Silverman: Composer’s Corner Q & A

Welcome back to Subito’s “Composer’s Corner” series, our informal composer-chat sessions. This edition features Faye-Ellen Silverman – composer, pianist, educator, lecturer, reviewer, and contributer to several scholarly projects. She shares some thoughts about using Zoom, composing during a pandemic, upcoming premieres, having her music featured in a film, and offering advice to young musicians — “curiosity should never die” and “validation should come from within.”

Faye-Ellen Silverman
Faye-Ellen Silverman

S: During a world-wide pandemic, musicians everywhere found new and creative ways to continue creating and connecting with each other. What tools and resources did you find to be helpful in your creative process during 2020? 

Silverman: I became adept at “Zoom” for teaching – both in the classroom and privately. I also began to offer classes that were more interactive, and enriched online resources for my students. I found myself planning ahead more – lining up all the examples needed. I also changed the content of my private teaching. Since my compositions are not directly collaborative, my actual compositional process didn’t change. But, I did have compositions that became part of streaming concerts and, in this way, acquired a new audience.

S: As we’re moving on to a more positive note, 2021 is seeing exciting strides forward as people physically come together again. As we move from “Zoom” and other on-line platforms to in-person performances and meetings, what current projects are you working on and will see come to fruition?

Silverman: I’m creating a new woodwind quintet that will be performed in November by the Sylvan Quintet on a Composers Concordance concert. I would also like to start a new work for orchestra, now that orchestras are resuming performances; and, I’m looking forward to hearing my new vocal work Reflections on a Distant Love performed live.

S: During the pandemic, you wrote your recent chamber work – To A Quiet Place – for the contemporary music advocacy organization Composer’s Concordance, and it premiered in March 2021. Your work celebrates the centennial of the invention of the vibraphone. Was the piece inspired by your own personal experience during the pandemic; and if so, how did it shape your creative process and the final outcome?

Silverman: To a Quiet Place was very much affected by the pandemic. The first movement is called “Journeying Afar” – the long journey from loud dissonance (and inner turmoil) to musical calm. As the movement progresses, quotations from the Yiddish song “Oyfn Pripetchik”- some accurate and some distorted by memory – appear. It was taught to me by my uncle when I was still a toddler, and for me, this music of my childhood represents a happy, safe, protected time – my quiet place. As these memories seep in, the anger abates. The second short movement establishes the quiet place. Part of the inspiration for this movement came from Bernstein’s ending to Candide. After all the travails of Bernstein’s main characters, the show ends with “Make Our Garden Grow.” My feeling has been that, during this difficult period of Covid, perhaps the best solution to mental sanity is to find the quiet place within.

S: On another note, over the past two years, your chamber work Protected Sleep (from the Albany Records recording “Manhattan Stories”) has been featured in a short film by Belgian artist/director Luc Gobyn. It’s been shown at several international festivals. Please tell us more about how this collaboration came about.

Silverman: I met Luc Gobyn in 2017 during a residency at the Fundación Valparaiso (Spain), where I held a Ayuntamiento de Mojácar Artist-in-Residence Grant from the Mojácar Town Hall. The Foundation chose four artists – from different countries – to a residency during the same two-week period. We were encouraged to present our works during an evening gathering, and to donate a work or recording to the Foundation’s library (a common practice for artist colonies). I donated a “Manhattan Stories” disc and later presented my compositions – including Protected Sleep – to my fellow residents. Luc fell in love with this work, and, unknown to me at the time, listened to it repeatedly. He subsequently used the Protected Sleep recording of it for a film he created which was timed to my music. After he finished the film, he entered it in film festival competitions, and it has been screened in Romania, Portugal, Spain, Argentina, and several cities in Mexico. This July, it was shown at the ART Container Festival in Bergamo, Italy.

S: Tell us more about your new piece Reflections on a Distant Love (for mezzo-soprano, viola, and piano), which is currently slated to premiere this December in Geneva.

Silverman: Like my chamber work To a Quiet Place – which I started after but finished before Reflections on a Distant Love – the last song, “It Will Not Change”, became a statement of acceptance. The singer accepts that the memory of a close relationship, poured by the composer into these songs, will survive even death.

Several of my compositions are quite personal, including works written in memory of departed loved ones. Reflections on a Distant Love is also about loss, but here, the loss is one of missing personal contact during Covid restrictions. Reflections on a Distant Love started as a female perspective on Neil Diamond’s song “Hello Again,” as well as a reflection – from a woman’s point of view – on the suffering of Gretchen/Marguerite in Goethe’s “Faust.” In Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” – to cite but one prominent example, Gretchen shares the Diamond theme of longing for the presence of a loved one. As my personal contacts grew restricted, this compositional starting point changed from an abstract idea to my way of dealing with Covid-related isolation.

S: Do you plan to attend should current travel rules still be in effect?

Silverman: As much as I would love to attend the premiere, it falls towards the end of my teaching semester, so this probably isn’t possible. But if Véronique Valdes – the singer I had in mind when composing this song cycle – does other European performances, I’ll try to attend.

Screen shot from Intertwining Clarinets performance, with choreography by Max Pollak

S: Last November, 2020, your work Intertwining Clarinets received both an in-person and live-stream premiere by the New York-based Licorice Clarinet Quartet. The premiere also incorporated contemporary choreography. What has been your experience working with dancers? Did you write Intertwining Clarinets with the intent of using modern dance; and if so, did that change your writing process? Were you able to attend the premiere in person?

Silverman: Back in 1994, I worked with dancers when I wrote the piece Connections for a Music Under Construction concert. That work was based on a version of the Passover melody “One Kid” – chosen by the choreographer Leslie Satin. The entire concert involved composer and choreographer collaborations, so the process for this piece was quite different. To cite one example, the relative sparseness of the work’s texture was directly influenced by Satin’s dance aesthetic.

The choreography for Intertwining Clarinets was added after the music was created. Indeed, I attended the premiere; and it was such a joy to hear music performed live – my first time experiencing this since everything shut down in March 2020. Watching the players interact was so much more satisfying than watching performers put together their performance from pre-recorded “Zoom” tracks. I’ve had other live performances since then, such as Composers Concordance, but I still remember how joyous it was to hear live music. My face still lights up in a smile at the memory.

S: Speaking of dance, you compose in every medium ranging from chamber and orchestral works, choral and vocal pieces, to solo piano (just to name a few). Do you have a favorite genre to write for? Is there a difference in how you compose from one genre to the next?

Silverman: I don’t have a favorite genre, and I prefer not to write for the same genre twice in a row because part of my compositional ideas arise from timbral considerations. I often write either for a paid commission or for a specific occasion, so most of my choices are practical. Even with Reflections on a Distant Love, a work written solely from inner necessity, I purposely limited resources, using only two instruments in addition to the singer. Although most of my music is for smaller ensembles, I would love to have occasions to write works for larger forces, and someday, to write a work for concert band – a challenge I haven’t yet had. But changing genres isn’t difficult, since I have a lot of experience with many instruments and instrumental combinations as well as with vocal writing. I welcome the chance to explore new possibilities.

S: Can you tell us more about your composing process?

Silverman: My compositional process has changed during my lifetime. When I was growing up, my classes at the Dalcroze School of Music had weekly composition assignments, and I wrote these at the piano. During my junior year of college I had mononucleosis, and I was unable to sit at the piano for long periods of time. So I began to write away from the keyboard. I had some experience creating music this way since, in my freshman year, I wrote my 16th -century counterpoint assignments on the train. But prior to my illness, I had been using the piano to compose. My process changed again when I began using Finale. At first, I wrote only on paper and then copied the work into Finale. Now, I sometimes start with a page or two of sketches in a notebook, or else I just sketch in Finale. I start by knowing what instruments I wish to use and the approximate length of the planned work. If I am creating a work for specific performers, I try to think about the performers’ technique, including what they do well and what kinds of passages each enjoys playing. If I am writing for an instrument or an instrumental combination whose sounds feel less familiar, I listen to works by other composers for these instruments and/or look at scores.

I write with the playback sound turned off on the computer. When I have the draft of a section or of a movement, I will play through it on the piano, and make major, and later minor changes, on a printed score. I start a new numbered file in Finale with each revision so that I can go back to an earlier version if I change my mind. I print out the score not only to test pitches on the piano but also to test my rhythms and tempos. I will play through the work in my mind against a clicking metronome (on my phone) so that I can listen in real time. Very rarely will I use Finale feedback at a later stage. If I am able to attend a rehearsal, I check with the performers to see what’s playable and what might need a small adjustment. Once I start to write, I revise many times – a procedure that never has changed. But, when a piece is finished, I don’t make more than small revisions; and I never make major changes to shape or content.

I often learn directly from performers – my most reliable teachers – as I work with specific players or ensembles over time. For example, working with James Ostryniec increased my knowledge of oboe and English horn techniques. Visiting my guitarist friend Volkmar Zimmerman in Denmark and hearing him practice solidified the guitar sound in my inner ear. As a Board member of the International Women’s Brass Conference, I’ve gone to many brass conferences which increased my ability to hear the variety and possibilities of brass techniques.

S: Of all the many works in your vast catalogue, is there one piece that you are most proud of? If so, what makes it so special for you?

Silverman: This is a difficult question. But, if I must make a choice, I would choose A Free Pen written in 1990 – a work whose message still remains relevant to today’s world. I am committed to free speech – one of my core beliefs – and after much research, my choice of assembling texts was an important part of the compositional process. I chose texts that show the universality of the theme across time and continents, and their musical settings correspond to these varied locations. A Free Pen also features elements of my Jewish heritage (text settings from the excommunication of Spinoza)…This work holds a special place in my heart because two of my former students, along with one of their friends, organized a concert of it – a work that I had never heard due to the size of the forces involved. (Also on the program was the two-piano version of my piano concerto Candlelight.) These talented young musicians not only found the players, including the Broadway actor Jerry Dixon as the narrator, but they also organized the rehearsals and they did this all without financial cost. (This performance can be viewed here on YouTube.)

S: As a teacher, and as the music world continues to evolve in this virtual age, what advice do you have for young composers and musicians?

Silverman: I think I should be taking advice from young composers on these matters! I was raised to believe that a compositional career “just happens,” and I believed this for far too long. Fortunately, our current young musicians are more career savvy. In terms of advice, though, my thoughts would also apply to a non-virtual age, as they are my own life-principles. I would advise young composers to pursue a career in music only if they are truly in love with the field – only if they feel that there is no other choice since this is what defines them. This advice was advice given to me when I was in college; and, while I found it corny then, I now find it worth passing on to others…Young musicians need to keep alive their belief in themselves and not let outside forces discourage them. Validation should start from within. In this hyper-competitive world, young musicians, including composers, should become as good as they can be at their craft, and should be prepared to keep learning about their field for their entire lives. Composers should remain open to hearing the music being written by others, including compositions with very different aesthetics. Curiosity should never die. Above all: young (and not-so-young) musicians and composers should have a back-up career plan for paying their bills. All artists should realize that a “day job,” if needed, doesn’t make them less of an artist, nor will it prevent them from wisely using their remaining hours for creative work.