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Interview: Joel Feigin on Twelfth Night

On January 30 and February 1, UCSB’s Department of Music will present the West Coast Premiere of Joel Feigin‘s opera Twelfth Night, based on the play by Shakespeare. The opera will be produced by Benjamin Brecher and directed by David Grabarkewitz, with Brent Wilson as music director. Full disclosure: Joel is a good friend of mine, and I study composition with him. With that in mind, I felt we could dig a little deeper into his work than the usual “what’s this piece about?” I heard the opera in Chicago in October, and it’s definitely worth driving out to Santa Barbara for, especially if you’re a fan of the play.

Tickets and event details are on UCSB’s website at Here’s our conversation:

Composer Joel Feigin

Of all of Shakespeare’s works, what attracted you to Twelfth Night to opera-tize?

Any play beginning “If music be the food of love, play on—give me excess of it…” is just begging to be turned into an opera!  What more could you ask for?  “music”… “love”… “excess”…

And I love the play and I love Illyria, and I love all the gender-bending—women and men falling in love with a girl dressed as a boy—and in Shakespeare’s time, it was even more extreme:  a boy dressed as a girl disguised as a boy in a love scene with a boy dressed as a girl—

Auden said that “a credible situation in an opera is a situation in which it’s credible for the characters to break into song as frequently as possible.”  By that standard, Twelfth Night is perfect—it’s in a place we’ve never heard of, and the only half-sane person in it is a Fool.

How much did you need to alter the source material?

The difficulty in converting a play into an operatic libretto is that it takes at least three times as long to sing something as to say it, quite apart from fun stuff using long notes or melismas.  But the time it takes to effectively unfold a story acted before an audience is likely to be fairly similar no matter what the medium.

As result, the libretto of a two hour opera needs to be something like a tenth the length of the play, a mere scaffolding. I was very lucky to work with Elizabeth Harr, a contralto who had sung with New York City Opera, and who had had dramatic training in England. My first attempt to turn Twelfth Night into an opera libretto would have taken twelve hours to perform and would have been horrible!  With Elizabeth’s help, I cut the text mercilessly: the hardest aspect of writing the work was destroying some of the greatest poetry ever written in any language.  After lots of cutting, I realized that my draft of the first act was a third longer than I wanted.  Shortening it to an hour demanded sacrificing still more wonderful poetry—and it turned out that almost all the compositional problems I had encountered arose out of unnecessary words in the libretto.

Could you talk a bit about your love of the opera genre?

Music has special powers that affect the structure of the drama.  Action tends to split up the ongoing flow of music, as the characters react to different events unfolding onstage.  But music develops its full power through a more continuous flow, which has tremendous power to express the feelings of the characters.  Therefore dramas with music tend to lead up toward sections in which the music can flow continuously for a while, as the emotions of the characters are expressed with a passion difficult to achieve on the spoken stage: for sheer visceral impact, the most magnificent speaking voice pales compared to a great soprano singing over an orchestra.  Music also allows characters singing simultaneously to be understood, whereas speaking actors can speak only one at a time if they are to be understood.

For example, the climax of Twelfth Night is the reunion of the twin brother and sister.  Many people are on stage, and several of these have had complex relations with one or both of the twins. In the spoken play they can only speak one at a time, but in an opera, they can all sing at once, and their varied reactions can be expressed both simultaneously and with more completeness.

After a recent conversation with a dear composer friend, I realized that what I love about opera is precisely what he disliked about it: the sheer power with which feelings can be expressed by the operatic voice.  For me, this power was a much-needed reassurance that we indeed could assert our needs and desires in spite of everything.  For my friend, this assertion was simply false: for him we have no such power. Some reassurance that we can have this kind of power is what I love.

This opera has been through enough challenging situations in its short history to write another opera about. Could you talk about some of the challenges of getting an opera produced?

When people say to me “it must be very hard to write an opera”, I always answer, “No, it’s easy.  What’s hard is getting it produced.”  The reason is money—opera is the most expensive art form using music, and is therefore most susceptible to fluctuations in the state of the economy and to the tastes of patrons.  The less money there is, the more opera companies just want to do Traviata, Boheme, and Carmen, and absolutely nothing else!  I know a fine music director of an opera company who had to fight with his board to do Rigoletto and Cosi.  For composers, the smaller the orchestra you have the better. The fewer singers you have the better. It’s better to have a predominance of female singers—there are a lot more of them around.

Twelfth Night is really bad on all those counts. Shakespeare is a mixed bag—he’s classy and prestigious, which can be good on big anniversaries of his birth and death, but it can also drive people away.  Doing Shakespeare also prompts the concern that operas in familiar, contemporary settings are likely to be more successful and “relevant” and therefore bring in more people.  Actually, I think they’re much harder to pull off.  It is more credible for characters to break into song in a time and place that’s strange than a time and place that are familiar, since we know perfectly well that the people we know usually don’t break into song.

The greatest commentary that has ever been done on the art form is the Marx Brothers’s Night at the Opera. It’s when it’s ridiculous that opera becomes sublime.  I have a fantasy of doing The Trojan Women and being asked why I wanted to do a play that’s 2500 years old.  I’d answer, “I want to be sure I’m up-to-date.”

You’ve spoken before about being pressured to write in a modernist style while you were in school, and finally, when studying with Roger Sessions, deciding to write for yourself instead of doing what your other teachers were saying. Do you think that that pressure to write in a certain way still exists?

I think that this was the experience of my whole generation of composers. The problem here is that it wasn’t exactly that I “decided to write for myself”— that doesn’t quite say it. What many of us rejected was the rigid ideology that there’s any one “right” way to compose music at any particular time.

The idea that only one kind of music should be written still exists to some extent in some places, but much less than it did.  But the problem that confronted my generation is something that arises all the time in different guises– we all want security, none of us have it or can have it, and it’s very comforting to feel that what we’re doing is exactly what “history” demands to be done.  Modernism began as a rebellion but then it became ossified—it became the “only way to go”, which is the exact opposite of rebellion.  But “new or old” is something little and “music” is something big; “new” isn’t the essence of what music is: the essence of music is silence—and part of silence is vibration, every vibration—old or new doesn’t matter.  What does matter, for the kind of music I’m interested in writing, is that the music we make needs to come from the center of who we are, or from as close to that center as we can get.  And this center is neither old nor new.

I think it’s important to consider the very real differences between science and political science on the one hand, and some kinds of art on the other, especially since, starting around the beginning of the twentieth century, science assumed a prestige that “art” didn’t have any more, and part of the reason is that it was very clear why science or political science needed to be done.  If the best measurements of the perihelion of Mercury don’t accord with your best theory, it’s clear that you need to figure out what the problem is.  If the disparity of wealth and poverty becomes very wide, something needs to be done to prevent very dangerous problems from arising in that society.

There are a lot of good reasons to write music, and what “needs” to be written will be quite different depending on its motivation.  Some kinds of art are fairly analogous to science or political science. It’s necessary and wonderful to explore new sounds or new ways of organizing sounds.  That becomes closer to a scientific or technological model: here’s something new—what is it?  What can be done with it? Or, if your motivation is to change the direction of society, you need to make music that will be effective in helping reduce the gap for rich and poor, or to end war, or whatever you hope to do.

But to write music only to write music is less clear, less familiar to our present world.  What do music do any of us, personally, with all the causes and conditions of our life—need to write?

Sometimes what you need to write makes some kind of historical sense—for example, young composers using their experience of rock and other genres of so-called popular music.  You play in rock bands—for your music not to be influenced by that would be crazy, and for you to deliberately deny that experience would be suicidal for you as an artist.

But for someone else, depending on the causes and conditions of their lives, if they grew up on Beethoven, it might be suicidal for them as an artist to feel that they had to use rock, let alone only rock, in their pieces.  Very few people today grow up on Beethoven, so very few young artists are likely to have that experience.  But if they do, they need to be true to their experience.  The point is to be true to your own individual experience, the causes and conditions of your own life; that is where you’ll be able to connect with the center of other people’s lives; that is where your music might come to be important to them—how they might come to love it—however few there might be.

With all that in mind, why do you write music?

All the things we’ve been discussing are excellent reasons to write music. But to make any one particular reason the “best” reason, let alone the “only reason” is a big trap.

What happened with Sessions was not exactly that I “decided to write for myself”—I’m not clear that I “write for myself.”  I write what I hear in my head—that’s all.

Mario Davidovsky tells a wonderful story from the early days of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.  One day a woman came and said that “she heard sounds in her head” and everyone said “wonderful!  You’re in the right place”.  Half an hour later, they had to take her to the mental hospital.

The best answer I ever got to the question “why do you write music?”—which I ask my students—is that “it’s a mental disease.”

Where did the sounds in this woman’s mind come from?  Where do any sounds come from? Where does anything at all come from?  They’re just there—there’s no answer for it. That is to say, they are the tao—they are an offering of the tao.

If someone is crazy enough to feel that a sound inside their head is worthy of offering to others, and if they are crazy enough to undertake the strenuous training without which it is impossible to offer it at least somewhat undistorted, then they are undertaking the business of being a maker of musical offerings.  A maker of offerings can only “just offer”—for me, an offering is made in the hope that it will be of value to others, but there’s no way you can be sure of it, and to be concerned about pleasing any particular audience—such as a subscription audience, or a composition professor, or a self-appointed new music guru—is just a distraction from the task of doing a good job. Talking to Sessions, it became clear that, at least for me, it just didn’t make sense—it was crazy.

The offering someone might need to make from the center of his or her being could very well be an offering of a new sound or a new method. The offering someone might need to make from the center of his or her being might very well be an offering of bearing witness to injustice.  As long as it comes from the center of their being it seems to me akin to what I am trying to do.

How does this affect your teaching?

It influences my teaching a lot, in that I don’t want to pressure my students to write any particular way at all.  I want them to write what they want to write. It’s hard, for the teacher, because students sometimes do ask what to write, (and sometimes, even as they’re rebelling, they’re asking what to write), and as a prof you’re always supposed to have an answer for everything.  But it’s impossible for the prof to know—only the student might be able to answer the question of what they need to write—and then it’s the koan of their life.

I’m often surprised by how many composers and performers in our area practice meditation – and was thankful for the lesson in it you gave me. From what you’ve already said, it would seem that your Zen practice is a huge influence on your composing.

I spoke of music coming from “the center of your being.” What is this “center?”

We can only find the center of our being within the causes and conditions of our own lives, and it is only when we know our stories so intimately that they fall away that the “center” is clarified.

And when the center is clarified, weird things become possible.  Stravinsky can say that he was “the vessel through which the Rite came.”  Homer can ask the Muse to “sing to him of the man of many ways…”

When composing is actually happening, it is Zen practice.  I could never have continued composing without Zen—it would be too hard and too painful.

The only sensible reason to make anything is that it fills a useful purpose.

So what is the purpose of music that is there only to be itself?

There is silence.  Within the silence there are vibrations. That is music.  Just music, just itself.

Music that is there only to be itself must be listened to in silence. This “silence” is an openness and readiness of the mind. The sounds of shuffling and snoring and yawning that pervade most concert halls are not silence.  Spontaneous applause, even as the music is being played, does not necessarily spoil silence.

Silence is simply “just this” vibration at “just this” moment.

There are 84,000 moments in a second.

“Just this” vibration at “just this moment” …

“just this” totally new vibration at “just this” totally new moment…

“just this” …

“just this”…

That is music.

That is music as an offering.

There is no reason for it.

It just is.

What do you hope listeners will come away from Twelfth Night with?

I hope they’ll love it.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you!

More info on Joel is available at

Interview: Conductor Chris Rountree on wild Up

Forgive me for hyperbolizing here, but it seems like you can’t throw a stone at a new music event in LA without hitting Chris Rountree. With his extremely busy conducting and teaching schedule, it’s amazing that he has time for anyone else’s shows at all, yet he seems to be there to support his fellow musicians every chance he gets.

Chris is busy indeed. He’s the artistic director/founder/conductor/manager/etc. of wild Up  (who we have mentioned on here quite a bit before, with good reason), assistant conducting in Brooklyn, artistically advising the American Youth Symphony, teaching conducting at UCSB and elsewhere, releasing a record…the list goes on. With wild Up’s show at The Armory coming up this weekend, I’m lucky he found time to answer a few questions.

Right off the bat, you’ve got a show coming up this weekend, and it’s all about birds. Tell me something about that.

Birds! Yes. We’re crazy about them. (and so many composers have been!)

Ha, so they have. Your programming this season is diverse, but every show seems to have a thread holding everything together. How do you go about programming?

We’re interested in exploring ideas and exploring them from a variety of angles. Our main concern is how the audience will feel in the concert — how comfortable or uncomfortable they’ll be and how each piece creates context for the next.

So this time we started with Olivier Messiaen’s piano concerto: Oiseaux exotiques and went — stream of consciousness from there to Charlie Parker, to Haydn, to new complexity composer Brian Ferneyhough to indie rocker Andrew Bird. It’s become a crazy program.

On that front, can you identify anything that makes a piece stand out as being right for wild Up?

There’s some mystery here. I want to be able to feel the music we play in my gut. Visceral is the best description — but that doesn’t altogether do it. Also, it’s how well the piece fits into the program we’re considering — more about the fit actually than anything else.

At wild Up’s last concert I was sitting with Lacey Huszcza, the director of advancement of the LA Chamber Orchestra, when you decided to offer an autographed brick to an audience member whose had an obstructed view. She said something along the lines of “wow, I wish we could do that for our unhappy patrons.” Why do you think your audience is so much more receptive to stuff like that than a traditional classical audience? Do you think it’s about the demographic you’re attracting, or the vibe that you and the band seem to embody?

The Brick! Oh right. So, that was a last minute decision — we saw that three to five seats were very bad at Beyond Baroque. One is shared with a fire-extinguisher, one is a 1.5 person wooden love-seat-pew, one was directly behind a pole, and one was right under a trumpet bell. In honoring the audience we wanted to improve the experience of one or more of the people who happened to end up with those seats. A signed brick (signed bricks and obsolete printer the second night) did the trick.

I hope our audiences have come to expect nothing. Maybe, just to enjoy themselves. So they have to be receptive to things like this — because they didn’t expect tuxedos and coughing. It could be the aesthetic — I’m not sure. As long as it feels like we’re all characters together in some big adventure, I’ll be happy.

We once talked about feeling like we were right on the cusp of becoming professionals. That you, and the members of wild Up, were getting gigs all over town, and beginning to get some notoriety and releasing CDs and even getting paid a bit, but you were still all working extra jobs to make rent. This is a big question, but for you, where’s the line? Are you taking this concert by concert, or working toward a concrete set of goals?

We have goals. To succeed, I believe that’s a necessity. At this point, we’re planning a season at a time and moving toward being presented versus presenting ourselves — which has been wonderful and painful experience — some serious learning has taken place for all of us in the past two years.

You also teach conducting, or at least started to recently. Has teaching influenced your performance practice at all, and your working with your own performers?

I love teaching. In fact, I’ve been doing it for a decade (I’m 28) teaching: high school marching band, youth orchestra, community orchestras, pre-professional orchestras, college orchestras, middle school brass players, private conducting students, partners attempting to cook improperly and most recently students at UCSB.

Through teaching we learn so much — mostly, I’ve found, I learn about psychology — how people learn, how they want to be worked with, what collaboration looks like, what a dictatorship looks like, etc.

I know you guys are working to release a recording of the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony on limited-edition vinyl, which totally gets me nostalgic for NoFX’s 7 inch of the month club. Were you consciously drawing on the punk tradition there? Also, will you please play at Origami Vinyl for the release party?

Yeah, we’re working on releasing our album “Shostakovich and Rzewski, The Salt of the Earth” on vinyl and digitally — actually we have a kickstarter going at the moment. People can help us on Kickstarter and we’ll give them nice gifts!

Punk rock of the month club! Not intentionally, but we’re happy to reference that.

The recording was made live at the Jensen Rec. Center Studio, recorded and mixed by Nick Tipp. We didn’t make any edits, there are still errors on the album. But we mixed the tracks to feel like your head is inside a cello.

What’s next for wild Up?

We have shows in March at Beyond Baroque: Craft: DIY Art Music. Brooklyn vs. LA and in May at the Armory again, a program called: The Armory actually, the music is Stravinsky, Palestrina, and Slayer.

And for Chris Rountree?

I’m teaching in Santa Barbara, composing in Highland Park, Assistant Conducting in Brooklyn, Advising American Youth Symphony in LA and…drinking coffee at Intelligentsia.

And since you are a native, I’m sure readers would love to know about your current favorite:

1. Neighborhood

Highland Park

2. Place to hear music

Walt Disney Concert Hall (one of my favorite buildings, period.)

3. Restaurant

Let’s do a whole other interview about this! But for now: Elf in Echo Park

4. Bar/hang out

Verdugo Bar / Intelligentsia in Pasadena (the official band hangout…and SPONSOR!)

5. Store

Apple Store. RIP Steve Jobs

6. Thing to do/see

….the beach.

Anything else you’d like to add?

More to come, hopefully.

Click here to purchase tickets for wild Up’s next concert, this Saturday, January 14 at the Armory Center for the Arts. To donate to their record campagin, visit