I had the pleasure of meeting composer Michael Fiday when we both were in residence at the MacDowell Colony this past fall. I knew he was a cool guy when he rolled up in this car that sported a Pixies bumper sticker, had a few guitars with him and then proposed that some of us fellows (composer Peter Wyer, writer Jamie Quatro and me) form a cover band to play at the local pub for open mic night. But I became even more intrigued when he talked at our nightly family style dinners about the piece he was working on based on Hunter S. Thompson and then presented some of his Haiku works at Colony Hall. I said to myself, this guy is totally interstitial!
He was kind enough to take time off from his duties as Associate Professor of Composition at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati and preparation for the premiere of his “Gonzo Variations” on April 9th at Zankel Hall (Carnegie Hall) to answer a few questions to see what makes him tick and how he got there. Please get to know interstitial composer Michael Fiday with me!
You can get his music here.
CECIL: You started off as a musician. A violinist (right?) How did you get into composing?
FIDAY: The funny thing is that I have a distinct memory of wanting to be a composer before I actually learned an instrument. This happened in 5th grade growing up in Colorado, when our general music teacher, Mrs. Hebert, played a recording of Edvard Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ for the class. I was very excited by what I heard, and left school that day with the conviction that “I was going to be a composer.” I’d seen pictures in books of famous composers at work, so I thought I knew what I needed to do. I went to the nearest department store, found a little music paper notebook, went home, sat at the desk, opened up the booklet, saw these mysterious groups of five lines and said…”wait a minute…what do I DO with this?” The next year I started playing violin and (hence) learning to read music, so gradually my those skills caught up with my writing ambitions, and most all of my early writing came out of playing the violin.
What was the first piece that you did and how did it come about? What was the inspiration for it?
The year after starting violin, we had a substitute string orchestra conductor in junior high, Mr. Marshall, who gave everyone in the group an assignment to go home, explore all sorts of weird and unusual sounds on our instruments, write a piece using those sounds, then come back and play it in class. Most of the sounds I came up with – like sliding the bow up and down the strings to sound like a siren – seemed to have some apocalyptic connotation, so I titled the piece “The Beginning of World War IV.” (I guess I thought that “being ahead of your time” meant skipping over WWIII.) That was my first piece. After that I wrote some violin duets for my private teacher at the time, Vern Ashcraft. He was a very inspiring teacher, and encouraged me to write more, and take up more formal studies in composing. After that I was hooked, there was no turning back, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
You did these cool Haiku pieces for a while. I know this because you wrote me the coolest one for my birthday! And then you presented some of your earlier work to us in residence. Beautiful! I loved them (and mine!). How did you get the idea for that? How did you tackle the problem of writing a haiku in music?
9 Haiku 2
I’ve written 4 pieces on haiku (including your birthday one), and taken a different approach with each. The first one I wrote was ‘9 Haiku’ for flute and piano, based on the poetry of Basho. The way I came up with it was actually very practical: I started off with the idea of writing shorter pieces which were character sketches, and looked for something “extra-musical” to launch me into the piece…whether a text, a painting, a photo…whatever. One of the things I looked at was a nice little volume of Zen poetry I had, and was immediately drawn to Basho’s texts – they’re so strange, colorful, almost surreal. So I set upon this idea of writing instrumental pieces that tried to capture the feel or environment that the texts portrayed, and finding the right “sound metaphors” for each. The second haiku of the set, for example, portrays a bird suspended in mid-air, while the eighth portrays a bird that has landed on firm ground; so I wrote one movement that has the flute and piano play high, jittery melodic lines, then another movement later on which is basically the same music, but has a steady repetition of chords underneath.
The next set I wrote is called ‘Dharma Pops,’ written for violin duo on haiku texts by Jack Kerouac. Whereas ‘9 Haiku’ was more “haiku-like” in atmosphere than length (some of the movements were 3 or 4 minutes long), ‘Dharma Pops’ resemble haiku both in feel and scope – each of them last a minute at most. I also wanted some way of referring to Kerouac’s own style and time period, so I decided to “stamp” each of the movements with a reference to be-bop jazz, in particular the music of Charlie Parker. Puns on the texts abound: one haiku reads “Bach through an open dawn window – the birds are silent” – so I decided to have both violins play some actual Bach music with some notes missing, while other music featured some riffs by Charlie Parker – also known as “Bird” – played silently on the fingerboard of the instrument.
Of all the haiku sets, ‘Three Winters’ is the only one where I set the actual haiku texts to song. I look at it as a companion set to ‘9 Haiku’: they are scored for flute and piano along with soprano voice, and are based on winter as seen through the eyes of three different haiku masters: Issa, Buson and Basho.
You are writing a piece based on Hunter S. Thompson? What made you choose him? Or did you?
Yes, I just finished ‘Gonzo Variations’ for chamber orchestra, which will be premiered this Friday, April 9th, by the American Composers Orchestra in New York. That’s the one I was toiling over when we met at MacDowell. The idea to do a piece on Hunter S. Thompson was first planted in my brain in 2005, after reading the Rolling Stone commemorative issue that came out shortly after he took his own life. You have to remember the context of the time period: the country had just re-elected one of the worst president’s in it’s history, we remained knee-deep in a war we should never have started to begin with, and what passed for journalism just seemed to go along for the ride. There was an overriding chill of fear and conformity in the air, and in this context I found the fact that HST had gotten away with such a whacked, against-the-grain life to be nothing short of heroic.
Years later I was approached by the American Composers Orchestra about writing a piece for them, and they wanted me to propose several projects for consideration. The HST idea was one of them, and I remember thinking “wouldn’t that be cool?” Then they accepted it and I went “oh god…what do I do now?” When I went back to reading the various recollections about him, I was surprised to find, among all the well-known accounts of endless pranks, hard drinking and pharmacological excess, numerous references to Thompson as something of a ‘Southern gentleman.’ I found this rupture between private and public life fascinating, and then hit on the idea of casting the piece as a sort of symphonic theme and variations using two opposing themes: Stephen Foster’s “Old Kentucky Home” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” So that’s what I ended up doing.
And how do you take other materials / genres and make music out of that?
That’s a pretty broad question, but I’ll try. Maybe a good start is to talk about my past work in both dance and theater. I’ve worked with choreographers twice before; once where I wrote music to a dance piece that was already in progress, and once where a choreographer took a pre-existent work of mine (‘Hands On!’ for drum quartet) and came up with a dance piece for it. The theater work I did was writing incidental music for a production of an Ezra Pound adaptation of Sophocles’ ‘Elektra.’ The latter was especially fascinating: though written more than a half-century ago, the play was delightfully weird, almost post-modern before artists started throwing that term around so much. The play mixed language and characters continuously: one character spoke like British char-woman, another character like a western cowboy, etc. Despite this diversity there was a certain deliberate objectivity, coldness even, about how the dramatic situations unfolded. My response to this was to use materials that were very simple – maybe connoting archaic greek modes or something – but use these materials in a more dissonant way. I also chose to write for an ensemble of electric guitars, piano and percussion, which had the effect of reflecting the diversity of languages in the text, but distilling them into a cool “streamlined” kind of music.
In addition to my work in dance and theater, as a teacher at Cincinnati Conservatory I have also co-taught a Music/Dance workshop with choreographer Shellie Cash, and an Intermedia course (which pairs up visual artists of all kinds with composing and improvising musicians) with video artist Charlie Woodman. In both my own work and in the teaching of these classes, I’m continuously blown away by the kinds of conversations that take place between artists across disciplines. As a composer you simply can’t communicate with a dancer or a sculpture in the same old “shop talk” way that you do with other musicians, and vice-versa. You have to develop a new way of communicating, and you learn an enormous amount about yourself and your own work by doing so. As one who works mostly in concert music, I find this experience extraordinarily refreshing, and would like to do more.
Now I know that you are also a big rock fan and you know how to rock. How does / do different types of music inform your classical compositions?
First, hearing Cecil Castelucci say that I “know how to rock” is a high compliment! You’re way too kind, but the compliment makes my day. Different kinds of music has had a HUGE effect on my own, particularly jazz and rock music. As an American composer this is sort of bred into the bone: even if you’re a classical composer you are constantly exposed to different styles and somewhat removed from European influence. I’d even say that music in other cultures, when you study it closer, isn’t so pure either: we’re all really a bunch of stylistic mongrels, when you get down to it.
I’d often been told that my use of harmony and the sense of rhythmic propulsion in my previous work was informed by my being a jazz and rock fan. But at a certain point in the early 90’s I started becoming impatient with this, and wanted to make these connections much more explicit than just surface resemblance. Since then I’ve written a series of pieces that are in some way “about” the music that I love: including ‘Slapback’ for electric guitar and delay unit, which is based on Pete Townshend’s guitar work, and ‘Hands On!’, which is inspired by both West African and Indian drumming. I know from the open-mic we did at MacDowell (featuring your stellar rendering of ‘Wave of Mutilation’) that we’re both big Pixies fans, and a current work in progress is inspired by them, but in a more peripheral fashion: at one point I was listening to ‘Doolittle,’ and a line from ‘I Bleed’ – “a ringing bell, as loud as hell, behind my smile, it shakes my teeth” – stuck in my brain and wouldn’t go away. So I thought “It Shakes My Teeth” would be a great title for a piece for 2 electric guitars and percussion, using the idea of aggressive bell noises as a starting point. ‘Gonzo Variations’ also calls for a prominent role for electric guitar, bass and drummer – these are quintessential American instruments, and I don’t know why they aren’t used in orchestral contexts more often.
I think the biggest influence that rock n’ roll has had on me is the inherent sense of abandon, which I find extraordinarily liberating. It’s all about “The Road” when you come down to it, whether the road is literal or a creative metaphor. One of my favorite things is going on long drives, and this holds true for artistic travel as well: since this is an online journal devoted to “interstial arts,” maybe it’s fitting to mention that I always feel happiest when I’m traveling between worlds than staying in one place. On the whole it’s much more risky, less comfortable, and hence much more fun.
Thank you so much Michael Fiday for sharing your radness with us! Keep up the cool work! Can’t wait to hear what you are up to next!
Cecil Castellucci is the author of novels for young adults. Boy Proof, The Queen of Cool and Beige are all on Candlewick Press and the upcoming Rose Sees Red (Aug 2010) is on Scholastic Press. Her first Graphic Novel The Plain Janes launched the DC Comics Minx imprint and she was awarded the 2007 Shuster Award for best Canadian Comic Book Writer. It was followed up by the sequel Janes in Love. Her first picture book, Grandma’s Gloves, is due out in August 2010. More about Cecil can be found at cecilcastellucci.com. This interview is also being archived in the Musical Recommendations section of our site.