Nine Questions: for Jack Frerer
DG: Hi Jack! First of all, let me congratulate you on winning the 2019 Ettelson prize for Spiral Sequences! We are overjoyed to be presenting the West Coast premiere. It’s a string quartet, and I was personally very struck by your expert string writing. Are you a string player yourself?
JF: Thanks so much! So grateful to you and the Ninth Planet committee for choosing the piece. That is very nice of you to say--I am not a string player, but I am a guitarist which I suppose comes close in many ways. Bowing will forever feel horribly counterintuitive to me though. I recently picked up a $30 violin to get more hands-on experience which is helping...maybe...
DG: Can you tell us a little more about the form of Spiral Sequences? In your program note you write that the first movement is a “constantly tightening” spiral...how do you untighten this, so to speak, in the second movement?
JF: Sure! I was thinking a lot about second movements while formulating the structure for the piece. The Barber Adagio for example, which most think of as a standalone work, was initially the second movement of his string quartet and comes after eight minutes of fairly thorny material. To me, the adagio hits so much harder when it’s proceeded by this intense, chromatic material that’s perhaps more difficult to digest. So I took that basic fast-slow structure to achieve that same effect.
My piece is also built around sequential chord progressions, which ascend or descend by consistent intervals. These can feel incredibly tense, constricting, treated chromatically and rhythmically; like you are trapped in their inevitable ascent or descent. They can also feel comforting, predictable, diatonic, spacious; given time to understand the pattern, you can anticipate where it’s going. The ‘untightening’ comes from moving from the first treatment to the second.
DG: Browsing through your website, I notice you’re also very active as a filmmaker. How does this work influence or inform your work as a composer?
JF: Films don’t have to try to describe a subject to you, they can literally just show it to you, so you end up with radical clarity and viscerality that just can’t exist in other mediums. I think filmmaking has inspired two things in my musical work, the first being finding ways to capture that clarity in music, where a listener always feels like they understand what’s going on (or that if something shouldn’t make sense, which is often, that there’s a sense of intentionality about it and that it’s eventually clear in hindsight). The second is figuring out what music can do that film can’t, which is really hard, especially considering music is such an integral part of cinema. Tangential, but I honestly think this is the greatest challenge artists have to face in the 21st century where film is clearly the most dominant, effective medium; what experience can music provide that film can’t? I think it’s something to do with emotional poignancy, but I won’t pretend I have any idea...
DG: One of the aspects I’m really loving about your music as I dig in here is your lack of hesitance letting non-classical influences come to the fore...am I hearing that right? I’m thinking specifically of your orchestral work On Again, Off Again, but I’m hearing this a little in Spiral Sequences…
JF: For sure. I grew up playing in bands, so that music - everything from Led Zeppelin to the Dead Kennedys, Buddy Guy, Chick Corea, Ray LaMontange, a real messy aggregate of influences - definitely finds its way into my compositions. There are definitely a few spots in Spiral Sequences; thinking of the cello’s low driving 16th notes in the first movement…
DG: On that note, too, does filmmaking play into your musical upbringing? I might be hearing this through my own ears, as someone who’s dabbled a bit in film scoring. But film music has been and remains a huge love for me…
JF: Same! I was very interested in film and audio production from quite a young age, which led quite naturally to film scoring. I scored a few short films and composed a handful of jingles for different projects during my first year of University in Australia, often with sampled ‘virtual’ instruments, before realizing that I was most interested in the compositional aspects of these projects.
DG: You studied at The Juilliard School with Robert Beaser and John Corigliano. This has to be fascinating—Corigliano, especially, is a composer I’d love to sit down and chat with sometime! Can you pass on any of the lessons your teachers have passed to you?
JF: They were both incredible for very different reasons. Beaser took me as a transfer student when I had about a year of composition experience under my belt. I knew nothing, and he was perfect at steering me towards the information and experiences I needed. I think the instinct of a lot of teachers in that situation would be to try and overload the student with information, but he was correct in guiding me to discover it for myself.
Corigliano has the most insane musical instinct I have ever seen. Great teachers can identify what isn’t working in a piece, but John’s superpower is telling you how to fix it - and being right! The specific advice I’ll always remember though: I once brought him a piece that I’d devised with this intricate, clever structure that in performance went horribly. I said something about hoping the structure would make up for its lack of musicality, and he said “it should always be musical”. This might seem obvious - that music should be musical - but it was advice I sorely needed at the time.
DG: I notice that you’ve written many fine works for voice, both solo and choral. Now this makes me wonder if you’re a singer, too! Can you tell us a bit about how vocal writing influences your approach to instrumental work?
JF: Not a good one! A lot of composers seem to find writing vocal music really easy, or at least easier than writing purely instrumental music because they can just follow the direction of the text. I find it really challenging. Writing a piece of music that makes sense is hard enough; writing a piece that evokes the meaning of a text while also making sense as a piece of music is just overwhelming. Regarding how it influences my instrumental work though, I do think there’s a lot of truth to musical phrases being derived from patterns of speech. I definitely think about the nature of spoken phrases and breathing while composing musical phrases.
DG: What music are you listening to these days?
JF: Tyler, The Creator, Beethoven, The Philadelphia Brass, Thundercat, Vulfpeck, Ted Hearne and Chris Theofanidis are my most recently-played on Spotify.
DG: This last question isn’t really a question, per se, but again, we can’t wait to perform your string quartet, and congratulations again! You’ll be at a pretty exciting previous engagement and unable to come to San Francisco for the show, correct?
JF: Yes unfortunately I’ll be in Colorado for a premiere with the Arapahoe Philharmonic! Sad I wont be in San Francisco for the performance, but I’m looking forward to hearing about how everything goes!
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