Name: David Friend and Jerome Begin
Current release: Post on New Amsterdam
Recommendations: DF: The first time I heard Julius Eastman’s ‘Stay on It,’ I had a visceral, ecstatic response. It’s compelling on every level, and its structure captures the spirit of invention, total disregard for convention, and unfiltered flair that I think are so precious in Eastman’s work / Meredith Monk’s ‘Turtle Dreams’ helped me to understand what it could look like to develop a comprehensive creative vision that is both legible but entirely original, and to do this as a part of a community of artists. JB: Einstein on the Beach, the opera by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson. Believe the hype. / This isn’t one particular piece, but one kind of music many people don’t know about that I really love is traditional Korean Pansori music. It has so much soul and achiness in it, with so much rhythmic, heavy, groovy goodness.
If you enjoyed this interview with David and Jerome, visit their respective websites www.jeromebegin.com and www.davidfriendpiano.net
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
JB: I started composing at age 10. I didn’t know I was composing, or that one could be a composer. I started playing piano at age five, took lessons for a couple years, and then quit. Once I quit lessons, I started playing all the time. I had a babysitter who played the piano, and he taught me a little about chords. I then learned how to play pop music by playing the melody, and creating my own accompaniment by following the chord symbols. From there, it was a natural step to begin writing my own music. From an early point, my relation to music has always been one of creating it. I often wonder what it is about sound that draws me to it so strongly, what is it that makes me so passionate about it that I dedicate my life to it? I doubt I will ever know the answer, but I feel so very fortunate to have this personal response and deep fascination with sound.
DF: I also sort of stumbled into music at an early age. I’m the youngest of five and my older sisters and my mother all played the piano. Before I can clearly remember, I would bang around on the keyboard when they would practice and eventually that led to them teaching me little things, probably mostly to make my random incursions less annoying! It’s interesting to think about how formative those really early experiences might have been to my developing sense of self. On the other hand, I think there are many points along the way when you ‘decide’ to be a musician – it doesn’t happen all at once. Having an affinity for music/sound and being a musician are overlapping but not identical things.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
JB: Originality is a tricky word these days. Honestly, I find making that originality the goal is a bit suffocating. I can’t remember the last time I heard something that was truly original–something to which I can’t draw other references or see its roots. (If any readers want to point me in the direction of something recent that is truly original, please do!) You look at the constant breaking of new ground by composers and musicians throughout the 20th century, both sonically and philosophically, and you see originality and novelty playing out in so many musical arenas. In our present time, barring a major technological development (which I’m sure is coming), I’m not sure how possible originality is, or how important it is. We live in a time where we hear more music than humans at any other point in history. We share the experience of more musical sound than any prior generation. If there is originality, I think it is in the way creators recombine and resynthesize methods, concepts, and our increasingly shared cultural languages.
I do realize I haven’t answered the question! My artistic development was a non-traditional path. I was largely self-taught until university. Once I connected with some wonderful teachers, it was their input that greatly shaped my development, not only in the actual education, but in their pointing me towards where to discover compelling art. There was no internet then, no streaming. If you wanted to discover music, there were so few avenues to follow. Two other factors played (and still do play) a large role in my development. The first is connection with my peers. Playing and creating music with people is an endless source of inspiration, challenge, and growth. Lastly, cross-disciplinary collaboration has been a massive factor in the development of my artistic voice. I have worked extensively in the concert dance world, as well as theater and a bit of film, and that has brought such a widening of my personal lens on all things artistic. Creating music for productions with other art forms has had an enormous impact on the way I create music for recordings or concerts.
DF: Yeah, I would really just amplify that individual path thing. While it’s true that we’re all products and conglomerations of things we’ve learned, heard, or experienced along the way and that in some real way there really is ‘nothing new under the sun,’ by the same token, the more you just follow your own path, the more original your work is going to seem. That path will intersect with myriad influences, colleagues, and structures, but if the throughline is your own particular creative path, I think ‘originality’ develops organically over time.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
DF: For me, I’ve really always known that I’m situated sort of permanently outside of the mainstream of society. I think that’s a common thing for a lot of queer people, and it often comes with a degree of pain or loneliness and sometimes danger. At the same time, I think it can be creatively empowering. Knowing that you don’t fit into existing norms, that the institutions of society aren’t set up for you, that you are at most a footnote in whatever stage of capitalism we’re calling the current dystopia – that allows for a lot of breathing room to decide for oneself how to relate to the different components that make up society, what to embrace, reject, or repurpose. For me, there is a lot of creative power there, because, fundamentally, living a queer life is an act of transgressive creation. I think a lot of the most powerful art also comes from a similar place.
JB: I tend to think about it the other way around. I think my creativity influences my sense of identity. Composing music isn’t something I do, it’s something I am. I’m not so (consciously) interested in my identity, which isn’t to say I’m not interested in myself (or lack thereof), or my experiences, or my beliefs or successes or failures. However, I’m not looking to express anything about myself in my art. I’m searching for the thing that sends that jolt of electricity through me, and then wrestling and working with it both conceptually and intuitively, trying to deliver on its promise. I can’t imagine living life without being creative, and it’s not lost on me for a moment what a privilege it is to have the luxury to make it my life’s work.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
JB: My creative challenges exist on a micro and macro scale. The micro relates to each specific piece, and the challenges it may bring. Often I begin a new piece by giving myself explicit creative challenges. I hate the blank page, and by giving myself creative problems to solve, I can get past that daunting moment in the compositional process before anything exists on the page. On the macro scale, there are the creative challenges that come from taking stock of one’s personal artistic trajectory, and staying true to one’s self while trying to break new personal artistic ground. Some of my specific creative challenges have centered around using electronics in my concert music. I got my first synthesizer when I was thirteen years old (still have it!). There was always a division between my electronic music and my chamber music. When writing for acoustic instruments, there are limitations. There is only so much a string quartet can do. As a composer, I treasure those limitations. They drive creativity. When I wanted to bring electronics into my acoustic compositions, I really struggled with how to do it. When one has any synthesized sound available, and literally the entire library of recorded sound, let alone sounds one can go out and record, where are the limitations? There were too many options. My answer for this was to develop systems for live electronic processing of acoustic instruments. If I am processing the sound of the piano (as on Post-), then I’ve got limitations, and I can start to build boxes for me to work my way out of. This solved another creative challenge for me regarding the use of electronics: necessity. I wanted to write electroacoustic music where the electronics weren’t simply another layer, or a decoration, but were inextricably connected to the acoustic music. Live processing gives me this relationship of necessity: if the piano stops playing, the electronics do nothing. It also led me to seek out musically intuitive ways for me to play the electronic processing live, so that it functions like chamber music, with all the wonderful real-time interaction and in-the-moment art making of any musical ensemble.
DF: For me, I think one of the challenges has been navigating creative agency. As someone who is primarily a performer and whose work often involves collaboration, the idea of charting your path is a complicated one. Finding a balance between self-generated projects, collaborations, and everything in between requires constant re-evaluation. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve become more comfortable with the fact that ultimately where you are is a combination of all the things you have done, as opposed to just the thing you are doing right now. My career doesn’t really fit neatly into any single box, so that’s been a really important perspective that has allowed me to keep on persevering and also following my gut.
Time is a variable only seldom discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
JB: The perception of time is one of the trickiest aspects of musical composition for me. How long is too long for something to go on? At some point in my process, I ALWAYS make electronic mock-ups of music I am composing. I do this for the specific purpose of getting a handle on perceived time. Minutes and seconds are meaningless (outside of time-specific composition, like film cues). Ten minutes of certain sounds can feel radically shorter or longer than ten minutes of other sounds. By making a mock-up, then backing away from my computer, and listening in real time, to the entire piece, I find I can make better decisions about duration and scale. It’s such a gift to be able to do that, and makes me quite grateful to be a composer in an age where that is so easy to accomplish. This is such a vastly important step, often with the results overriding formal conceits I may have baked into the composition. As the piece grows closer to its final incarnation, form takes a back seat to time. If an idea isn’t at the right scale–if it is too long or too short–it can sink a piece.
DF: As Jerome mentions, time can be so slippery in music! I’ll take it one step further - even when you’ve heard the music (whether through an electronic mock-up or in a rehearsal), the sense of the way time operates in a piece of music can change so much when it is performed live for other people! When we’re listening to live music, time is something that we experience together, so the particulars of that experience can really vary depending on the specific context. As a performer, there’s also a certain sense of magic that often happens when performing music for an audience where you feel like you are leading everyone on this passage of time – that, to some extent, you actually are in control of how we experience something as fundamental as time itself.