Composer Chat: Stephen Feigenbaum

Happy Thanksgiving-ukkah, ETHEL-ites! Tema here!

ETHEL has been busy getting Documerica ready for the road as well as touring Grace; in the meantime, we also had the chance to get in the studio with my totally-dope-composer-friend Stephen Feigenbaum and record his beautiful quartet, “Strange Dances.” The whole second movement sounds like it’s being played backwards. Seriously, I can’t wait to share this with you once “the album drops.”

Stephen is a really fascinating dude, and he shares a lot of opinions with ETHEL. Here’s a little interview with him:

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TW: How did you start out as a composer?

SF: I played a lot of piano as a kid, like improvising mostly, playing by ear. A lot of broadway songs. Somewhere along the line I heard the John Williams soundtrack to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and decided I wanted to make music like that, and you need to have composition and notation chops to do it. So that was the beginning. I wrote this song for my graduation(?) concert of 5th grade, to the words of Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go” (of course), bc some other kids were writing a song and I didn’t wanna be left out. So I scrambled to figure out how to write a song and ended up with this kind of iffy setting and then we all sang it.

TW: Who are some of your strongest influences and mentors?

SF: In classical I really admire ppl like Nico Muhly and David Lang because they are so driven and business smart. Some people are skeptical of these types of successful artists but my attitude is that if you’re not reaching a lot of people you’re not good at being an artist. I like that those guys want to reach real audiences in a big and meaningful way. Both have been inspiring people to meet and learn from.

But in general the ppl I admire the most are like Steve Jobs, Oprah, Martha Stewart, Jay Z, Richard Branson, and others who built entirely new worlds around their way of thinking. Bernstein might be considered an example of this to some extent, but really no recent musician has covered exactly the range I want to cover in my lifetime, both within different genres of music and in the entertainment industry in general. There are lots of people that kinda live between music genres or dabble around, but I can’t think of anyone that has tracks in the top 40 for radio play, has broadway hits, and has the classical establishment rallying around their classical music all at the same time. And there definitely aren’t people that have done all of that, and also created a TV network and a movie production company and a clothing line etc. Maybe Kanye will. There are probably people that could have done it already, but I think most people just don’t have interests that range that wide. I just like doing everything I guess.

TW: ETHEL recently recorded your quartet, “Strange Dances.” What was your process for that piece?

SF: I wanted to simplify what I was doing in my classical stuff in general and this piece was kinda where I focused on doing it. I tried to have each movement make one clear point and then develop it in a very simple, understandable way. I wanted to make big clear statements and then end the movement and move on. I had never really thought this way before when I wrote it in 2011-2012 but now that’s the only way I write. I also tried to take all the pop/syncopated rhythms out of the music, because it felt like a crutch. I wanted to go back to more traditional square rhythms. Lot of quarter notes.

TW: Much to my delight, I found out you were a singer with the Whiffenpoofs. What was a highlight from that period and how, if at all, did all that acapella-ing influence your compositions?

SF: Haha much to your delight. That’s pretty much the reaction you get when you’re called the whiffenpoofs and show up to every gig with a white bowtie and white gloves. Well the sickest thing was that we did this 3-month world tour, hitting almost 30 countries. It was awesome. Biggest thing I learned about myself was just that I love touring–I love being on the road and in different airports all the time, it’s just exhilarating. Some of the guys ended the tour being like, ok that was great but thank god its over. But I was clamoring for more.

In terms of music I think it inspired a lot of stuff I do when I write choral music, like using weird syllables and instrument-type noises from the voice, so I think it opened my mind up to a lot of stuff that has made my music more unique in that way.

TW: You recently produced a big project in New Haven called Abyss. Can you tell me a little bit about your mission with this huge endeavor?

SF: God I could go on about this for hours. Basically it was this cirque-du-soleil type show we did in an empty storefront building in New Haven, for 10 performances, centered around live classical music of mine, played by musician/actors. This was really just the most recent iteration of a concept I’m interested in more generally, which is making a big spectacular show out of contemporary classical music to bring the mainstream audience into it. I figured out that the main obstacle to most people connecting with it is that there are no words or even a clear story in most classical stuff. But there are a few famous examples of successful entertainment without words, such as Fantasia, Stomp, Cirque du Soleil, and Blue Man Group. So my director and I started trying to take elements of these shows and structure our classical concert around them, have the performers acting, really selling what’s happening in the music they’re playing, and placing them in spectacular visual environments to amplify visually what’s going on musically. People were really into the show, but it’s such a hard concept to nail, to have it be entertaining to literally everyone and yet not compromise on the music or try to distract people from it in any way. Plus a show like this is just expensive as hell. So it’s gonna be a while before it really happens in exactly the right way and on the scale I want it to, but one day…

TW: Who are some of your biggest pop idols and what do you love about their music?

SF: I love most genres of music. Specifically I just like that pop music is a major cultural force. When Kanye put out his new album Yeezus, everyone who likes art had to stop and talk about it for 2 weeks. That’s what culture is supposed to do. There is nothing in the classical world that has that effect on society and culture right now. Barely anything in the Broadway world either, save for the occasional Book of Mormon or Spring Awakening. It probably sounds like I’m just talking about things that make tons of money but I’m not. I’m talking about reach and influence. When Beethoven died 30,000 people came to his funeral, bc his music had that kind of effect on society. Who can you say that about today? Nobody in classical right now, that’s for sure. But someone like ‘Ye might be close.

TW: What’s the weirdest gig you’ve ever done?

SF: I had a composer-for-hire gig with this old lady who wanted to write a musical about a dad teaching his son his Torah portion. When that was done she decided she wanted to write a second musical about … the creation process of that first musical. Needless to say, the pay was incredible.

TW: What’s up next for you, compositionally?

SF: Producing and then figuring out what to do with this album featuring YOU GUYS. Working on a couple musicals. And some other, possibly bigger stuff under a different name………

Stephen Feigenbaum, y’all. He’s up to exciting stuff. Hope you all have a wonderful start to your holiday seasons. Be sure to check out our winter performance dates, too! We’ve got a lot of exciting shows coming up all over- but a few close to home, too!