Lainie Fefferman: Here I Am

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About

Composer Lainie Fefferman's Here I Am is the culmination of a fifteen year creative journey engaging and grappling with the ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible, and writing music in response to her immersive process. The resulting piece is structured loosely in the form of an oratorio and scored for a group of solo and ensemble female voices, accompanied by a kind of chamber rock band of electric guitar, drum set, piano, percussion, cello, violin, and clarinet, performed by TRANSIT New Music. At the heart of Here I Am is Fefferman's earnest effort at reclaiming her connection to this received tradition, understanding it in the context of modern life despite some of its challenging content, and inviting the listener to explore ancient texts with the same critical and open spirit.

Audio

Modern public life is saturated with references to ancient religious text, from politicians who cite verse to appeal to an observant base to earnest believers who frame contemporary events in the context of centuries old stories. Depending on one’s own relationship to religion, the ubiquity of scripture will register as welcome or invasive. Less frequently, we are given the time and space to contemplate a living relationship with these texts. How do they fit in with modern life (if at all)? How can we reconcile with their problematic content, and if we can’t, can we make peace with their components that possess enduring value? In a cultural moment where we are grappling with and reevaluating historical trajectories, the profound impact of ancient religious texts on modern cultures looms large. In line with a millenia old tradition of questioning and reinterpreting ancient texts for modern times, Lainie Fefferman has been grappling with her relationship to the Hebrew Bible through her music for decades. Here I Am is a document of that intellectual and emotional work, fifteen years in the making.

Fefferman makes different decisions about how to set these texts that both reflect their weight and timeless impact as well as her complex and varied relationship to each biblical excerpt's content. Fefferman’s choice to feature five different vocalists over the course of the work supports its Biblical scope, with its large cast of characters over generations and centuries. Using a chamber rock instrumentation allows Fefferman the freshness to frame the musical material as a contemporary response, establishing two layers of interpretation: that of the original words, and that of her reaction to and journey with them.

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The album begins with the spoken “Intro”, reading census text from Torah listing the twelve tribes of Israel, and establishes an ambiguously liturgical atmosphere of the work. That atmosphere is swiftly broken by “Lot’s Daughters”, a driving setting of a story concerning questions of what we owe each other featuring Fefferman’s own gravelly vocals. The influence of progressive art rock is felt throughout, evoking the theatricality of the early work of Genesis and Pink Floyd. A high register sustain in the violin elides into the opening of “Nephilim,” which features soprano Charlotte Mundy’s crystalline voice over an ethereal, luminous accompaniment to meditate on the role of these angels barely mentioned, whose role is seemingly only to have sex with human women. Fefferman animates the static, modal ensemble sound world with light arpeggiation in the piano, and atmospheric effects in the percussion.

“Offerings” features a vocal trio that functions as a sort of Greek Chorus throughout the work (Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes, and Caroline Shaw). They open in chant-like homophony, before splitting into rhythmically independent parts that retain a quality of ritual and prayerfulness as they recount the taxation to the temple that defined Israelite identity for centuries. "Deuteronomic Rules" uses Fefferman's dry reading tone to highlight a few rules from the Book of Deuteronomy that present a stark and startling dissonance with modern life and values. A steady pulse on the hi-hat propels “Sword on Thigh” forward, with hits between the anvil and distorted electric guitar punctuating Meaghan Burke’s earthy vocals as she chronicles a bloody civil war as the Jews build a new life after slavery in Egypt. “Innocent Men” is scored once again for the vocal trio, who articulate folkloric mixed meter material with clapping and stomping outlining Abraham's bargain with God as he worked to save the people of Sodom.

The proportions of Here I Am shift for its final three tracks, as the eighth and tenth tracks are both much longer than any of the prior movements. And Their Bloodguilt Shall Be Upon Them” opens with ferocity, as the ensemble plays massive, insistent chords under a modular, ascending line passed through the ensemble that is steadily displaced and varied rhythmically. Mellissa Hughes is the vocal soloist here, delivering the texts in various guises, sometimes over percolating sustains, sometimes in dialogue with dramatic attacks and moto perpetuo figures in the ensemble.

For a climactic passage admonishing readers not to “uncover the nakedness” of various relations, the score turns to dramatic, melismatic lines in the layered, overdubbed vocal line as a bass drum forcefully underpins a long scalar build in the ensemble. Fefferman chooses to confront one of the most problematic passages head on; we hear the prohibition against “lying with a man as one does with a woman” with sudden, stark transparency of orchestration, with Hughes solo spoken voice over cymbal rolls and a pedal point in the piano. The intensity builds again, culminating in Hughes’ proclamation “I am the Lord your God!,” revealing the crashing sustain of overdriven guitar and disembodied, unstable ponticello tones in the strings. The text returns to the litany of prohibitions over whispers in the ensemble and ominous anvil strikes. The calamitous opening texture reappears for a final recitation of some of the harshest pronouncements. The vocal trio makes its final appearance in “Lineage”, returning to the listing of the twelve tribes from the opening movement, this time sung as a responsive duo.

“Take Your Son” opens with effervescent glissandi harmonics passed around in the strings and inside of the piano, and Hughes enters with a kind of cantus firmus over the developing sonic ecosystem. The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is told in plain speech, as Tanning’s violin holds a high tone and Levine plays ethereal harmonics. As Hughes shifts into singing the text, the instruments in the ensemble become more active in brief soloistic moments; a flourish from Sara Budde’s clarinet and a splash of color from the guitar. Ashley Bathgate’s cello establishes a repeating figure to accompany, “Take your son, your only son.” The piece ends, once again, with the recitation of the numbers of the twelve tribes, here supported by a glistening accompaniment, closing as it began, an assertion of the cyclical, timeless nature of ancient texts and the power of inherited identity.

– Dan Lippel

Recorded by Andrew McKenna Lee at The College of Saint Rose, August 2019

Vocal trio recorded at Degraw Studios, November 2019

Additional overdubs recorded by Jascha Narveson at Avaloch Farm Music Institute, June 2022, and in Oopiestan Studios, January 2024

Edited, mixed, and mastered by Jascha Narveson

Produced by Lainie Fefferman

Lainie Fefferman

Lainie Fefferman makes music by putting dots on lines, drawing curves in software, writing code in boxes, and finding new and surprising ways to wiggle her vocal chords. Her most recent commissions for the creation of original works have been from Recap Quartet, Greg Oakes, JACK Quartet, Aaron Larget-Caplan, Ensemble Decipher, Tenth Intervention, So Percussion, Make Music New York, Experiments in Opera, ETHEL, Kathleen Supové, TILT Brass, James Moore, Eleonore Oppenheim, and Dither. Her one-woman voice & electronics feminist song project "White Fire," an electroacoustic meditation on the heroines of the Hebrew Bible, was released as an album on Gold Bolus Recordings in 2023. She is a co-founder and director of New Music Gathering, an annual conference/festival hybrid event for the international New Music Community. She had a wonderful time getting her doctorate in composition from Princeton University and is a programming/performing member of Princeton-based laptop ensemble Sideband. She currently teaches and advises a fabulous bunch of music makers as a professor of Music & Technology at Stevens Institute of Technology and recently concluded her time as artist in residence at Nokia Bell Labs.

TRANSIT New Music

​​Formed in 2007 in New York City, TRANSIT established a reputation for producing exciting concerts featuring young composers and for special projects that push the boundaries of musical convention. Through their annual DoubleBill Series, TRANSIT has worked closely with emerging composers from around the globe and presented dozens of world premiere-studded concerts for audiences throughout NYC. Taking their cues from the diversity of the city around them, the artists of TRANSIT seek to create bridges between and among the various schools and styles of music being written and performed today, while embracing innovative projects that are relevant to contemporary culture. Their goal is not to achieve an international style or to promote a particular “sound.” Rather, they champion experimental music from a wide range of influences with the conviction that the music of today is inherently meaningful to audiences and vital to social progress.
The collective has experimented with concepts as disparate as binary-gated amplification (Tristan Perich), music for hearing-deprived musicians (Eric KM Clark), large-scale multimedia shows (Daniel Wohl), and music for hand-built speaker feedback instruments (Lesley Flanigan), and they have frequently collaborated with innovative artists from a variety of backgrounds and traditions, including Laurel Halo and Julia Holter, and the video art collective Satan's Pearl Horses. They have performed at a wide range of venues including Le Poisson Rouge, Issue Project Room, Constellation (Chicago), LiteraturHaus (Copenhagen), Glasslands, and the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center; for the MATA Interval, Ecstatic Music, Astoria Music Society, and Darmstadt Classics of the Avant Garde series; and on joint programs alongside artists including So Percussion, Judy Dunaway, Arutro en el Barco, and Margaret Leng Tan. As recording artists, their album Corps Exquis (New Amsterdam) was a favorite among critics, including those at the New York Times ('deliciously lovely'), National Public Radio ('exquisite'), and the Chicago Reader ('fantastic'). They were also featured on Recap Percussion's recent debut album Count to Five (Innova) alongside Caroline Shaw.

Mellissa Hughes

Hailed by The New York Times as “a versatile, charismatic soprano endowed with brilliant technique and superlative stage instincts... indispensable to New York’s new-music ecosystem,” Mellissa Hughes enjoys a busy international career in both contemporary and early music. Recent and upcoming highlights include Chicago Symphony’s Beyond the Score performances celebrating Pierre Boulez; Ted Hearne’s Wikileaks oratorio The Source at BAM, LA Opera, and San Francisco Opera; international performances with John Zorn, Alarm Will Sound, Bang on a Can All-Stars, a solo recital for American Songbook at Lincoln Center; and an acclaimed release from Nonesuch Records of Jacob Cooper’s Silver Threads. Hughes’s additional discography includes multiple albums from New Amsterdam records, and Shelter, a video opera by Bang on a Can composers Michael Gordon, and Pulitzer Prize winners David Lang and Julia Wolfe, released by Cantaloupe Music. She has recorded tracks for the WNYC program Radiolab, and is featured on the soundtrack of the Oscar winning film Moonlight.

Caroline Shaw

Caroline Shaw is a New-York-based musician—vocalist, violinist, composer, and producer—who performs in solo and collaborative projects. She was the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for Partita for 8 Voices, written for the Grammy-winning Roomful of Teeth, of which she is a member. Recent commissions include new works for Renée Fleming with Inon Barnatan, Dawn Upshaw with Sō Percussion and Gil Kalish, Seattle Symphony, Anne Sofie von Otter with Philharmonia Baroque, the LA Philharmonic, Juilliard 415, and Roomful of Teeth with A Far Cry. She has produced for Kanye West (The Life of Pablo; Ye) and Nas (NASIR), and has contributed to records by The National, and by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. carolineshaw.com

Meaghan Burke

Hailed as “outstanding," with a “street-smart, feline voice" (New York Times), Meaghan Burke is a cellist, vocalist, and composer working in the space between contemporary music, improvised music, and songwriting.


Reviews

5

WRUU interview - Evening Eclectics

https://www.wruu.org/broadcasts/50406

— Dave Lake, 4.29.2024

5

Infodad

Lainie Fefferman reaches back even further in time for the creation of Here I Am. The 10-part work is a series of pieces based on the Hebrew Bible, ranging from a purely spoken introductory text reading a census of the 12 tribes of Israel to a series of explorations of ways in which the ancient texts are, or are not, meaningful and relevant to contemporary life. Much of this is not exactly music – it is more a series of soundscapes inviting contemplation, such as the very high violin register used to paint a picture of the angels called “Nephilim” and the extended (and also high-register) sound, punctuated by percussion, in which “Deuteronomic Rules” are recited (“you shall not plough with an ox and an ass together,” “you shall not marry your father’s former wife,” and so forth). A steady pulsing underlies “Sword on Thigh,” about a civil war; a vocal trio (sounding a bit like the Muses in the animated Disney version of Hercules) delivers Abraham’s arguments with God about Sodom; and other pieces use different instrumental and vocal effects to put forward still more admonitions and prohibitions. Here I Ameventually concludes with a repeat of the initial census, making it clear that Fefferman is speaking only to those who share her Jewish background and, like her, are trying to understand and make sense of many-thousand-years-old writings whose relevance to modern life is sometimes difficult to fathom, sometimes impossible to comprehend, sometimes decidedly problematic (as with the prohibition, from Leviticus 18:22, against the “abomination” that occurs when any man should “lie with a male as with a woman”). Here I Am sounds like a performance piece – it is easy to imagine the theatricality of the musicians and the reciters of the Biblical passages – and has the effect of listening in on the composer’s own exploration of the basis of her faith and the sometimes difficult-to-fathom elements underlying it. For those who share Fefferman’s beliefs and her concerns about their foundations, this will be a meaningful exploration that offers questions but not definitive conclusions. For those steeped in different religions or committed to none at all, the whole exercise will have little significance or meaningful impact.

— Mark Estren, 5.19.2024

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