01/20/2011 02:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ecstatic Music Festival Interview #1: Jefferson Friedman

The Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City is now fully underway, and the first of my five picks for must-see, "under-the-radar" concerts is set to transpire on Saturday, January 22 at 7:30 pm when vocalist Craig Wedren (formerly of the rock band Shudder to Think) takes the stage with new music group ACME to perform the multi-song work On in Love by composer Jefferson Friedman. In a recent phone conversation, Friedman and I discussed "record" versus "song cycle," composing on roofs, and New York's "Winter of Love."

Daniel J. Kushner: What's most exciting or distinctive in your mind about the Ecstatic Music Festival?

Jefferson Friedman: Well, I guess in a certain sense, it's kind of a culmination of a lot of different directions that the New York City music scene has been going in--to have a big festival that's kind of dedicated to blurring the lines between new classical music and non-classical music. And I think it's really representative of what's going on in New York right now, and to be able to be a part of that is exciting.

DK: I'm wondering if this resulting "classical/non-classical" dialogue that's going on between fellow musicians and between musicians and the audience--if it constitutes a sort of fork in the road in new music?

JF: Well the fork in the road happened a long time ago, unfortunately, because the fork in the road was when classical music and popular music parted ways, let's say 100 years ago. But before that, composers were happy to integrate popular music styles in their music. In fact, they were performing in popular styles to make money. There was a fusion between the two. There wasn't as much of a distinction, and then over the course of the 20th century those two things kind of went their separate ways. And now that fork in road is merging back together, and so to a certain extent, recent history is kind of the anomaly. And what's going on now is the normal state of things, to have this kind of dialogue between new classical music and new non-classical music.

DK: How do you see your music fitting into the landscape that is the festival?

JF: The songs [On in Love] that are gonna be performed on the 22nd, I think, fit in extremely well with the ethos of the festival, and you know, it's kind of what the festival is designed for, in a way.

DK: What was your creative impetus in writing On in Love?

JF: Well, I played with Shudder to Think, maybe 10 years ago or so, and Craig [Wedren]--the lead singer to that band--and I became really close friends and it was sort of always in the back of our heads since that time that we wanted to collaborate on a project like this. And we sort of went off on our separate directions and did our own things for a few years and then when the time was right, came back together and created this piece with each other.

DK: Was this particular piece challenging in its own way because it's more rock-influenced, or was it just a very natural and organic thing?

I think for the most part it was a very natural process. You know, it was something that I had thought about doing for a long time, and of course I've had my feet in both worlds for a long time, so it was sort of like a natural progression from the places that I've been in my life and the things that I've done in my life. I think that when I first started writing them, I maybe tried a little bit too hard, and that was not a good thing. Particularly when you're trying to just write a song, I think it's better to just kind of feel it. When I decided that I was going to write the vast majority of the melodies for the songs on the roof of my studio building, like walking on the roof of my studio building, just singing, trying to figure it out--that's when things started to click with these songs, versus what I usually do with my more classical pieces: sit in front of my keyboard and bang on my head on my keyboard over and over again until something comes out that sounds good. So that was kind of like a shift in my technique.

DK: It seems like in the past several years, there's a lot more of an influx of composers/singer-songwriters who are using the song cycle--which is a broad term--as a medium for their works. There's just been a lot of those works coming out, whether you have Sarah Kirkland Snider's Penelope, or your work--we could go on and on.

JF: I just wanna be clear that I don't call this a song cycle at all. I think that there are a lot of popular music people who are now sort of delving into this song cycle idea, which I think is a great development for them. For me, I'm coming at it from the opposite side, so for example, when I started writing these songs, it was very important to me that they had lyrics, and that they weren't poems that were set to music, which is generally par for the course in the classical music world when you have a song cycle. You find some poet, whether it be preexisting poetry or poetry that's written specifically for the song cycle, and then you write music that's based on those poems. But I didn't want poetry--I wanted lyrics. And that distinction, to me, was very important, which is why I asked Craig to write the lyrics, instead of finding some poet to do it. So my sort of shift with this has been away from that model of the traditional classical song cycle and into what I call it, which is the record. That's what I always called it--we're making a record. That's what we're doing, right? That's all I really wanna do, is I wanna write enough songs so that we have record.

DK: Do you think in the end though, it's just semantics?

JF: It's not like there's just these little songs that bear no relation to one another, but I don't think they bear more of a relationship to one another than a band's songs on one record, where they all bear relationship to one another simply because they were written by the same band.

DK: It does seem like your music is distinctive, even among the composers represented here at Ecstatic, in that if you're to look at these two worlds of pop and classical as separate entities, it does seem that your music melds them perhaps seemingly most seamlessly, in a way that feels very fluid, and very difficult to dissect or unravel. How do you account for that confluence?

JF: Just from playing in rock bands when I was a kid, and playing with Shudder to Think when I was a young adult, and also going to the New England Conservatory to learn piano every Saturday, but then skipping classes with my friend Jake to go to Newbury Comics to buy punk rock records when I was supposed to be learning music theory--my whole life has been geared toward this kind of fusion.

DK: It almost seems like culturally we've been repressed by pretense. Just in talking to many of the artists involved in the festival, the overwhelming sense I get is that this isn't about labeling something; it's not about any sort of previously conceived notion or pretense. It's about what's happening right now, making it worthwhile, enjoying it, the collaboration itself, and so on and so forth. And somehow it seems somewhat analogous to sexual repression, you know what I mean?

JF: Yeah. This is like the Winter of Love in New York City, for the New York City new music scene, right? We're all like burning our bras. What could we burn? We could burn our pencils, burn our sheet music.

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