In the chaotically diverse American compositional scene of the late twentieth century, a return to longstanding traditions has taken hold in some quarters. Yet the zany pluralism of American culture often makes "tradition" a slippery concept. These days historic European music stands alongside that of Japan or Indonesia. Songs of the Beatles are labeled "classics," and Mozart is piped into the dentist's office together with the latest dose of New Age serenity.
The music of Joel Feigin invents its own response to this eclecticism. It is deeply rooted in the history of European-American concert music yet rich with the yin-yang juxtapositions possible in post-war, postmodern America. A practicing Buddhist, Feigin declares that "Bach influences me more than anyone; I got involved in hard-core European music very early." A composer of atonal music, Feigin unabashedly and effectively laces his scores with tonality. A lover of intricately woven counterpoint, Feigin can pull out a soaring melody that rivals Schubert. All this adds up to a music that is never easy-listening, yet always approachable music that confidently negotiates today's tricky aesthetic borders.
Feigin has a strong sense of who he is, and his compositions show it. Born in New York in 1951, he went to Columbia as an undergraduate and came of age at a turbulent time. "When I started out in the late sixties," Feigin recalls, "it felt crazy being a composer. On the one hand the serialists were saying 'do the numbers,' and on the other I heard, 'do a happening.' None of it worked for me." What did work was to defy the anti-establishment Zeitgeist of the day and turn to, as Feigin puts it, his "musical grandparents or even greatgrandparents," studying first at Fontainbleau with Nadia Boulanger, the famed pedagogue then in her eighties, and later at The Juilliard School with Roger Sessions, an important teacher in mid-twentieth-century America.
Feigin holds great respect for both figures, and in describing their traits says as much about himself as his teachers. Of Sessions, Feigin observes, "He was very much a modernist but he was very open." Once when Feigin got tangled in writing a twelve-tone composition, Sessions told him, "Why don't you write what you hear and forget the row?" Feigin's own approach to so-called modernism is exuberantly unbounded, especially in his imaginative combination of tonal and atonal writing. Of the pieces on these discs, First Tragedy shows this suppleness most graphically, with distinct switches between diatonic and chromatic sections. But it is elsewhere too. Such polarities also separate whole pieces, as with Vernderungen, which has an atonal inclination, and Nexus, which tips in the other direction. These works are not composed consecutively; there is no linear progress here from one style of writing to another. Rather Feigin uses both languages simultaneously. "Tonality vs. atonality is really a false issue," observes Feigin. "What's really tough and demanding is to express your true self."
Looking back on his time with Boulanger, Feigin singles out her focus on craft, a trait noted by many of her students over the decades. But he also admires something less widely proclaimed: her view of music "as a spiritual practice." It proved to be a bond between a staunch Catholic raised in the nineteenth century and a young man who within a few years would find himself involved in Buddhism. "I think she regarded herself as a nun for music," Feigin muses. "As long as you can realize that a spiritual practice is the most ordinary thing that could be, it's almost the only healthy way to approach composition." Feigin's personal form of spirituality shines out from his music in various ways. Sometimes it assumes a beatific calm. At others it has more to do with his choice of texts and extra-musical themes, which tend to confront the inexplicable profundities at the core of the human experience. The quickness of life darts through Feigin's work, yet it is never far from the starkness of death. Perhaps because of his Buddhist practice, Feigin's vision of death is neither fearful nor horrific. Rather it seems a natural extension of the living that leads into it. Buddhism also provides a key to Feigin's tendency to combine tonality with atonality. "Serious Zen practice made me open to the tonal possibilities that are so much a part of me," he notes. "Apart from craft, there's the continual openness to your whole life and the whole universe a kind of disintegration of that separation." And the practice of meditation basic to Buddhism might explain why Feigin often ends pieces with tranquil tonal sections. Meditation can be exceedingly difficult a battle with intrusive agitation before true mental quietude is achieved.
Feigin's music shows a glorious gift for melody, so it comes as no surprise that songs are at the core of his output. He understands the human voice and relishes nuances in the English language. "For me," he points out, "music is about expressing feelings, embodying them in sound and gesture a way to get to those states of feeling that are beyond the verbal. Even with texts, music permits you to convey the preverbal subtext." From a historical perspective, Feigin's songs would seem to derive from an American vocal-music tradition, but when asked about his influences he names Dallapiccola and Britten. His vocal music grows more out of opera than lied, as he often claims, and his taste in poetry leans toward spare language and probing messages. He acknowledges the appeal of "very far-flung world texts." A strong vocal impulse also marks Feigin's instrumental works, many of them featuring such traditional melody-carriers as flute, oboe, or violin. "All of my music comes out of melody," Feigin states, "out of an imitation of natural human expression the way we communicate with each other."