An Interview with Suzanne Farrin

By · Title Image © Luke Redmond · Date 12/14/2017

Suzanne Farrin’s “La Dolce Morte” sets love poetry Michelangelo wrote to the young nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, after their meeting in 1532. The monodrama was performed again on December 8-9 2017 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Vélez Blanco Patio. The countertenor Eric Jurenas performed the central role in collaboration with the International Contemporary Ensemble. Farrin won the Rome Prize this year to compose an opera based on Clarice Lispector’s last novel, The Hour of the Star. She is currently Professor and Chair of Music at Hunter College and Professor of Composition at The CUNY Graduate Center (and my composition teacher). Recently, I spoke with her at the Met Museum about these projects as well as how performing on the ondes Martenot affects her approach to composition.

VAN: In “La Dolce Morte,” the instrumental sounds seem to arise from the countertenor’s inner world. Do you think about which parts of the music are heard by the dramatic character and which are not?

Suzanne Farrin: I think about what is being heard in the mind of the main character and what is entering into his world as an outside element. Ever since I was a kid I have been so excited about the Shakespearean aside. I thought that was just the most exciting thing in the world that Jago (from Shakespeare’s Othello) could turn to the audience and just talk to them as a person. I really like playing with that very simple magic: When is there an intrusion upon him and when are we hearing his thoughts? The oboe and the bassoon are like two parts of himself. He is kind of a he-she in a way because Michelangelo’s poetry plays with gender in the way he genders himself and objects.

I can’t talk so exactly about the literary theory or the social context of how he plays with gendered nouns. But it is a very flexible field that he created for himself. He doesn’t always use the proper gender of a given noun. That was one of the things that was censored by the grandnephew’s posthumous 1623 edition of Michelangelo’s poems—in addition to directly talking about his lover as a man.

It’s very connected to how physicality plays a role in all of his work. What you can see in the statues is the Michelangelo contrapposto, which is much more dramatic and intense and tortured, but also joyous in some ways too, than perhaps other sculptors from around the same time. And in the poetry you have this beautiful articulation of, “I think this and I feel this, I’m told this and I feel that,” and how he gets around it and makes logic out of it for himself. For he himself is a god, he knows his own importance. He’s in a position of great power, respect, prestige, and influence. He can take liberties with how he expresses himself. He can be real.

The performance of “La Dolce Morta” • Photo Doug Fitch 
The performance of “La Dolce Morta” • Photo Doug Fitch 

So then Michelangelo’s play with gender in the poetry makes its way into the music through the countertenor’s relationship to the oboe and bassoon?

Yes. And also there is the countertenor’s voice in itself, that phenomenon which is kind of male and female, a disembodied or embodied kind of voice—we’re not sure where to locate it. The oboe and the bassoon function as extensions of that character. How long can he actually sustain? It sounds like he’s sustaining for a really long time because the oboe and the bassoon, in that register, can both mask him very well and he is very good at masking himself into the oboe and bassoon. The three of them form a cohort.

I want to return to your remark that Michelangelo was able to be real in the poetry. Did his position as a leading painter and sculptor allow him to take risks in his poetry?

He was able to, but he was also compelled to. He couldn’t make that work without all these things going on for him. Without his love of men, both in his life, in his relationships, but also just physical love of men. So what you see in the poetry for Tommaso is a person who is very stimulated by things going into the eye. Since he’s an artist, it’s all about seeing a unique spirit. I see inside of you, he’s telling Tommaso at one point, and only I see how beautiful you also are on the inside. But Michelangelo was obsessed with beautiful humans also, he thought beautiful humans were like works of art on their own. He admired physical beauty and he didn’t think that he had any physical beauty. That’s his only negative attribute. He might be the creator of the greatest work of art of his time, but he didn’t like his appearance.

Michelangelo painted himself as a skinned St. Bartholomew in The Last Judgement. You’ve referred to this as his way of revealing himself. Have you composed yourself into “La Dolce Morte”?

Yes, absolutely. I went through the opposite process. Michelangelo takes his skin off to show who he is. I put his skin on to show who I am. He’s my mask, but he’s always working to take the mask off, because he’s a subtractive artist. And for me it’s more like a sounding-through.

Do you try to give performers freedom in your work?

There isn’t that much freedom in my music aside from what I love to encourage and what I expect, which is that people play with personality. Even when I notate things in a more relaxed way, it’s still aiming toward one effect that may have moderate differences among players. But for me, what happens before the piece is written is the exciting part. I visit people and I hear things that they are doing. I work with them on sounds and we find this vocabulary through our mutual excitement. The entire vocabulary doesn’t end up in the piece, but I end up finding my way by that moment of collaboration and exchange.

Are you composing the performer into the piece?

Exactly. I really love writing for people’s personalities. And I feel that—in a transcendentalist kind of way—that being really specific about a person and what they like to do or what they can do is not a limiting factor but is an expansive factor. By creating something for a person you’re creating something for people. It’s something that you can relate to and understand.

How does performing on the ondes Martenot shape your composition practice?

It has taught me to be more inside of the sounds. Living with sine waves and having them resonate in my body on a regular basis—I think it makes me a happier person. It causes me to think about sounds and the way they interact because the ondes interacts with its environment in a very intense way: things rattle, things resonate, the sound travels very surgically.

Farrin performing a movement of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 on the ondes Martenot.

What works from disciplines other than music do you return to for inspiration? In the past you’ve mentioned Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”

Why do I love “The Passion of Joan of Arc” so much? I love the simplicity of it. I love that I always forget that it’s a silent film.

What does that mean?

It’s so powerful to me that there has to be sound. How could something so powerful that takes place over time not have sound? But there’s no sound in this film and I literally forget every time. It’s always a surprise.

Do you ever dream about music?

Yes I do. Sometimes I try to solve problems.

Technical problems in composition?

Yeah. It tends to not work. I wake up and look at it and, neh…that wasn’t a good solution. I have people who sing in my dreams. I have a recurring nightmarish dream which is that I’m asked to play a recital on an instrument that I don’t play. And I have to go out there…

Suzanne Farrin, “Infinite Here”; American Composer’s Orchestra

You decided at some point to take lessons in all the orchestral instruments. How has it affected your composition process?

Yes, when I was 18. I think I did all of them, except percussion. It gave me an automatic respect for how much time it takes to make a good sound on these instruments. That’s not something to be taken lightly. We should remember that it takes a lifetime to produce a beautiful sound on the violin.

What happened between “La Dolce Morte” and “The Hour of the Star” that is making the latter go in a different direction?

I feel liberated. I care profoundly less about what people think. It would be a waste of time to write any music that wasn’t mine. I’m much more comfortable with that. I think I always have written my own music, but it came with a lot of anxiety.

Suzanne Farrin, “ma dentro dove,” for clarinet and resonating piano; Joshua Rubin (Clarinet)

In “The Hour of the Star” the narrator confronts the reader. Did those moments of direct address draw you to the book?

It’s absolutely part of it. To me it already reads like a libretto, how Lispector presents herself as a character. In the Dedication by the Author she puts in parentheses, “(actually Clarice Lispector)” because it’s clear that she’s in every one of her characters in this book, especially the narrator and protagonist. The first line of the protagonist is just so wonderful, he says, “All the world began with a yes.” It just gives me chills to think about. One of the first things he addresses as the narrator is that he had to be a man so that he could be believed.

The opening line is, “All the world began with a yes,” and then it continues, “One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes.”As you compose the opera, how do you deal with the pulling, in seemingly opposite directions, of physics and metaphysics?

It’s not a paradox; it’s almost like an inspired state of being. I feel Michelangelo has it too, the same as Lispector. Michelangelo also has the same sense of being permanently inspired. Every physical act or piece of knowledge has a metaphysical ramification and a resonance. Lispector and Michelangelo are very comfortable, living in those worlds of the body and the spirit, of the concrete and the ephemeral.

Especially Lispector. I mean the main character’s name is Macabea—she’s clearly referencing her own upbringing. She barely escaped the pogroms with her family; they sold their shoes at one point to get out of the Ukraine. She was conceived to try to cure her mother of syphilis which she got as the result of a gang rape during the pogroms. Her mother basically offered herself, it seems, to protect her family. She got syphilis and was suffering the symptoms while they were trying to escape. The advice of the time was to get pregnant and you’ll be cured. So she did. And so Clarice’s life did start with a yes: she was brought to the earth, chosen to cure her mother.

She’s coming from a place in the Ukraine that was filled with Jewish mystics historically. Probably we would call her a kabbalist or something. She wasn’t a religious person; she didn’t believe in ritual; she didn’t like any of that, but she was very concerned with number and meaning, and she clearly had a huge imagination for what is beyond the things that we can rationally understand. ¶