times, but also very concrete and direct.   It's a very strange combination of abstraction and sensuous concreteness.

RF:   I take that as a compliment.   The people I admire, like Shakespeare and Mozart, manage to put those things together far more brilliantly than I, but that certainly is what I strive toward.

© 2002 Richard Felciano