Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Joshua Fineberg: An organic architecture

The word 'organic' is often (over-)used in music writing to describe music that develops seemingly of its own accord, that avoids blocky, sudden changes in favor of naturally flowing lines that coalesce toward arrival points that seem both unexpected and inevitable.  In truth, the word has often been used specifically to contrast the lyrical textural subtleties of French composers against the (perceived) mechanical intellectual rigor of Germanic music.  But the problem with the term 'organic' is that it relies on the untruth that any music could be 'natural'—as a cultural expression of human beings, music does not evolve of its own accord (at least, not composed music), but is always deliberately constructed and organized.  

Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Zaha Hadid
No composer's work exemplifies this paradox perhaps as well as Joshua Fineberg.  Much of the neo-spectralist's output is marked by a Debussyan emphasis on texture, a highly decorated, contemplative attention to timbral detail.  However—as Fineberg will be the first to admit—this 'organic' appearance is illusory.  Instead, it is the result of careful psychoacoustic observation, research, and a meticulous compositional construction.  The result is something which is both free-flowing and punctiliously assembled, a kind of 'organic architecture'—not in the Fallingwater sense, but like the more recent work of Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid—works that maintain the superficial impression of diaphanous elegance while clearly the result of careful and considered construction.

Fineberg, one of the foremost experts on the tradition of spectral music, studied with Tristan Murail at IRCAM before returning to the US to pursue a PhD in composition at Columbia.  He was the John L. Loeb Associate Professor for the Humanities at Harvard University from 2000-2007, and since then has been a professor, and director of the Center for New Music, at Boston University.  An accomplished writer on music, Finberg's book Classical Music, Why Bother? was published by Routledge Press in 2006, and he has served as editor for two issues of The Contemporary Music Review on Spectral Music (Vol. 19 pt. 2 and 3) and for a double-issue featuring the collected writings of Tristan Murail in English (Vol. 24 pt. 2 and 3).

We are excited that Fineberg will be joining the composition faculty at June in Buffalo 2016.  As a gifted pedagogue, his expertise will surely prove insightful to the emerging composers with whom he will be working.  The festival will see the performances of three of the composer's works, including an early piece, Paradigms, for six instruments and live electronics, which will be performed by Dal Niente.  The work's title illustrates the composer's frequent reliance on models in his work, whether these be "acoustic, physical, energetic, or simply poetic."

The festival will also feature a performance by Ensemble Uusinta of Objets trouvĂ©, a piece based on an idea that has been frequently explored by visual artists:  that a familiar object may shift into "something else, something startling, or strange, or even beautiful."  [The Center was proud to host Ensemble Court Circuit in 2013, the ensemble for whom the piece was composed, who played it during their residency that year.]  In addition, the Arditti Quartet will be on hand to perform La Quintina, a work for string quartet and electronics Fineberg composed in collaboration with the ensemble in 2012.  The composer describes the inspiration for the piece:
There is a wonderful repertoire of four-part vocal polyphony in Sardinia in which singers attempt to create an illusory fifth voice while singing in harmony through excellent intonation, careful shaping of vowels, and the acoustics of resonant churches.  Our auditory processing system misinterprets the combinations of the vocal quartet’s overtones and suppressed frequency regions as a separate voice, producing this astonishing effect.  This vaguely feminine phantom voice is called la quintina (the fifth part), and is considered to be the Virgin Mary singing along.
In Fineberg's piece, the four members of the quartet combine to produce similar phantom tones acoustically, until the electronics eventually join in to assemble these ghostly fragments into an autonomous fifth part.  While a piece so dependent on resonance and acoustics can likely only be fully appreciated in a live performance, a well-rendered studio realization can be heard below.

Such works will put on display for listeners the aforementioned organic architecture of Fineberg's music, the effortful effortlessness of his colors and textures, and the dynamic interplay between study and realization.

—Ethan Hayden